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Imagine starting a job as the couturier of Christian Dior — only the sixth in the grand French house’s history — having to prepare your first high-fashion collection ever in only two months — and having a film crew greet you from the minute you walk in the door, registering every tremor of fear or doubt that may be etched on your face.
“Indeed, I was not too keen on it actually, if you want to know the truth,” Raf Simons chuckles during an interview to discuss “Dior and I,” an 89-minute documentary premiering April 17 at the Tribeca Film Festival. “You know, it’s scary and it would be a lot for people who are not actors because it has nothing to do with acting.”
Instead, filmmaker Frédéric Tcheng sought to capture the reality of the creative process at a major French house as its new designer rallied the atelier for his big debut. That includes stressful moments galore, along with touches of levity among a close-knit group of collaborators.
Simons says he ultimately came to ignore Tcheng’s camera, and was heartened by the final result, whittled down from 270 hours of raw footage.
“When I saw it, it was very comforting, but also very emotional in a way because you see yourself with all the emotions that come into play in such a moment…including the fear, which was very weird to see coming out of yourself,” he says. “There was an enormous intimacy in the movie, which I think is also present in Dior, in the company. In the building, there was a strong kind of family feel.”
Tcheng says he was eager to document the Belgian designer’s creative process, rooted in contemporary art, and more conceptual in approach.
“He’s so forward looking, and Dior is so steeped in tradition. I thought, something is bound to happen,” the filmmaker says. “He’s trying to push boundaries. He’s an innovator. He wants to change the process of couture.”
One of the chief story lines in the film ignites when Simons decides to employ a midcentury technique called imprimé chaîne, in which threads are printed before weaving. While it was usually employed for florals or other repetitive patterns, Simons wished to echo the auroralike patterns on paintings by American artist Sterling Ruby.
“Throughout the movie, you see the struggle to get that fabric done,” Simons says, describing a battle that pitted his will and determination against the doubts of Dior’s fabric suppliers, which had never taken on a print of that scale.
As he watches the film long afterward, Simons squirms as his anger flares in some scenes, though the overall impression he leaves is a different one.
“I was very surprised to see how calm and quiet I usually am. I had a different picture of myself,” he says. “I also saw how fast I am in my decisions, which I never really realized.”
Simons shares the screen with other intriguing characters, notably his endearing right-hand man Pieter Mulier, and the top seamstresses Florence Chehet and Monique Bailly.
No stranger to fashion, Tcheng codirected “Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel” and coproduced and coedited “Valentino: The Last Emperor.” He says he sees many parallels between fashion and filmmaking, although only movies end with a complete list of credits.
“To me, fashion is a completely collaborative process,” he says. “It takes a lot of different personalities to create a collection, and everyone pours a little of themselves into it.”
The title, “Dior and I,” thus refers not only to Simons, but to everyone who had a role in realizing the collection. It also winks to parallels between the founder Christian Dior and Simons, notably their private nature and passion for art.
To heighten the links to the past, Tcheng tapped poet Omar Berrada to voice over excerpts from the founding designer’s 1956 autobiography, as if “he’s haunting the house.”
In any case, the experience did not leave Simons pining to be on the silver screen.
The designer says he shares his war stories about the making of the documentary with Jennifer Lawrence, the Oscar-winning actress who is the face of the Miss Dior handbag range.
“She said she looks at things very technically, when she looks at a film she’s in, but it was not the case for me at all,” he says. “It’s all about emotion. It’s not about how it’s cut and all that.”