Director Frédéric Tcheng Takes Us Behind the Scenes of a Fashion Empire With ‘Dior and I’

“For me, as a filmmaker, it’s always very important to connect on a very personal level with the story and be very passionate about it,” said filmmaker Frédéric Tcheng when we spoke earlier this week about his new film, Dior and I. “I sometimes describe it like falling in love with the subject; if I don’t fall in love, it’s hard for me to do a film.” Having co-edited Valentino: The Last Emperor in 2008 and co-directed Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel in 2011, Tcheng’s latest film marks his first solo directorial effort and his third foray into the world of fashion iconography.

With Dior and I, he takes us behind the scenes of the revered 69-year-old house of Christian Dior. We’re given a candid glimpse into the final eight weeks leading up to Belgian designer Raf Simons’ debut couture collection after being named the new head designer at Dior, following John Galliano’s departure from the company. Confronted with a modernist previously best known for his minimalist work as the creative director at Jil Sander, Tcheng found himself fascinated by Simons’ new challenge at Dior and set out to capture the high-stakes, high pressure two months leading up to his debut.

In addition to Simons’ tireless work, Dior and I takes a close look at the company’s talented ateliers and master seamstresses who devote themselves to bringing the designer’s vision to the runway. The result is a personal and moving study of an artist’s grueling process, as well as a portrait of the dedicated and supportive base of that has kept Dior in high esteem for the better part of a century.

I spoke with Tcheng to discuss his fascination with Raf Simons, the mirrored process of making a film alongside the making of a collection, and the human connection necessary in documentary film making.

How did you form a connection with Dior and what was it about Raf Simons that interested you as a subject?  

It was a chance encounter between Dior and I, even before Raf was announced. I knew someone at Dior, whom I met at a screening  for my previous film. We started talking about what was going to happen at Dior and who as going to be nominated. I don’t think he himself knew it was going to be Raf, but then when it was announced, I knew there was something special about Raf that I connected with. For me, as a filmmaker, it’s always very important to connect on a very personal level with the story and be very passionate about it. I sometimes describe it like falling in love with the subject; if I don’t fall in love, it’s hard for me to do a film.

There was something about Raf’s universe that I was attracted to, in terms of his creative process. The way he thought and the way he created intrigued me. Of course him coming to Dior was going to be a very big challenge because couture is so different from the type of fashion he was making. I also knew that the women and men in the atelier were going to be a great supporting cast. I had an instinct that this would be a very promising story with very beautiful characters.

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Considering the pressure Raf and his team were under to put the collection together in eight weeks, did you find that mirrored your own experience having only those two months to capture all of the footage for the film? 

One of the defining parts of the project is the fact that my creative process as a filmmaker had a lot in common with their creative process. Their situation mirrored our situation, and I wanted to make a film that I could relate to. I like to make films that have something universal about them, and I thought the creative process was the element that I could relate to and that other people could relate to as well. So I was looking for the parallel between the two.

It’s very weird the way that what was happening to me and my team as filmmakers and was happening to him. I felt like I was following in his footsteps, and the story is also about him feeling like he’s following in the footsteps of Dior and feeling weird about it. So this theme of the double image, the mirror image, is a theme that haunted the whole process for me and the people at Dior.

Was it difficult to get Raf to open up and be vulnerable on camera, as he’s known to be a very private person.

Raf was very reluctant in the beginning. He actually refused to take part in the project at first, and then I convinced him by sending him a letter explaining my interest in the story and what I wanted to do with the film. I said a couple of things that he responded to, which were that this wasn’t going to be a movie that only centered on just him and that it would be more of an ensemble cast, and about his relationships with the atelier.

As a filmmaker you look for dramatic tension, and for me, the dramatic tension was between Raf, who represents modernity, and the atelier, who represents tradition. There’s a tension there, so how do you create something new that channels that past looks to the future? That’s what I pitched him in a single letter and he allowed me to come in for just one week as a trial period.

Then we just got to know each other and had a human connection. I heard him explain why he’s uncomfortable with being exposed in public in this way. He has principles about his private life, but it all comes down to the personal connection. When he knows the person behind the camera, it’s much easier for him. On a general note, I think everyone was so focused on what they had to do, and it was just a time of upheaval because everything was changing. There was a new designer, a new schedule, and there was just so much to be thinking about that it worked in our favor because the camera was part of that change. It snuck in and was just one more element that was changing—but in way, it was good to be invisible.

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As your solo directorial debut, was there a particular moment in the process that proved the most challenging or most rewarding?  

The show was such an achievement for me personally, because this was my first solo directorial effort. I’m not used to being the only one in charge or the only director, I’m used to working in the shadows a little. So the day of the show I had the biggest crew I’ve ever had, and then had to direct everyone. I was incredibly nervous about being able to capture Raf in motion that day; I thought it would make or break the film, because Raf had been pretty guarded up until then.

So I came in very nervous, and that day, Raf was comfortable enough in my presence to be so vulnerable on screen. I knew that there was a very human experience to be told with his story. So I was incredibly grateful to him of course, and I also felt like now I had a story that could sustain 90 minutes. Before, I thought, how can I going to make a feature film in only eight weeks? Until the last minute I didn’t really know if I was going to be able to pull it off.

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What was Raf’s reaction when he saw the film completed?
Was it important for you to be there with him when he saw it for the first time?  

He requested to see it alone. Usually I try to see it with the subject, because it can be a very confusing experience and I want to be there to answer any questions and reassure them, but Raf saw it otherwise. Again, I think it’s because he’s very private, and he’s a very modest person and doesn’t really like to show his emotions. He knew this would be very moving, so I sent him a DVD and waited by the phone. He sent me a text message hours later saying that he was incredibly surprised at the emotional ride that the film was and that he was’t expecting it to be so emotional. I was very flattered, and he said he cried when he watched it, which means he really recognized the journey that I was describing in the film.

Watching a couple scenes of Raf at work in the beginning of the film I was reminded of Wim Wenders’ Yohji Yamamoto documentary Notebook on Cities and Clothes. Did you look to any other movies for inspiration in putting the film together, fashion films or otherwise?

That’s a beautiful movie; I saw it when I was editing this one. When I was shooting I was not really looking at fashion films, I was watching more documentaries about institutions, like Frederick Wiseman documentaries. I’m fond of him because he has this social realism aspect that I really wanted have in the film. Then I was also watching a lot of Maysles films, like Grey Gardens and Take Shelter, because they managed to create emotional journeys for their characters and are very character driven stories, and I’m attracted to that.

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What is it about these iconic fashion figures that draws you to them and makes you want to explore their world?  

All of these fashion figures are very different, and I really try to approach each story as a different adventure. I can’t really explain why I’m drawn to it, it’s kind of like the falling in love thing. It happened with Diana Vreeland and it happened with Raf. Fashion is such a wealth of characters that it’s possible to find just about everything in fashion. It’s kind of a mirror of society in a way, maybe with a little more cinematic shine to it. It’s also beautiful to film, so that’s why I found so many interesting subjects over the years.

Another notable element of the film was the music, both it’s score and the soundtrack. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard Aphex Twin’s “Boy / Girl Song” used before.  

We worked with a composer Ha-Yang Kim, a really talented avant-garde cellist, and we talked about crating a haunting score for the archival images, something that would be at the same time eerie and captivating. That was the theme of Christian Dior, but we also wanted for Raf to have his own kind of energy, a different kind of energy so we collected music he actually listened to, like Aphex Twin.

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