Dior Dynasty

   The world of haute couture, for those on the admiring side at least, can feel like a distant and romantic entity. All we see is the end product: the whimsical runways, the intricate craftsmanship and the designer’s triumphant bow. But what goes on in the weeks leading up to that vital premiere? And—more importantly—what does it take to live up to a decades-old legacy of femininity, cutting-edge designs and timeless couture?

   Dior & I, a film by Frédéric Tcheng, tears apart the toile and rips down the curtain between the fashion lover and the design house by taking viewers into the Christian Dior workrooms as it prepares for its first haute-couture collection under the guidance of new creative director, Raf Simons. Best known for his menswear prowess and for his six-year stint as creative director of modernist label Jil Sander, Simons was tapped to take over at Dior in 2012, following the dismissal of former CD John Galliano.

Raf Simons studies a design in Dior & I.

   As former New York Times Fashion Critic Cathy Horyn notes in the beginning of the documentary, Simons wasn’t the obvious choice for the role. His reputation as a minimalist designer—one that he shakes off as a common misconception—does not seem a natural fit for Dior’s feminine aesthetic. But, as Horyn muses, “when you have a big stage you step up.”

   The film, which opens at the Regal Royal Palm in Royal Palm Beach on May 1, chronicles Simons’ stress-ridden steps toward realizing his first line under the Dior name. After a brief and cheery introduction to the team, Simons and his business partner, Pieter Mulier, dive head first into the fall 2012 couture collection. They have only eight weeks until the runway.

   Despite this tight deadline, Dior & I takes its time to lovingly outline the legacy of the Christian Dior brand and also forecast the direction Simons will take it in. Christian Dior—the man—entered the fashion lexicon in 1947 with his “New Look” collection. Following years of war, Dior saw a need to shed the militaristic, boxy silhouettes in favor of a more feminine look. “I drew flower women,” Dior says, “with rounded shoulders, full feminine busts and willowy waists above enormous blossoming skirts.”

   Apparently he was onto something. His “New Look” was a massive hit and solidified his legacy within the fashion world. Today, the name ‘Dior’ defines French haute couture, and the house is one of the remaining few to employ in-house ateliers to craft its couture collections by hand.

Members of the atelier flou team choose the designs they will bring to life in Dior & I.

   Dior & I Director Frédéric Tcheng takes pains to weave Dior himself into the film through archival footage and voiceover dialogue taken from Dior’s memoir. By juxtaposing the era of Dior and his musings with that of Simons, Tcheng is able to create an intriguing dialogue between what it means to honor a brand’s aesthetics while also infusing it with your own vision.

   Luckily for the audience, we are able to see Simons’ vision for this collection from day one. And, luckily for the big bosses at Dior, Simons’ vision is to reinvent Dior’s most recognizable silhouettes. He plays with the volume of Dior’s famous Bar jacket, he cuts ball gowns into flouncy shirts and pairs them with cigarette pants, and he reimagines traditional ensembles in bright colors and artistic prints.

   Of course, Simons doesn’t complete an entire 54-piece collection in eight weeks without help. He is assisted by his right-hand man, Mulier, as well as by two atelier teams: the tailoring unit of atelier tailleur, led by the anxious Monique Bailly, and the dress department of atelier flou, led by the lighthearted Florence Chehet. The glimpses into these two workrooms really bring the film to life. There’s nothing quite like seeing remarkable pieces of haute couture evolve from an idea to a sketch to a final fitting—not to mention the stress that goes into hand finishing a number of pieces the evening before the collection’s premiere.

The Dior fall 2012 couture runway show, featured in Dior & I.

   All this work comes together in a final runway show that feels at once like a classic Dior collection and a modern statement of Simons’ couture aesthetic. Again combining intelligence with invention, Simons stages the show in an old Parisian home and decorates each viewing room with walls of blooms—an homage to Dior’s love of flowers. Simons’ tender reaction to watching his collection is in contrast to his tightly wound, all-business persona the audience has come accustomed to throughout the film. To see him break down as the models bring his pieces to life is to see the weight of the challenge fall off his shoulders.

   This meeting of the past and the present, the legacy of Dior versus its future is truly what Dior & I is all about. We watch Simons struggle with this and ultimately rise triumphant with a collection that looks to the future while wittingly honoring the past. All of his choices, though steeped in tradition, are made in perpetuity of the brand. He puts it best when he says: “The past is not romantic for me. The future is what’s romantic for me.”

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