Following the controversial departure of John Galliano from French fashion powerhouse Christian Dior in 2011, all eyes turned to the brand in great anticipation for who would replace him.
In his 13 years as creative director, Galliano’s name became practically synonymous with Dior — his lavish designs and opulent theatricality became hallmarks, and each runway show propelled Dior through the ranks to become a modern icon of a brand.
In 2012, it was announced that Belgian designer Raf Simons was chosen to take over the brand as creative director. Simons had previously been director at German minimalist brand Jil Sander and has his own line, which specializes in menswear. Simons’ appointment at Dior came as a great surprise to many, as his work at Jil Sander had been highly subdued in comparison to Galliano’s penchant for the excess.
This is where “Dior and I” begins: the introduction of Simons to the Dior atelier team, and the announcement that he has only eight weeks to create his first haute couture collection for the brand.
“I’ve only done ready-to-wear before,” Simons muses nervously while the team of mostly women titters and assures him in French that they are here to help.
The world of haute couture, which employs constructing meticulously designed, custom-fitted clothing completely by hand, is one completely new to Simons. “He’s used to cutting and pasting and sewing, he doesn’t know the techniques we use,” noted one of the seamstresses to the camera, as she is bent over a piece of fabric, hand stitching.
The highly engaging documentary follows nearly all aspects of the planning process leading up to the big runway finale, with the quiet Simons at the core of it all.
The seamstresses and tailors work like bees in the atelier, giggling and joking to pass the time as they all bead or cut or hem or stitch, exclaiming in exasperation as their new leader makes more and more difficult requests, but ultimately remaining grateful and entirely in love with their positions within the brand.
Even the mild-mannered Simons has his fits of frustration, playing the card of I’m-the-leader-now when none of the designs arrive on time to be previewed, and making his distaste for publicity very clear when he is asked to answer interview questions and insisting that after the models walk out for the show, the will do only a quick walk through the runway instead of lavishing in audience applause.
Frédéric Tcheng’s documentary is certain to appeal to fashion lovers, but beyond that, it is a film about passion, the intense love for a craft and the crushing burden that comes with helming a legacy. Interspersed between the scenes of Simons and the Dior team is archival footage of Christian Dior himself and readings from his memoir. “His spirit haunts our workroom,” the atelier team joke in the film over and over again.
Simons grapples throughout the film with balancing the look Dior has been known for with what he wants for the brand, in addition to starting a whole new era of modernity without losing any of the tradition. And after 90 minutes of watching the process, the results for his first couture show are nothing short of breathtaking.
It’s hard not to get emotional along with Simons who tears up in triumph and relief on the day of the show, the runway venue transformed into a Versailles completely wallpapered by flowers and the models resplendent in the designs that were borne of two months of painstaking skill, stress and love.
Though it has been nearly three years since Simons’ appointment to the brand, “Dior and I” details his arrival and establishment in a way that doesn’t shy away from conflict or the ugly parts that develop inevitably in such an environment. And all of that only makes the accomplishment that much sweeter.