Deep pockets
Frédéric Tcheng’s ‘Dior and I’ reviewed

Fashion, like architecture, is an art form that we cannot disengage from no matter how indifferent (or even antagonistic) we might be towards it. We all have to get dressed, we all must make use of buildings. I am as susceptible as anyone to the delights of a beautifully made piece of clothing, even if, as with a beautifully designed home, I seem destined to admire it only from afar. Films about fashion and fashion designers, of which there has been quite a boom in recent years, fascinate me, in part because film does justice to fabric in a way that still photography cannot: I like to watch the clothing move.

Frédéric Tcheng’s documentary Dior and I, on current cinema release, attends more closely than comparable films – such as L’amour fou (2011), on Yves Saint Laurent, or Valentino: The Last Emperor (2008), which Tcheng edited – to just how, before they are wearable, moving objects, clothes come into being. Tcheng filmed at the venerable House of Dior during 2012, when newly appointed creative director Raf Simons was granted just eight weeks – as opposed to the usual six months – to create his first haute couture collection. Simons, a reticent Belgian who until his arrival at Dior specialised in ready-to-wear men’s fashion, seems in every way different to the man he was chosen to replace: the flamboyant Gibraltar-born John Galliano, who was sacked from Dior in 2011 after a drunken anti-Semitic rant in a Paris bar led to his arrest.

Dior and I does not mention the strain surrounding Simons’ appointment. It is a film that celebrates Simons’ vision, but, more interestingly, also reveals to viewers the busy, hierarchical world of the atelier, where dozens of highly skilled craftspeople, headed by a workshop première, or chief dressmaker, labour for long hours on a collection. The appellation haute couture is, as is so many things French, subject to strict regulation, and Dior, with its atelier system, is one of fewer than a dozen fashion houses to still qualify: each piece of clothing is sewn entirely by hand, using only the most exquisite fabric. If you need to ask after the price, you are not rich enough to afford it. There’s mention in the film of one client who spends €350,000 per season on Dior’s haute couture range, which is nearly a cool million dollars on Dior clothing each year. This is ridiculous, even outrageous – and yet, when money is no barrier, the results can be (to use one of Simons’ favourite words) sublime.

Sublime is how Simons describes the achievements of Dior’s founder, the eponymous Christian Dior, whose iconic “New Look” was launched in Paris, 1947. Scion of the French bourgeoisie (his father was a wealthy manufacturer), Christian Dior drew on childhood memories of his elegant mother and her equally elegant gardens to create his “flower women”: round-shouldered, slim-waisted figures whose full, blooming skirts signalled the end of wartime austerity. The 1950s wouldn’t have looked like the 1950s without Christian Dior; his legacy haunts high fashion to this day (almost literally – the dressmakers joke among themselves that his ghost walks the atelier at night, checking up on their work). Dior and I makes effective use of archival footage from Dior’s postwar heyday, and a voiceover narrates Dior’s own writings, in which he muses on the split between his private and public selves.

Tcheng loses the thread (ahem) at moments, but whenever his camera returns to the redoubtable workers of the atelier, their shoulders permanently swathed in measuring tapes and their mouths full of pins, the film comes alive. The craft of these women (and it is mostly women, with one or two men) is painstaking, and they are fiercely proud of the clothes they create, as they should be. The airy atelier is the bright face of the fashion industry, the sunlit side of a terrain that for the majority of garment workers across the world is ruthlessly exploitative and sometimes fatal. Few filmmakers have yet entered there.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

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