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Why Dior and I breaks all the rules

A new documentary offers a candid glimpse inside the house, shattering expectations about the fashion industry

Fashion documentaries are a predictable bunch. The best tend to follow a similar recipe: in the run-up to a celeb-studded event, a seemingly world-ending crisis is devoted a chunk of screen time until, at the last minute, it’s solved. Will our biggest issue fill its quota of advertising pages? (The September Issue) Will Rihanna quit wildin’ out and show up in the frow? (La Ligne Balmain) Does anyone care about fashion’s geriatrics? (About Face, Advanced Style)

Don’t get us wrong: attempting to answer these and other questions can be wildly entertaining. But at worst, such heavily curated, “behind the seams” glimpses have little more to offer than the usual, stereotype-cementing ‘meltdowns’, or – even worse – studiously vetted interviews with subjects droning on about inspiration and their love of chiffon. 

This is why Dior and I is a breath of fresh air. Not because it skewers the standard issue fashion-doc recipe, but because it’s built around a legitimate dilemma. In March 2011, Dior dismissed creative director John Galliano, after the designer was caught on camera hurling antisemitic remarks. It took more than a year to announce a worthy successor to head up the brand, which is the main holding company of luxury conglomerate LVMH (Dior accounts for 40.9% of its shares). With so many shareholders involved, the decision was carefully calculated. It was, lightly put, a headline-fuelling headache. And ironically, that’s the boring bit.

Armed with that knowledge, Dior and I forges on with incumbent designer Raf Simons being introduced to his new atelier. Dior Chief Executive Sidney Toledano makes a big deal out of what to call him. “We say ‘Monsieur’ in couture,” announces Toledano to a hushed crowd. “Let’s call him ‘Raf’, as a token of modernity.” We watch him make his way around the room, speaking in timid French to the ‘hands’ that will translate his ideas into physical garments. This moment – when a designer meets his team, gazes upon them in bewilderment as the shock of steering one of the largest fashion houses finally sinks in – has never before been accessible to the public.

It’s this kind of candid access that sets the film apart. Not only did the powers that be (LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault and Dior worldwide communications director Olivier Bialobos) give the all-clear to film inside the pristine white walls of Dior, they also extended the opportunity for director Frédéric Tcheng to document Simons’ potentially challenging transition into his new role as creative director, and the creation of his first collection in a matter of weeks. It’s a near miracle that any of this made it to the final cut.

Valentino: The Last Emperor, director Matt Tyrnauer’s 2008 appraisal of the Italian designer’s OTT lifestyle (complete with pugs whose teeth are brushed by staff), was a point of contention with its very subject. When Valentino and his partner, Giancarlo Giammetti, first saw the film at a private screening in London, they hated it. Only when it received a standing ovation at the Venice Film Festival did Valentino change his mind. It was that search for approval that the designer needed; he liked it when he knew it was liked.

Nevermind simply liking it. Tcheng needed Raf Simons’ blessing – a tall order, from someone who just last year said that he would be anonymous if he could. “In the beginning I was like, ‘No way, no way – I’m not gonna do it,’” says Simons. “And then they made me meet Frédéric Tcheng. He has a sublime personality, and after a while, I forgot that they were there.” Perhaps for the best, given the pressure he was under. For his haute couture debut, Simons was allotted only eight weeks to jumpstart a dormant fashion house into fifth gear. Keeping in mind that most designers are afforded five or six months to work on a collection, these are the raised stakes that set this documentary apart from the more run-of-the-mill catwalk fare.

“He had agreed to let me film for a week, so we could meet and talk,” says Tcheng of his approach to the shoot. “He quizzed me a lot in those first conversations. Favourite director? I said Todd Haynes, whom I idolise. I knew Raf admired Safe.” They quickly bonded, but it took a while for Simons to let his guard down. There is a scene in the film where Simons discusses with his PR what press he’ll do after the show. They’ve promised French publication Paris Match a photoshoot with his models backstage, and he is quick to shoot down the idea. So it was a godsend when, at the end of Tcheng’s ‘trial’ week, Simons asked him to stay on. “I was packing my gear when Raf said, ‘Stay. Tomorrow we’re going to the archives; that’ll be interesting for your film.’”

Simons’ biggest fear is understandable, given the content of nearly every other fashion documentary populating Netflix: he isn’t interested in being built up as celebrity. He doesn’t want to be part of celebrity culture at all. He can’t crank out retweet-ready quotes like Karl, nor does he wish to be the face of the brand like selfie-loving Balmain creative director Olivier Rousteing.

