Dior and I – Frédéric Tcheng and the gentle revolution. (Film review)

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With Dior and I, Frédéric Tcheng creates a documentary that benefits from a little (only a little) close to the biz info. When Raf Simons became the head designer at Dior in 2012, the decision was controversial because of the legacy left by John Galliano, who had transformed the famous fashion house dramatically between 1996 and 2011. For many, Raf Simons was seen as a very sparse, minimal touch especially after the punk infused romantic seductions of Galliano, and Simons first collection was an event that all knew would transition Dior very dramatically away from where it had been as it moved into the new millennium. Knowing a little about what a dramatic shift this represents helps understand the documentary, because it provides a frame for Tcheng’s approach as well as the point and purpose of the film, which isn’t to educate or demystify the viewer regarding haute couture showing practises, but rather to hover lovingly and a tad reverently over a man who was about to do something remarkably difficult and very courageous. Simons career is very much on the line here, and if the film seems to lack suspense or deep engagement , it is because the weight of the captured moment isn’t fully understood.

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It is to Tcheng’s credit that he doesn’t explain this to the viewer. From start to finish of Dior and I he assumes a clever, informed audience, revealing the delicate nuances of disparate teams working together on something so creatively important. Rather, he delves into the themes of past and present, using Dior himself through voiceover readings from his biography, creating a situation where the great man hovers like a loving friend and the highest ghostly standard over the top of Simons as he works through his own feelings of fear, inadequacy and doubt. These are subtle moments, but Tcheng’s camera is unhurried, instead dwelling suggestively near Raf as he makes the transition from a quiet life to the spotlight. This collection won’t just change Dior forever, it will change Raf Simons forever also. Tcheng’s portrait shows a future informed by a past and a weighted past made to come alive by a brand new future.

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All this is made possible because of Tcheng’s rather unprecedented access. His camera is present for all the highs and lows of the preparation, never reducing its intrusion to the level of needing to create a spiced narrative, rather as pure observer to the historical transition. If Dior is hovering over Raf Simons in his walled portraits and his lilting voice overs, then the unspoken judgement is coming from the spectre of Galliano that exists in the hands and hearts of the makers Simons is dealing with in the house. He must work directly with the teams that worked with Galliano (as well as all the previous designers of course) even as he moulds them after his own image. They’re excited, but Galliano is infamously a hard act to follow and if the designers name isn’t mentioned by anyone, he is there in all the comments about ruffles, minimalism full skirts and lack of drama Simons is bringing to the famously bulging palette used by the previous designer. Raf Simons wants to by-pass the Galliano years and return to the clean lines of the original designer himself, even citing comfort as a major requirement at one point, a move that can be seen as playing it safe but one that rescues Simons from a harsh time in the inevitable comparisons with an incomparable Galliano.

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Understandably, the controversies are absent, such as the one that saw the previous designer dismissed and the rather frighteningly similar accusations of racism Simons experienced because he insisted there were to be no black models. This is a documentary that captures a moment of transition, so it eschews the tropes of melodrama in all respects, including creating a suspenseful run toward the finish line. Instead Tcheng focusses on the air between people, the spike in the adrenaline and the perpetual machinations of the sewing tables. Despite the distance he often keeps between himself as Simons, it is a film about the young designer taking his place among the greats at a sparsely attended banquet and so every filmed minute of the eight weeks he has to prepare his show, is packed with the turgid weight of what he is doing – what he has the audacity to do. It is this captured nuance, the delicate understanding that Tcheng brings to his subject and the respect with which it is treated, that make Dior and I one of the best documentaries of its kind.

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