‘Dior and I’: A different sort of haunted house
Dior and I, the new documentary from director Frédéric Tcheng provides a behind-the-scenes look at Raf Simons’ first haute couture collection as its new artistic director. The film shows how difficult it was for Simons to establish his own personality with the ghost of Christian Dior hanging over the French design studios. Tcheng followed Simons for an eight-week period and captured the intensity of Simons and his fellow designers scurrying to meet deadlines. Tcheng phoned us from Los Angeles to talk about the movie.
Talk about how you first came up with the concept for the film.
Like most things in life, it was a matter of good timing and a chance encounter. I was in Paris presenting Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, the previous documentary that I worked on. In the audience at the screening was the man who’s the head of communications at Dior. He came up to me at the end of the screening and told me he liked the film. We started talking about Dior’s future and what was going to happen because they were still looking for a designer. He told me there was going to be an announcement fairly soon. I knew Raf Simons was in the contest to take over. I had been following his career. I knew he was very unique in the fashion world. He challenged the stereotypes about fashion. I was interested in his arrival at Dior. He’s somewhat at odd with the aesthetic of the Dior house. He had worked for minimalist houses and in menswear. I thought it would be interesting to see how that would translate into creating something at Dior.
What happened next?
We continued the discussion throughout the winter. I told them they had a good enough premise for a feature. I waited patiently until Raf Simons was indeed announced as the designer and then I flew to Paris almost immediately. There was a hiccup because he was reluctant to have a documentary crew follow him. It took a little bit of convincing. I sent him a letter and told him what my process was like. He invited me for a one-week trial, which was challenging. I showed up the day he arrived and was already behind the camera when I met him. We took it from there. We talked a lot during that initial week and I tried to reassure him about the approach I was going to take. I wanted to not focus solely on him but to show the entire cast that was working there.
Talk about Raf Simons. What makes him tick?
I really discovered the person and the artist. What I knew from reading the few interviews available online was that Raf is extremely thoughtful and modern in his approach. He was working in a different way from other fashion designers. He was collaborating with his team and his models. I knew his references were different from the other references in the fashion world. He was more interested in youth culture and music. I saw all of that when I saw him work. I didn’t know the person. The person was the most amazing surprise to me. He’s a very generous person. He’s a very beautiful human being. Even though he had principles about his privacy and guarding his privacy, I never felt that he was suspicious of me or of the project. He was always curious and wanting to know more about me so he could be comfortable in front of the camera.
Talk about how stressful those eight weeks were for the Dior staff.
It was a very stressful time for them and for me too. We only had eight weeks and we were put in the same position of meeting this newcomer and having to very quickly get to know each other. When I first met Raf, I was embodying their point of view from the very beginning. That drove the angle we took with the film. In the end, the film is a record of the process of getting to know Raf.
The film provides an inside look at the fashion world. What did you do to make sure it’s accessible for the average viewer?
It was very important for us to make it accessible and relatable. I’m very attracted to character-driven films. That’s the way I approach a story. We tried to make it about the emotional journey you go on when you create something. There’s a certain emotional rollercoaster that happens during the collection. That’s what we tried to do. I’m not a fashion expert by any means, even though my resume might suggest otherwise. I’m not entrenched in the fashion world. It’s something I like and appreciate but it’s not my main obsession. My main obsession is film.
Talk about the editing process.
I worked with Julio Perez who is a very talented editor. He comes from narrative filmmaking. It was important to me to shape the movie almost like a fiction film, almost like a thriller. Julio is absolutely foreign to the fashion world which helped us determine what was strictly fashion and what was universal. We worked for very long at seeing what the core of the story was, emotionally. We had Raf who was going through his own special journey because he was asked to honor a legacy but also to find his own voice. We had to go beyond the similarities between him and Dior. It’s almost a reincarnation story. Julio told me we need to go one step further and show how Raf feels trapped by this similarity and find his own voice. He needs to negotiate the similarities if he wants to create something that resembles him. It became little bit of a haunted house story, along the lines of Hitchcock’s Rebecca. You come into the house where the presence of the previous owner is very strong and threatening.
The people at Dior even refer to Christian Dior as a ghost.
Yes, that’s how we approached it. The ghost is both literal and figurative. They do refer to a ghost and there’s a sense that there’s a presence. It’s also figurative because his picture is everywhere and his words are everywhere. He’s referred to many times a day. He becomes this presence that Raf needs to overcome.