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SIFF Picks: Dior and I + Director Q&A

On the heels of opening night at the Seattle International Film Festival (SIFF), we had the fashion-film treat of a lifetime: a chance to watch a rare screening of the new documentary Dior and I, followed by an audience Q&A with director Frédéric Tcheng.

A quote from the July 2012 issue of Vogue, found on SIFF’s website, best describes the film’s ambitious premise: “If there’s ever been a show that the fashion world has waited with absolute bated breath to see, it’s this one: Raf Simons’ debut for Christian Dior.” Simons, best known for minimalist menswear, had a short eight weeks to create his first haute couture collection for the legendary French fashion house.

Keep reading for insights straight from the source—director Frédéric Tcheng—on how he was able to document this pivotal moment in fashion history.

On the origins of the film:
“When I came out of film school, I started working on Valentino: The Last Emperor, and then after that, I started working on Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel. When we finished that film, we went to Paris and showed it to a select audience of fashion people. That’s where I met Olivier Bialobos, the head of PR [at Dior], who you see in the film. He came to me at the end and was like, ‘I really like the film, and we should have a conversation.’ So we went out to lunch, and he told me that they were looking for a new designer. I knew that Raf Simons was in the lead; that’s what the fashion press was saying. And I’ve always been fascinated by his approach to fashion, which is always unconventional, and very collaborative, and very sort of… very humble. And that’s what attracted me to his work. So I asked Olivier, ‘Well, can I make a film? If it’s Raf, can I come?’ And then there were lots of discussions about how we should do this, and whether Raf would agree to it—because in the beginning, he was very reluctant, and he didn’t want to do it.”

On winning over designer Raf Simons:
“He’s always been very private, and he wanted to stay that way. And obviously, he was under a lot of different stresses the first eight weeks. [Editor’s note: Simons had only eight weeks between coming aboard at Dior and presenting his first haute couture collection.] But eventually, we sat down and we discussed how I would do this, and what kind of story I was interested in telling, and he was literally like, ‘Well, um, I don’t really want to do this, but let’s try it for one week.’ And so I came to Paris to film his introduction—his arrival—at the house along with several other scenes. We had gotten along, but I sort of stayed in the background—that’s my way of working. I don’t want to be intrusive at all. At the end of the week, I was packing my camera and thinking, ‘Well, OK, I guess I’m going back to New York.’ Raf was in the hallway when I exited the building, and he was like, ‘Fred, where are you going? We’re going to the archives tomorrow, and you need to stay.’ So I was like, ‘Oh, I guess I’m making this film! I guess he agrees.’ He was sort of inviting me, which was a big breakthrough for me. For him, it was pretty much all or nothing. He had seen for a week how I worked, and saw that it wasn’t going to affect his process, which he was very concerned about.”

On staying objective:
“[Raf] actually told me recently that he [intentionally] kept a distance from me. He was like, ‘I didn’t want to be friends in the beginning, because I thought it was going to influence your decisions.’ And I can see now, in retrospect, that that was very thoughtful. I don’t know anyone else who really thinks that way. So, he’s a special subject.”

On exposing the inner workings:
“For me, it was all about the house of Dior. I wanted to do a film that was almost limited to that geography, in the spirit of Frederick Wiseman, how he captures an institution. But of course, when you do that, the outside world sort of comes in, and you get a sense of Parisian life through the people who are there. Another inspiration was novelists from the 19th century like Émile Zola, where you see sort of a cross section of French society. That’s what I was really interested in portraying. Of course, Raf was a huge inspiration, but once you get in—once you get to know the seamstresses—that’s another world. That’s what was fascinating to me. So I wanted to show everyone in the company who was involved in creating the collection, not just the designer. That’s what you see usually—that’s what you see on TV, them talking about their inspirations. But you never hear from the people—and it’s a lot of them—who are actually making the garments, who put a lot of themselves into it, which, for me, was very touching. I guess I didn’t know how much people were going to fall in love with the ateliers. They’re amazing. I’m so glad that people are responding to them in such a positive way.”

On the importance of teamwork:
“Being a filmmaker, you know that the creative process is more of a collaborative form, and in film it’s pretty obvious. You can look at the credits at the end of a film and see everyone who contributed. In fashion, the fashion designers take the bow at the end of the show, and the people who also worked so hard on the collection—they stay in the shadows. So for me, it was the opportunity to acknowledge their contributions. It was very important for me to show everyone involved, and not just the top designer.”

On being in the right place at the right time:
“We didn’t have hidden cameras. It’s just [a matter of] not sleeping for like two months. [laughs] We would arrive when the seamstresses would arrive; we’d film a little bit with them, and see what their day was going to be like. And it’s always important to be very friendly with the secretaries who organize the schedule [laughs]—to know what was going on and which important meeting was going to happen that day. There are a lot of moments that you’re like, ‘Oh, we missed that!’ There was a moment where Raf went up to the atelier, and he was apparently very tearful, close to the end… and we missed it. You kind of kick yourself for missing it, but there are so many other scenes that you did capture, so it balances itself. We just had one camera [audience gasps in disbelief at this], except for the [runway] show, where we had six cameras.”

On incorporating the memoirs of Christian Dior himself:
“I had countless books about Dior—mostly images and photographs. But there was this tiny grey book: Christian Dior and I by Christian Dior. I left the picture books, and I thought, ‘This seems more interesting.’ I started reading that before I went to Paris to shoot, and I was just struck by how beautifully written it was, and how intimate it was. It’s a humble account of how a designer of such importance felt when he was creating—and when he was facing the press. When we started shooting, a lot of the scenes that Christian Dior describes in his autobiography were recreated in the present, because the tradition has kept on going. And you just have to change the names, and you see exactly the same scene. That was something that was very powerful for me. I was thinking the whole time about the link between the past and the present, and how you can bring that out cinematically.”

On possible additions for the director’s cut:
“Now that I’m looking back, I may add this in the final feature: there’s a scene with the head seamstress, Florence. Basically, we followed her during her morning commute, and she lives two hours away from Paris. It takes her a car ride and a train, overall two hours, to get to the Dior atelier every morning, and at night she has to go back. She lives in the middle of this rural area outside of France. We went there, and she leaves at dawn, practically—so it just goes to show you the dedication of these people, and how hard-working they are. It’s pretty remarkable.

“We had a lot of scenes of Raf getting ready for the big show—getting coached by Olivier—and there was a beautiful scene where Olivier was going through all of the guests who had confirmed for the show. He started going, ‘Azzedine Alaïa is coming,’ and Raf was like, ‘Wow.’ And he goes on: ‘Marc Jacobs is coming. Alber Elbaz is coming.’ He went through this entire list of the who’s who of fashion in the last 50 years, and they were all coming to this show. Pierre Cardin, even. Pierre Cardin was an assistant to Christian Dior back in the day, and Raf—you could see on his face that he was humbled by this list of people. That was a pretty good moment. But then, for the sake of time, you have to focus on other things. Being at Dior, I think a lot more people were watching Raf. They were eager to see what he was going to do. He was humbled, and he was also anxious, of course, because the more people who are watching, the more you have to really live up to the expectation.”

If you’re in the Seattle area, catch the final SIFF screening of Dior and I at SIFF Cinema Uptown on Thursday, May 22, at 4:30pm. Find more details and buy tickets here.

Need something to wear? Shop: Dior Beauty | Designer Collections

—Justin Abbott
[Quotes compiled from audience Q&A plus a phone interview by Angela Sumner.]