We all know who Dior is. The ostensible “I” in the film Dior and I is Raf Simons. We are introduced to Simons, as he takes over the House of Dior in Paris as creative director in 2012. He hails from Jil Sander, where he had created austere minimalist menswear for the commercial market since 2005. In his new role at Dior, Simons is presented as the opposite of its founder: Simons is ready-to-wear to Dior’s couture, minimalist to the master's baroque style, modern to Dior's reactionary sensibility. How will the new leader of the house bear the weight of the huge tradition of Dior, yet infuse the line with his own vision? Will he be able to pull it off given his lack of experience in couture? Oh, and Simons has only eight weeks to create his first collection. The dramatic tension of the film is set.
From there, one would expect to see Dior and Simons as central figures in the movie. Indeed, the spirit of Dior feels present throughout the film, partly due to director Frederic Tcheng punctuating the film with archival footage of Dior, along with readings from his memoir, Christian Dior and I. These sequences reveal the New Look designer’s mission and vision, cement his legacy as the father of the House of Dior and set the stage for Simons as the next successor to the atelier.
However with the protege lurking in shadows of the illustrious master, the portrayal of Simons feels flat. We learn little about Simon’s designing influences, other than he is inspired by the visual arts. We don’t get to see much of his process, since he doesn’t sketch. He says he loves the collaborative process, yet he rarely interacts with the atelier, sending his assistant of more than a decade, Pieter Mulier, to charm the seamstresses and tailors instead. Simons doesn’t throw out the pearls of wisdom that we usually associate with designers on film like Valentino and Lagerfeld, or seem particularly suited to be at the helm of the world’s most elite fashion brands.
As fashion fans, we can give Simons the benefit of the doubt. He’s nervous and stressed out about his first couture collection. It’s about his brilliance as a designer and the clothes he creates anyway, not his personality or how camera-ready he is. But, as moviegoers, watching Simons doesn’t quite add up to the greatest celluloid experience either.
As if Tcheng knows that a film solely about the dynamic between Dior and Simons isn’t quite enough for the big screen, he adds another dimension to the movie. The “I” in Dior and I starts to seem more about the atelier itself and its relationship Dior. This is where the movie shines.
If the drama is in seeing the collection walk down the runway (which we do at the end), the humanity is in the sewing rooms of this film. We are given a uniquely intimate look into the atelier, which is usually private and off-limits to the public. We see its workers in white coats reverently cutting and constructing with fabric and collaborating intently with each other to manifest the designer’s vision down to the last stitch. More than one of them suggests that Dior haunts the corridors and looks over their shoulders as they work. We feel his presence in the passion and dedication that the workers bring to every detail of crafting a garment. As their hands stich and drape haute couture, they share their devotion to the House of Dior. Worker after worker professes with pride that they’ve been working for Dior for over 40 years. One woman giggles as she dubs herself, “A Dior Baby.” Another beams, when she says, “What I present here is a little bit of myself.” They are a determined bunch. They work lots of overtime into the night, loyal to the Dior tradition, bent over worktables with eyebrows furrowed in concentration. Their commitment to the rigorous ethic established by Dior is moving.
Indeed, one of the few male atelier stylists, Hongbo Li, remarks that a beautifully finished gown is so beautiful he’s going to cry. And therein lies the real character of the film: that each dress has its own voice, speaking for the House of Dior.