Behind fashion’s beautiful veneer

There has been increasing pressure in recent times for fashion designers to be celebrities. In a world obsessed with social media, it’s not enough to be working in the shadows to create beautiful garments anymore, as did the more elusive designers of the 1950s and 1960s (Cristobal Balenciaga, Christian Dior).

The celebrity aspect of fashion design is not one that sits well with Belgian Raf Simons, former menswear designer, then creative director at German label Jil Sander, who was appointed to Dior after John Galliano’s anti-Semitic rant in a Paris cafe saw him ousted from his position.

As Parisian filmmaker Frederic Tcheng’s fascinating documentary Dior and I shows, Simons — a thoughtful, intellectual man with a deep interest in modernism, contemporary art, and musical subcultures — is a very different beast to his much more flamboyant predecessor.

“His personality and his background are unique in the fashion world,” says Tcheng of his interest in making a film about Simons’ tenure at Dior.

Behind fashion’s beautiful veneer 

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“He seemed to me like an outsider in the fashion world, which is a position I could relate to as a so-called ‘fashion filmmaker’, even though I’m no expert on fashion. Raf seemed to have a complicated relationship with fashion, in the sense that he defines himself in much broader strokes, in a relationship to art, music or youth culture. All of that attracted me; I felt a certain kind of kinship towards him.”

Tcheng, who has previously co-produced two other very good fashion documentaries (Valentino: The Last Emperor and Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel), homes in on Simons’ relationship with the seamstresses in the couture atelier, who have been given the unenviable task of producing a collection in eight weeks rather than the usual eight months.

The film deftly surveys the immense pressure the team is under to produce their collection and cleverly interweaves historical background with the work of the present, suggesting that any designer who creates in the name of one of the most celebrated houses in fashion must inevitably negotiate the anxiety of influence but bring something fresh to the table.

“I was really very surprised to see how quickly things get done in fashion,” Tcheng says. “It takes at least a year to make a film, sometimes much longer. But in eight weeks, the Dior team managed to produce an incredible collection. I’m jealous of that speed, of their ability of putting ideas out there so quickly. But at the same time I realise that it has a cost, which is that the fashion world is an exhausting world, where things seem to be accelerating more and more quickly.”

A poetic and at times moving film that manages to successfully scratch below the surface veneer of fashion, Dior and I paints a portrait of a designer who is quiet and deeply private but with a laser-like vision of the work he wants to produce at Dior. Apparently reluctant to be involved at first, Tcheng says he sent Simons a “letter of intent” prior to meeting him in person, emphasising that he did not want to focus solely on him.

“I think that idea must have appealed to him somehow, because he agreed to meet me and let me film him for a week,” he laughs.

“Acknowledging the work of the seamstresses was absolutely integral. Our celebrity culture tends to simplify things and shine a light on one person who ends up being idolised, so I wanted to go against that current and show the reality of the creative process.

“I’ve worked in film for a decade and it’s always a team effort. The good thing about film is that everyone gets a credit at the end. In fashion, that’s rarely so.”

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