From V Magazine Issue 94 Spring 2015

It had been a year since John Galliano’s firing from Dior with no word of a successor when Frédéric Tcheng met with the brand’s global communications director, Olivier Bialobos, in Paris. “We talked about Raf Simons and he said he had no idea if Raf was going to be the one taking the helm. We met a month or two after and continued talking. I thought the idea presented the perfect tension because people were saying he was too minimalistic to pull it off, or that his taste or sensibility was at odds with that of Dior.”

This is one of the narrative threads woven into the stunning tapestry of Dior and I, Tcheng’s solo directorial debut. It’s a focused observation of Simons’s immersion into the formidable atelier of Dior, for which Tcheng gained enviable access. His unblinking lens captures everything from the awkward nuances of Simons’s introduction to the staff to a scene in which a white jacket is spray-painted black when it doesn’t work. On the fateful July morning of his couture debut, Simons is overcome with emotion in a scene that is utterly unforgettable. Considering the brand at the core of the film—not to mention Simons’s own reputation for maintaining stringent levels of privacy—the documentary comes across as startlingly honest. 

“Raf was very reluctant to the idea of having a film crew,” Tcheng says. (When the announcement was made of his appointment, the director immediately boarded a plane to meet him.) “As a matter of fact, he said no. But my goal was not to prop him up on a pedestal. I was more interested in the collaboration he was about to have with the house…He took a little bit of convincing.”

Indeed, it is these relationships that serve as the lynchpin for the film. The premier crafters of the atelier, Florence Chehet and Monique Bailly (“Flo and Mo,” for short), share star billing with Simons’s assistant, Pieter Mulier. “I was amazed when I discovered their personalities,” Tcheng says. “They were able to represent the range of emotion you can encounter when you start a new collaboration with people.”

In the end, Tcheng was relieved to earn a seal of approval from Bialobos, the powers that be at Dior, and Simons himself. “No one wants to see a 90-minute film that is a brand commercial,” Tcheng says. “My creative freedom was protected, I felt. Raf’s reaction was the best I could have hoped for. He wasn’t aware I had captured all these moments. He recognized his experience in the one I showed in the film. To me, that’s the most beautiful compliment.” 

Extended interview below:

V How did your experience on the Valentino documentary, The Last Emperor, influence your direction with Dior & I?

FREDERIC TCHENG I could never have made the Dior film without the experience I had working on Valentino. I was just coming out of film school and I didn't know much about documentaries, I was making fictional films [at the time]. I had the opportunity to work on the documentary and it was kind of a revelation to me. I'm a contemplative person, so being able to observe Valentino's world, and form an opinion in the editing world calmly, was very liberating for me. Narrative film can be very intimidating in that you have to create the whole world and it's your universe. In documentary it's much more a dialogue with a reality that already exists. That was very inspiring to me. 

How did you begin the process of making the Dior film?

FT It started back in late 2011 or early 2012. I had co-directed a film called Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel. We showed it in Paris to a select audience of fashion V.I.P.s, like Pierre Bergé, and Olivier Bialobos was in the audience. We talked a little after the film and obviously I was intrigued about what was going to happen with Dior. Olivier was like, "I don't know what's going to happen but I think something's going to happen soon." I thought Raf going to Dior was a very exciting idea in terms of the film. You need conflict. I knew Raf had to deal with haute couture and I knew haute couture was very traditional. I had seen the couture ateliers in the Valentino documentary, so with Raf arriving with this totally modern sensibility, there was going to be a clash whether it worked or didn't work. 

What was your impression of Raf Simons at that time?

FT I read a few interviews and he came across as someone very different from designers I'd seen or read about. His process, references, even the way he looks seems different from your typical fashion designer. He's someone much more private and humble and focused on the work. I was totally pulled in. When he was finally announced, I jumped on a plane and met him. A lot of the fears he had were related to his conflict with the public arena and the way media treats celebrities. He was afraid to step into that world, I think. I told him that I was coming from a very similar place because I'm not so much interested in celebrity culture. My goal was not to prop him up on a pedestal, I was much more interested in the collaboration he was going to have with the atelier. We came to a common ground.

How involved was Dior in the film? I know they were financially invested. Did they ever step in and try to control the content?

FT I let them know long in advance what my approach was and what the film was going to be. The film was going to have to be my vision. My creative freedom was protected, especially in France, we have pretty strict laws about protecting authorship and filmmakers. It was a very reasonable discussion and they understood that in order for the film to be relevant, they needed to give me space to create. They're smart enough to also understand it's what the audience wants to see. 

V Rather than the glamorous faces of the brand, the premiers of the atelier, Monique Bailly and Florence Chehet, as well as Raf's assistant, Pieter Mulier, become the unwitting stars of the film. Did you expect audiences to react so strongly to these subjects? 
FT I realized. Pieter and Raf work perfectly together because Raf has his personality, looking at the big picture, and Pieter is his strong ally because he makes everyone comfortable immediately. He's a very warm person. They are a good pair together. In cinematic terms, they complement each other. The seamstresses, I always thought they were going to be a huge part of the film and I was amazed when I discovered their personalities. They represent the two different attitudes toward change you can encounter when you have something as drastic as a new designer coming in. Forence is very open, enthusiastic, goes along with the change, and Monique has much more apprehension and it's totally understandable. You're thrown into a new situation and you have to work with new people and there's a fear that comes with that. These two characters make the movie fuller. 

How did Raf react to seeing the film for the first time? What were his words to you?

FT I was very nervous to show him the film. I wanted to fly to Paris and show it to him personally. I knew it would be a shock. It's always a shock to see yourself on screen for 90 minutes. Raf refused to watch it with me. He wanted to watch it alone, which I can understand. He said it was going to be too confrontational, and he needed to watch it first in the privacy of his room by himself. I sent him the DVD and he texted me a few hours after he received it. It was a very emotional experience for him. He said he was very touched by the film and the level of emotion I brought to the film. He wasn't aware that I had captured all of these moments. I guess what I took from his reaction is that he recognized the experience that I showed in the film, the experience he had making the collection. To me, that's the most beautiful compliment. Subjects put a lot of faith in you and as a filmmaker you always try to be faithful to that trust. Dior had seen the film before Raf and Olivier has always been a great supporter of the film, so he was very pleased with the film also. Then we had to go through the hierarchy of Dior and show the CEO and all of that stuff. That all went really well. In a strange way, it showed an image of Dior that they recognized also. They really liked that I chose to show the seamstresses a lot, and the humanity of the company. There were discussions about certain scenes. It's always a collaboration on a certain level when you deal with subjects, but in the end everyone came to an agreement.