Filmmaker Frédéric Tcheng is no stranger to the fashion world or the fashion documentary. His latest film, Dior and I, is nevertheless like none other. Tcheng worked as a producer and editor on Valentino: The Last Emperor (2008) by Matt Tyrnauer as well as a co-director and editor of Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel (2011).
Unlike those films, which clearly spotlighted the maverick personalities emblazoned in their titles, Dior and I plays as a witness to a daunting task—to create a new haute couture collection in just eight weeks. Enter Belgian designer Raf Simons, who is introduced at the opening of Dior and I as the newly appointed Creative Director at the venerable House of Christian Dior. Tcheng captures Simons's first moments in Dior's Paris headquarters, meeting the staff of veteran seamstresses who will help him undertake the Herculean effort to dazzle the press, the fashion world, and, seemingly, the memory of Monsieur Dior himself with his first collection. All the more daunting for Simons, who made a name for himself in furniture design and ready-to-wear fashion, is that it is his first time spearheading a haute couture line.
Tcheng's Dior and I chronicles the emotional, physical, and psychological roller coaster as Simons and his team set out to craft a vision that must be unveiled to the world very quickly. Almost like a ghost, Dior helps chronicle the story. In tandem with the modern-day events, Tcheng intersperses archival footage from the House of Dior's early days, replete with Dior espousing his philosophical views on aesthetics and the creative process. Similarly to Dior, Simons is also weary of the spotlight. In fact, Tcheng's project appeared to be in peril even as it barely began when Simons initially declined to take part. Tcheng had a bit of convincing to do…
FilmLinc: Near the beginning of Dior and I, we meet Raf Simons, just as he arrives at Christian Dior. Is it true that you met him while working on Valentino: The Last Emperor?
Frédéric Tcheng: No, actually. I met Raf through the lens of the camera on the first day I was shooting. He walked in the door, and I hadn't met him previously, though we had exchanged letters. I had been talking to [the House of] Christian Dior about four months before Raf was appointed, and had discussed the idea of making a film about the arrival of the new designer. So when Raf was appointed, I basically jumped on a plane. But Raf, actually, wasn't so keen on having a documentary made. Basically, he said, 'No,' and then the people at Christian Dior said that I should send him a letter explaining what I planned to do. I did that, and then he allowed me to do a one-week trial run. So, I was there the day he arrived. I flew from New York to Paris for his first day and to shoot for a week. I wanted to get the scene when he actually arrived at the Christian Dior headquarters—I really wanted that. It was a nightmare to get the crew together over a weekend, but I was there that morning when he walked through that door.
FL: That's quite impressive that you were ultimately able to get him to agree to this. Without giving too much away, there's a scene in the film where he recoils at having to deal with press as his collection gets ready for its debut. He made a joke about wanting to 'jump out a window,' rather than do an interview with Paris Match… You really gets a sense of how guarded he is.
FT: Yeah, there was always this push and pull. Those were conversations we had privately. During that first week, we talked a lot about his relationship with publicity and the star system. It's not something he's comfortable with. He doesn't want to engage in celebrity culture, and I think he's suspicious of how it could change his life. You see that in the film much later, but we had these conversations very early on. The main topic of discussion though was whether he would make the movie or not, and I tried to explain that I wasn't interested in propping him up as a celebrity, but much more interested in his creative dialogue with the seamstresses. We were going to be in the work rooms and, we'd treat the seamstresses as equals. He was very keen on this idea and being on equal footing with other people. So we spent the first weeks getting to know each other and he got to know my personality.
FL: So the “selling point” was that the film would focus on all the players involved in creating the collection?
FT: Yes, it was the way I was going to approach it anyway, even before we talked. He could tell I'm not particularly impressed by movie stars or celebrity this or celebrity that. It's not what I pay attention to in daily life, and I think he probably felt that.
FL: The archival footage you use is great. And there's new footage of the Christian Dior team putting together the collection that parallels the archival material.
FT: Yes, that was intentional. When I discovered Christian Dior's autobiography, I was deeply moved and I really understood that the process of creating haute couture hasn't changed all that much in 55 years—process and techniques used today are quite similar. I'd come home after shooting and would read parts of the book and it would be like reading some of the same things I had just seen. You just change the names of the characters, but it was similar. I had that in the back of my mind when looking at the relationship between the past and the present and the connection to Raf's challenge, which was basically to channel the Dior legacy, and at the same time establish his own voice. There's a constant tension between the past and the future.
FL: Christian Dior himself is a big part of telling this modern story of the House of Dior. Can you talk about how Dior's narration drives the film?
FT: I was interested in having Christian Dior narrate the story because I wanted to create a “haunted-house” feeling—or a Hitchcockian feeling to the film. I wanted to convey having to find your place in a house that is so steeped in tradition and strongly marked by its founder. How do you do that? It's scary in a way.
Christian Dior was only there for 10 years. He was a late bloomer. He started his house at 40, but had worked for other designers before that. He had an art gallery as well—he led many different lives. In his description in the autobiography, it was really by chance that he started the house. He's an interesting character. He was not your typical fashion designer, a driven, ambitious artist who knew from the age of 7 that he was going to open a house. No, he just grabbed the opportunities when they presented themselves, and was in no rush to become successful. He was actually pretty reluctant to become a public figure. He didn't enjoy that at all.
At first, I was only going to use the voiceover for the archival images, but as we continued, I also thought it was interesting to use the voiceover with present-day images and see how they mix. It ended up feeling very natural. As the film continues, the voice begins to fade as Raf establishes himself in the House of Christian Dior. The more he finds his voice, the less we hear Christian Dior's voice.
FL: Raf and the team had only eight weeks to ready this collection. Your film, of course, parallels this short timeframe, so I'd imagine you were working with a lot less footage than perhaps some of the past films you've worked on.
FT: It was a blessing and a curse at the same time. Obviously it made for a much more dynamic story—almost like a thriller. I wanted to shoot it like a Michael Mann action-thriller. At the same time, I was completely stressed out. As you said, I was afraid whether I'd be able to gather enough material to sustain 90 minutes. I thought the story was promising enough from the outset, and then when I met the characters, I knew they would ultimately be the drivers of this film. I had eight weeks to get through the superficial layers and find something human both about the [staff] and Raf.
Still, I didn't only have eight weeks to make the film, I had eight weeks to shoot it. I took a long time to edit and that's where the film really came together. I never want to rush the edit. I like to see a film mature and that takes months and months. That's the time when you sort of rewrite the story and create the distance from the emotional roller coaster of the shoot itself and have a little distance.
FL: The music was great. What were you and your team going for when pairing the story with the music?
FT: I worked with a composer, Ha-Yang Kim, who is really, really talented. Ha-Yang had composed some music for [my friend's] film and I asked her if she would come in and take a look at Dior and I. She's a very avant-garde cellist, who works [extensively] with sound texture. We talked a long time about distance, sounds that give haunting feelings and spectral quality. We listed to Jonny Greenwood and Trent Reznor for reference and inspiration. We wanted to create that feeling with the audience. To supplement that, we used a lot of minimal electronic music, much of which Raf also likes to listen to. He's a big supporter of [electronic group] Plastikman. So the score is very rhythmic and moves the story along without being overwhelming.
FL: I'd imagine Raf and the staff have seen the film?
FT: Raf saw it by himself. He didn't want to see it with anyone else. I was very concerned because I wanted to be there to answer any questions. I knew it would be a difficult moment for him to watch it, but he said it would be too confronting to watch it with anyone. So, I gave him a DVD and just waited by the phone, and he sent me a very beautiful text message afterward, saying that it was emotional and he cried through most of it. I think he was very moved by the authenticity of the experience. As for the seamstresses, we organized a big screening in Paris. Actually, they rented two theaters for that [event]. It was a great experience.