“I was packing my gear when Raf said, ‘Stay. Tomorrow we’re going to the archives; that’ll be interesting for your film’” – director Frédéric Tcheng

Almost every documentary subject is someone eccentric and outspoken. Tcheng’s previous film, Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, waxed lyrical on the showboating Harper’s Bazaar editor and her hard-hitting diatribes. Here, Tcheng shifts focus to Simons’ team – a decision that puts a magnifying glass on the working process.

The film is more a panoptic survey of the team than it is of its head designer. Even his long-term assistant, Pieter Mulier, clocks more onscreen minutes. It’s a rare insight into what being a creative director actually entails. Simons is a visual curator who hands out inspiration and pulls it all together into a coherent story. At Dior, every seamstress receives a file folder thick with images and inspirations. Everyone sketches ideas – around 200 for each potential garment. The girls then choose their favourite sketch, which they create for the final runway show. “I’ve seen a lot of fashion movies,” says Simons. “Personally, I always find them fun and entertaining, but they’re not really going deep into the actual process.”

Only two other fashion documentaries snub the recipe and give the same all-access pass into a designer’s personal space: Unzipped and Catwalk. Both were released in 1995 and feature mouthy supermodels who can’t check their privilege. There are no talking heads. No counterfeit drama. The former follows New York designer Isaac Mizrahi in grainy black-and-white as he preps his autumn 1994 show. Unafraid to speak his mind, there is never a dull moment. The latter mostly trails Christy Turlington as she goes through one fashion month and talks on a limousine phone. It’s through her, however, that we get a chance to see designers at their most comfortable. A bleach-blonde John Galliano excitedly howls at a young Kate Moss as, backstage, he instructs her how to walk. “You hear a wolf! Ahh-woooo!”

The real excitement in Unzipped comes near the end, when Mizrahi discovers Jean Paul Gaultier’s AW94 collection was similarly inspired by 1922 documentary Nanook of the North. His business partner shoves a copy of Gaultier’s WWD cover in front of his face. He shouts, “Take it away! Take it away! You see, that’s why you don’t show these things to me. You showed it to me. It’s like you take some kind of evil pleasure in it!” Maybe the film’s intimate air is down to the passion of director Douglas Reeve, who was Mizrahi’s boyfriend at the time. They broke up after the doc was released.

Simons, however, exudes an altogether different energy. Instead of outbursts, it’s his sensitivity, glimpsed in private moments, that astonishes. Minutes before the first girl is sent down the catwalk, Simons is found alone on the roof of the show’s venue. He’s sat on a chair, tears streaming down his face as he contemplates the magnitude of all that he’s worked for. “When I saw the film, there were those moments – I didn’t even know they were filmed,” he says, looking back. “A very confronting moment for me was just before the show, when I sat with (Tcheng) on the roof. I (can) see my own fear. So in that sense, it’s purely documentary. When I’m looking at it myself, it’s like, ‘Is this interesting to people?’ Because this is what it is every day. This is what we do. This has nothing to do with acting.”

Future documentarians, take note: when the door of a fashion house is flung right open, as it is in Dior and I, the result is astonishingly candid. This documentary could easily have pandered to a brand itching for a 90-minute infomercial, but there are as many scenes that expose the realities of life at the house as there are ones that show Dior’s sumptuous sovereignty. At one point, Simons arrives for a fitting to find the head of the atelier, Florence Chehet, is away tending to a haute couture customer in New York. Simons is justifiably concerned at her absence. What is explained, to both Simons and the viewer in tandem, is that, when you have clients who shell out upwards of €350k on a single couture season, you have to cater to commerce, not just a creative vision.

The film’s greatest strength is in its debunking of the kind of one-man myth that’s gained ground in an era of celebrity creative directors, the idea that a collection is the creation of a single mastermind. And although Simons has always been an outsider figure, it’s refreshing to see him slip into such a public-facing role, albeit without losing his rebellious identity (see the exclusive clip above, where he turns the work of anarchistic artist and collaborator Sterling Ruby into fabric for a gown). As for the designer himself, he’s remaining modest about it all. “I try to not see it as something which is about me,” he says. “Fréd made such a beautiful documentary about the women in the atelier.”

Dior and I is out in cinemas Friday