Mar 16, 2015 11:10AM

'Dior And I' Director Frédéric Tcheng On Raf Simons And The World Of Couture Design

"It's like Downton Abbey or something."

Raf Simons' first collection for Christian Dior was extraordinary. A revelation. A straight-up triumph. Also: a surprise. The feeling, at the time, was that Simons was a weird choice for the French house: His time at Jil Sander had him pegged as a minimalist, and he'd never produced couture before.

Dior and I tracks the crazy eight-week period in the lead up to Christian Dior's Fall 2012 Couture show. From Raf's very first visit to the atelier right through to the triumphant runway show itself, Frédéric Tcheng's documentary goes deep into the secret world of high fashion — and provides insight to the notoriously camera-shy designer at the same time.

"There was something about Raf's process that fascinated me," says Tcheng, on what drew him to making the documentary. He's on the phone from Brooklyn, and we're talking about how he managed to pull off such a coup in the first place. Why would Dior invite a film crew into the atelier at such a stressful time?

"I was lucky enough that the director of communications [Olivier Bialobos] had seen my previous film, The Eye Has To Travel. He was equally interested in having me come to the house as I was interested in going there." The state of upheaval within the house meant the crew had a unique opportunity: "It actually worked in our favour," explains Tcheng. "We arrived at a time when people were concerned about so many different things, like getting acquainted with the new designer, so the camera and our crew became just part of the change."

While the film is about Raf, it's not just about Raf — rather, it's about the house of Dior as a whole. "When I was making the film, I thought a lot about Frederick Wiseman, because he makes these beautiful films about institutions," says Tcheng, naming National Gallery (2014) and Crazy Horse (2011) as inspiration. "I was trying to convey a sense of place, of a world within the world. My world was the headquarters of Dior, with the different layers and the different floors. I was interested in this sense of…upstairs, downstairs, you know? It's like Downton Abbey or something."

On the top floor, Raf himself. In the workshop, the expert seamstresses, pattern-makers and artisans who actually bring Raf's ideas to life. In particular, the two head seamstresses — the upbeat Florence Chehet and the endearingly anxious Monique Bailly — emerge as key players in their own right. "When I met them, I was immediately seduced," says Tcheng. "I thought, god, I'm so lucky because they're so different, and they express something very different about the relationship that one can have with change."

If the premieres had some reservations about participating in the film, Tcheng's fly-on-the-wall approach to filmmaking helped put them at ease. "I am very, very careful not to overstep my boundaries — to be careful where the camera is and not be in the way."

While it's easy to hone in on Raf as the star of the film, Tcheng says a good documentary should capture the emotional journey of all its characters. The most important qualities of a documentary filmmaker? "Empathy. Trust is a big thing. And love, in a way. You have to fall in love with the world you're portraying."

Dior and I will be showing in selected cinemas from March 26th, 2015. 

Photos: © 2014 CIM Productions

Nadia Bailey