Saturday, June 13, 2015

New movie review: Dior and I

Raf Simons struggles to design the new Dior haute couture line in the new documentary Dior and I.

Except for some winter clothes in a duffel bag, these are the contents of my closet: eight polo shirts in three different colors; one pair of black slacks; one pair of dark blue jeans; and three black jackets. Just about anyone who knows me will corroborate this. The concept is to minimize the process, and the idea that I might put any thought or effort into what I am wearing is laughable.

All this is to say I am not the target audience for the new fashion industry insider documentary Dior and I. Nevertheless, I was enthralled by the tale of the newest head designer at Christian Dior and his attempts to maintain his own style and integrity while embracing the venerable Dior brand. Director Frédéric Tcheng, in his first solo effort behind the camera, keeps things light and breezy without ever losing sight of what is at stake for all involved.

Tcheng cut his teeth as a producer and editor, among other jobs, on the 2008 fashion doc Valentino: The Last Emperor, about the life and career of legendary designer Valentino Garavani. The career of his subject this time around is on more perilous ground. Raf Simons is well regarded – you do not get to design the new Dior haute couture line without reaching the pinnacle – but he is known for minimalist designs, men’s clothing, and ready-to-wear fashions. We are told repeatedly Dior is different, that haute couture is different, and the pressure weighs on Simons throughout the film.

There is a concept in screenwriting known as the ticking clock – “We have to evacuate the town because the dam will burst in an hour” – and it is used to create tension in a plot. It can occasionally come off as clichéd or arbitrary, but Tcheng weaves the ticking clock into his narrative so deftly that the audience feels the same pressures and anxieties as the designers in the film.

The Dior team works on the new line.
We are told at one point a new clothing line such as the one depicted would normally take about four to six months to bring to life. Simons and his team have eight weeks. On top of the time constraints, Simons has been given the reins to one of the premier names in fashion, a job that offers immense creative freedom but requires deference to the history of the brand. Simons is the latest in a long line of designers borne of the Dior philosophy. As much as any creative person wants to feel like an individual, at Dior, the trail must always lead back to the originator.

To drive this point home, Tcheng uses archival footage and voiceover passages from Dior’s memoir to establish just what the originator meant to the industry. These sections of the film are less a biographical look at Dior or a history of the company he founded than they are a series of mood pieces designed to put us in the mind of not only Dior but of anyone seeking to follow in his footsteps.

About two-thirds of the way through the film, Simons visits Dior’s old home and tells those he is with of his attempt to read Dior’s memoir – the same one Tcheng uses in the film. He says he had to stop 15 pages in because it was so weird and so intense that he could read no more. He was crushing himself with the memory of the man – even the clothes-makers in the Dior house speak of his ghost roaming the halls and checking their work. In a brilliant bit of narrative construction, after this realization, we get no more flashbacks to Dior or the past. The future and the new line are all that matter to Simons.

If only the rest of his team could be so singularly focused, Simons might have an easier time, but such things can never be easy. The other intriguing element constantly lurking in the background of Tcheng’s film is the intersection between art and commerce. Fashion design is undoubtedly art, but it is an art achieved to decidedly commercial ends. At a high-end house such as Dior, it becomes clear both the art and commerce are taken seriously.

The new line debuts.
Simons becomes bitterly aware of this when he expects to see an early preview of the new line, but the preview is delayed because one of his right-hand women is sent to New York for a private fitting with a wealthy client. He argues this is unacceptable but is told he must accept it. To watch Simons fight for the value of the new line is to watch an artist fight for the integrity of his art. Throughout history, artists have been required to compromise to appease the moneymen and influencers. Even at the top of the mountain, this reality holds true, maybe more so because more is on the line.

The wonderful thing about Dior and I is that it allows us to connect with its subjects on this level. You and I may not understand the first thing about haute couture, but art is intuitive. It is about the beauty and the struggle of creation. Tcheng’s film works not because it brings us into the world of fashion but because it brings us into the world of an artist who refuses to give up the fight.

See it? Yes.

No comments: