Opening the Tribeca Film Festival last week was the new documentary Dior and I, directed by Frédéric Tcheng. The film tracks the first few weeks of Raf Simons as creative director at the house of Christian Dior, as he creates his first haute couture collection with the help of the famed atelier in the summer of 2012. It quickly becomes clear that Raf’s approach is to take a retrospective look at the Dior archives from the first ten years of the house and innovate upon the house codes. The original language of Dior is pure poetry: the nipped waists releasing to full skirts, the Bar jacket perfectly proportioned, the embroidery lush and feminine. So, Raf asks, how to take perfection and make it new? His reply has to do with his personal references — a graffiti artist he refers to as “gangster Rothko”, the alien look of digital wall-to-wall embroidery, wisp-thin knits, pure pigmented color, and a certain masculine ease seen in pockets, trousers, and vests. Raf Simons’ is a kaleidoscopic vision, a genuflection at the altar of technique, and a detour down the rabbit hole of personal inspiration that began in 1980’s Belgium with youth culture and the underground rave scene.
The film largely focuses on the relationship between Raf and the atelier — the seamstresses, tailors, cutters, and pattern makers who create the clothing. These women are technicians of the impossible, their hands molding fabric into new forms and concepts as envisioned in the sketches. They are the last of their breed, while at the same time forging an utterly contemporary practice of artisanship. Couture is distinguished by a great deal of 3-d shaping and hand sewing, resulting in more rounded forms and particular volumes, paired with meticulous embellishment. The fact that the near-totality of clothing today is machine-sewn and ease-driven makes couture more and more unique. In fact, it is almost strange seeing the humanity in these people that create such otherworldly garments. We see one premiére eating Haribo candies, while the other has her flight delayed up against a fitting. Their humility and normalcy is confounding. The film makes sly reference to the fact that Monsieur Dior himself haunts the atelier by night, checking in on his legacy. When looking at the final collection, it would seem almost more believable that alien tailors beam down and craft these pieces with their laser hands and x-ray vision during the dark hours. But no, these collections are made by humans, whose ingenuity is something sacred in our world.
The creation process is presented as somewhat dramatic in the film, with interpersonal tensions and technical challenges backgrounded by a race against time. And yes, of course the rush is stressful, and yes, much labor and sweat goes into it. But design-wise, there is a plain eventuality in the sense that the collection either falls flat or rings true. There is no spoiler alert in saying that this collection was a sublime success in every way. Knowing that going in to the film makes it all about the route to get there. What seems like unbelievable craft and inordinate resources is just a clearing of the path, making way for the inevitable. Raf Simons at Dior is a simple confluence of place, time, and circumstance: a designer with decades of experience and a certain ticking mind, picking up where another left off fifty-five years ago.