Fashion is a strange industry: so often the creative director of a fashion house gets all the attention – and credit – for collections that are, in reality, the work of many hands.
There has been increasing pressure in recent times for fashion designers to become celebrities, too. In our Instagram-obsessed world, it’s not enough to be working away in the shadows to create beautiful garments anymore, as did the more elusive designers of the 1950s and 1960s (Cristóbal Balenciaga, Christian Dior). The celebrity aspect of fashion is not one that sits well with the Belgian Raf Simons, a former menswear designer, then creative director at German label Jil Sander, who was appointed to Dior after John Galliano’s anti-Semitic rant in 2011 resulted in a spectacular fall from grace.
As Parisian filmmaker Frédéric Tcheng's fascinating documentary Dior and I shows, Simons – a quiet, thoughtful, intellectual man with a deep interest in modernism, contemporary art, and musical subcultures – is very different to his much more flamboyant predecessor.
“His personality and his background are unique in the fashion world,” says Tcheng of his interest in making a film about Simons’ tenure at Dior.
“He seemed to me like an outsider in the fashion world, which is a position I could relate to as a so-called ‘fashion filmmaker’, even though I’m no expert on fashion. Raf seemed to have a complicated relationship with fashion, in the sense that he defines himself in much broader strokes, in a relationship to art, music or youth culture. All of that attracted me; I felt a certain kind of kinship towards him.”
Tcheng, who has previously co-produced two other very good fashion documentaries (Valentino: The Last Emperor and Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel), hones in on Simons’ relationship with the seamstresses in the couture atelier, given the unenviable task of producing a collection in eight weeks rather than the usual eight months.
“I was really very surprised to see how quickly things get done in fashion,” Tcheng says of the atelier’s work. “It takes at least a year to make a film, sometimes much longer. But in eight weeks, the Dior team managed to produce an incredible collection. I’m very jealous of that speed, of their ability to put ideas out there so quickly. But at the same, time I realise it has a cost, which is that the fashion world is an exhausting world, where things seem to be accelerating more and more quickly.”
Reluctant to be involved at first, Tcheng says he sent Simons a “letter of intent” prior to meeting him in person, emphasising that he did not want to focus solely on him.
“I think that idea must have appealed to him somehow, because he agreed to meet me and let me film him for a week,” Tcheng laughs.
“Acknowledging the work of the seamstresses was absolutely integral. Our celebrity culture tends to simplify things and shine a light on one person who ends up being idolised, so I wanted to go against that current and show the reality of the creative process.
“I’ve worked in film for a decade and I know that it’s always a team effort. The good thing about film is that everyone gets a credit at the end. In fashion, it’s rarely the case.”
Dior and I is in cinemas now.