Dior and I

April 4, 2015
Raf Simons in 'Dior and I' (2014)
Raf Simons in 'Dior and I' (2014)

Fashion is usually considered a frivolous business, but at the top end it can get very dark indeed. Last year saw the release of two bio-pics of Yves Saint Laurent, in which the great designer’s mental and physical decay was charted in forensic detail. Closer to the present we have seen John Galliano go completely off the rails with drugs and alcohol, while Alexander McQueen committed suicide.

What most people don’t realise is that, beyond the glamour, the gurus of the fashion industry work under pressures that would make deep-sea divers tremble.

So when Belgian designer, Raf Simons, was chosen in 2012 to become artistic director of the House of Dior, after Galliano’s self-destruction a year earlier, he took on an awesome responsibility. Not only was he stepping into the shoes of Dior – one of the most acclaimed and influential designers of all time; he was putting himself in the hands of Bernard Arnault’s powerful LVMH group, who would tolerate nothing less than complete success.

To add even more pressure, Simons was obliged to come up with a complete collection in only eight weeks. This sounds insane, considering that the usual two collections a year, with or without prêt-à-porter options, is sufficient for a nervous breakdown. It’s not enough for the artistic director to dash off a batch of artful drawings, he must supervise every aspect of the production process, giving due consideration to materials and presentation. When the clothes go out onto the catwalk, the leaders of the fashion world – from Anna Wintour of American Vogue, to a cache of famous actresses, will be waiting expectantly in the front rows.

It can’t be a one-man show, and Simons has brought along his partner of ten years, Pieter Mulier, who will liaise between him and the workshop. The all-important figures that Pieter has to charm are the two prèmieres, Florence Chehet, in charge of the atelier flou, which looks after dresses; and Monique Bailly, head of the atelier tauilleur, for suiting.

As it turns out, both Florence and Monique are cheerful, pragmatic women with many years’ experience. If there is a moody personality in the House, it is Simons himself, who tries to maintain his sangfroid, but is perpetually on edge. Even though Simons is Belgian, he barely speaks French, being more at home in Dutch and English. His personal style is discreet to the point of invisibility – we rarely see him in anything other than a black pullover. No Lagerfeld starched collars and ponytails for this dour low-lander.

Nevertheless, Simons has the imagination and stubbornness required for the job. His first major hurdle arrives when he has the idea of printing abstract paintings by Gerhard Richter and Sterling Ruby onto the very threads that will be turned into fabric, to capture the blurred look of these works. It proves to be incredibly difficult given the time constraints and technical problems. This is where we see a flash of temper and the never-say-die attitude.

Simons’s other Eureka moment is to imagine the collection being presented in an old Parisian mansion in which every room is coated with different kinds of flowers. This time the inspiration is Jeff Koons’s Puppy, but the realisation is even grander than the artist’s oversized floral Scotty dog.

Director, Frédéric Tcheng, who has previously worked on documentaries devoted to Valentino and Diana Vreeland, has intercut Simons’s story with archival footage of Christian Dior, and extracts from the legendary designer’s autobiography, Christian Dior et moi (1957). This works superbly, throwing up many parallels between Dior’s views and experiences, and those of his inheritor.

As the days tick by we can feel the tension increasing. Although Simons tries to keep a straight face he is feeling the strain. The same goes for the atelier, which is working day and night, hand-stitching delicate fabrics, making last-minute alterations. I won’t comment on grande finale which makes this documentary as much of a nail-biter as any action movie.

It has been objected that this is a rather sanitised view of a couturier who has been criticised, and even called a racist, for his refusal to use black or Asian models. None of this is apparent in Tcheng’s cinematic portrait. What we see is an incredibly determined character with a clear idea of the vision he is pursuing. In search of a particular ephemeral look, he acts like a man of steel.

Dior and I
Written & directed by Frédéric Tcheng
Starring Raf Simons, Pieter Mulier, Florence Chehet, Monique Bailly
France, rated M, 90 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 4th April, 2015.