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Raf Simons, left, has just taken over as Dior’s creative director, and the timing is such that his debut collection will be the fall haute couture presentation, the elite echelon of fashion.

CIM Productions

2 out of 4 stars

Written by
Frédéric Tcheng
Directed by
Frédéric Tcheng
Genre
Documentary
Country
USA
Language
English

In the spring of 2012, the Paris luxury house of Dior had just endured a bumpy year following the departure of disgraced head designer John Galliano, who was fired and later convicted of anti-semitic hate speech in 2011. When Dior and I begins, Raf Simons has just taken over as the house's creative director, and the timing is such that his debut collection will be the fall haute couture presentation, the elite echelon of fashion for which every garment is painstakingly handcrafted in-house. And instead of the usual four to six months preparation time, Simons and his staff must create a collection in just eight weeks.

Watching Dior and I, you'd be forgiven for thinking that Monsieur Dior himself had just died; the film ignores the house's rich and varied creative history since the founder's death in 1957. Dior chief executive Sidney Toledano never once mentioned Galliano in the speech he made before the first ready-to-wear Dior collection after the firing. Instead, Toledano declares that the heart of Dior is in "its teams and studios, its seamstresses and craftsmen."

Similarly, there is no trace of Galliano (or his brief successor, Bill Gaytten) in Frédéric Tcheng's fashion documentary. And unfortunately, Tcheng chooses to frame the film with the reticent Simons's appointment, his sensibilities and his runway countdown clock, giving short shrift to the more entertaining heart.

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The "I" in the title refers to the individual artisans in the haute couture workshops whose tenure in the house ranges from a few years to several decades. Each in his or her own way is more invested and certainly more articulate than Simons about their relationship to the specific garments they labour over each season. They lovingly describe the satisfaction they get from bringing a dress to life, and Tcheng's camera captures the work of their fingers on fabric in a way that is remarkably beautiful and moving. They're the devoted ones working overtime at the whims of the boss.

Simons, a self-trained menswear designer who originally studied furniture design, doesn't drape fabric, sew or sketch designs; he instead prepares detailed inspiration briefs and hands the files over to his creative team to flesh out. This, and Simons's natural reserve, does little to endear him to the premières, as the workroom forewomen are known – Florence and Monique, head of the flou and tailoring workshops, respectively. If they don't click, it's not because the Belgian speaks hardly any French and they speak little English – it's because he seems to have only polite interest in their work they do.

Any enthusiasm Simons does have seems reserved for contemporary art and talking up the collection's overall concept (printing abstract art on warp thread and with a few tweaks on house icons such as the 1947 Bar jacket). During a visit to the Centre Georges Pompidou, he decides to use Sterling Ruby's artwork (which he calls "gangster Rothko"), and later, he suggests wallpapering every room in the haute couture show's mansion with fresh flowers for a twist on Jeff Koons's Flower Puppy. The effect, in Simons's oft-repeated catchword, will be "subleem!"

Did he even want the gig in the first place? Because frankly, his attitude comes almost as resignation. If that seems unfair, blame the documentary's lack of context: Despite Monsieur Dior voice-overs that discuss the tensions of creativity and commerce, we get no sense that Simons is invested in the work, or concerned about what's at stake for his personal reputation, or has any insight into what he does with his time to balance what presumably are many other responsibilities and pressures.

Toledano was right, unwittingly: Who the designer is seems besides the point. So why spend so much time on him? In the film The Queen, the Tony Blair character – like Simons here – bristled at the suggestion that the monarch knows his job better than he does; her majesty reminds him that he is her 10th prime minister "My first, of course, was Winston Churchill."

None of the craftspeople upstairs date as far back as Monsieur Dior's day, but they've certainly served other masters before, and probably will again. As one pointedly tells the camera, "We work for Dior."

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