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DIOR and I – BFI Flare 2015
March 24, 2015
Paris Haute Couture Week: a time when only the most established luxury fashion houses present their most decadent styles. Haute Couture simply translates to ‘High Fashion’: these are the one-of-a-kind pieces not intended for real life. Most styles will never be worn again outside of their single show, aside from an Oscars red carpet or at a particularly self-indulgent debutante ball. These are the real ‘Cinderella’ dresses, the stuff of fairy tales, and a last flourish of romance in a widely homogenised fashion world.
With Dior and I, director Frédéric Tcheng gives us both romance and reality, with unprecedented access behind the scenes of one particular fairy tale. In early April 2012, Christian Dior announced the unexpected news that they had appointed the Belgian designer Raf Simons as their artistic director. Arriving from Jil Sander and replacing a disgraced John Galliano, Simons brought with him a very different approach to design.
Christian Dior’s designs were synonymous with femininity, famed for their sleek shoulders, nipped in waists and full, billowing skirts. Raf Simons was known as a minimalist, inspired by architecture and androgyny and regarded as an outsider and a rebel by many. As Simons arrives at the historic House of Dior he is presented his first challenge: to produce an entire haute couture collection. In eight weeks.
Tcheng expertly captures Simons’ baptism of fire. Speaking about the production, the director notes that Simons was initially resistant to being filmed, for reasons beyond a natural uneasiness in front of the camera. The designer had started reading Christian Dior’s memoirs, deciding against it early on after drawing several eerie parallels with his own experiences.
Dior’s ghost is still in the building and Tcheng makes sure he appears throughout the film. Interweaving readings from the designer’s memoirs, the director projects archive footage against the hanging white muslin dresses that form the first drafts of Simons’ collection, flickering shots of Dior’s face against his work. As the unflappable team of seamstresses comment: “Dior’s soul remains in the house.”
Whilst many luxury labels describe themselves as ‘fashion houses’, Christian Dior is one of very few that can still be credited with having its directors, designers and ateliers (work rooms) all under one roof. The house itself is dramatic and imposing, with sweeping staircases leading up to the hub of activity in the ateliers. The stonework features Dior’s initials chiselled into elaborate crests, often shot upwards from below to achieve the sense of the designer’s legacy looming over Simons.
Though the daunting house and imposing legacy of Dior draws parallels with the ultimate tale of living in another’s shadow – Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca – thankfully there is no Mrs Danvers in this story. Tcheng shows us the steady maternal nature of the premieres: the two seamstresses who lead the haute couture tailoring and dress production. Florence and Monique have been with the House for decades, speaking fondly of their many years of service in the same way a mother might describe raising child.
The crisp white uniforms worn by the staff resemble lab-coats, enhancing the matronly feel of the premieres and making the intricate pattern cutting; sewing and beading appear like surgery. At the show, as Simons becomes emotional waiting in the wings as the first girl steps onto the catwalk, the premieres comfort him as a midwife might do a new father, telling him: “there’s no feeling like it. Now you will only want to make haute couture.”
Whilst Raf Simons is evidently nervous and at times uneasy in front of the lens, Tcheng captures flashes of the designer’s rebellious, revolutionary side. Shot at a Parisian art gallery, Simons becomes instantly illuminated as he talks about his inspirations.
The trip appears to breathe new life into the designer, who begins to make his mark by incorporating the work of abstract artist Stirling Ruby (whom he describes fondly as a ‘gangster Rothko’) into haute couture design. Just as Dior used dramatic femininity to coin fashion’s ‘New Look’, Simons’ futuristic tailoring and distorted prints create what he calls ‘Modern Couture’.
Dior and I is impressive on several counts, not least because of its unwavering look at the behind the scenes action. This realness is tempered by moments that capture the true magic of haute couture. Simons chooses to renovate a Parisian townhouse for his inaugural show, covering every inch of wall in each of the rooms with different types of flowers. The result is magnificent, an homage to Dior who was at his happiest surrounded by flora and fauna whilst cementing Simons’ rightful place at the head of the House.
Dior and I is released in UK cinemas on March 27th
For more information and screenings visit the film’s official website