By Mark Gauert
Anyone who’s ever worked in a business in transition, with a new boss sweeping in, shaking up – or, in some cases, shaking out – the old ways of doing things, will find much familiar about Dior and I. Some of it, uncomfortably so.
Director, writer and producer Frédéric Tcheng’s pressure-packed, behind-the-scènes documentary, about designer Raf Simons’ installation as artistic director at the legendary House of Dior in the spring of 2012, will seem familiar to anyone who’s ever met a new boss on a first day, fumbled for common footing in the transition, or wondered how they were going to fit in with the new regime.
There’s much more going on here than just fashion. (Although, what fashion). There’s also a short course in business adaptation.
Under pressure to complete his debut collection in just eight weeks, Simons manages smiles in an early meet and greet with the staff – called from their hand-sewing, cutting and pressing stations and assembled in ranks of crisp white Dior work coats.
“Don’t you have another coat?” one calls to another on the way to the meet and greet.
“If Madame sees you wearing this, I’m warning you,” she says.
First impressions, especially when the label’s Dior, really are everything.
“I wanted to welcome Raf to our home,’’ begins Christian Dior Chief Executive Sidney Toledano, introducing the staff. “They will certainly do a great job, together with you.”
“I can’t wait to work with you,” Simons says, a phrase no doubt familiar to anyone who’s ever worked in a business in transition.
There follows the de rigueur business walk-through of the landmark Paris atelier, room after workroom of shy smiles, nods and awkward greetings – made a little more awkward by differences in language. (Simons, from Belgium, speaks mostly in English; the Dioristes, almost entirely, speak French).
“Nice to meet you, sir, really,’’ one seamstress gushes as Simons walks through.
“I’ll often come here,” he says.
“Ah, it’s a pleasure,” she says.
And we wonder, as he walks on to the next work station, if she’s thinking, “How did I draw the lucky straw to get the new boss’ full attention on his first day on the job?”
From there the real work begins, as the first-day smiles fade as the ancien régime – keepers of the 65-year-old legacy of design icon Christian Dior – clash with the new creative direction and imperatives.
“I don’t know how the system works, for me it’s all new,” Simons fumes to a flustered underling, who’s just had to explain that one of his fittings isn’t going to be ready because one of the house’s première seamstresses is on a private fitting with a big-spending client in New York. “But if a whole fitting is slower for 15 dresses because of one client in New York, I don’t agree. It has to be solved, one way or another.”
“She cannot say no to the client,” the underling tries. How could she, when the client may be spending as much as $375,000 a year on Dior couture.
“Well she can also not say no to me,” Simons says.
What emerges as amazing through Tcheng’s 89-minute film – at turns Project Runway, at others Fitzcarraldo – is that the grinding gears (and shears) eventually mesh, and forward motion begins. The rank eventually falls into file behind the new boss’ creative vision.
“There’s always a period of adaptation,” one long-time Dioriste says. “They have to get to know each other. After that it will be all right.”
And in the end – spoiler alert – everything is all right. The clothes, some in prints inspired by abstract paintings Simons sees at the Centre Georges Pompidou in Paris, are glorious. The fashion show, set up in five rooms of a vacant mansion near the Arc de Triomphe, is triumphant. The floor-to-ceiling flower arrangements on the walls of each room of the show – which took 50 people over 48 hours, and a fortune, to set up – may be the best special effect in a film since Interstellar.
Two Dioristes let up from the work rooms, their needles and threads at last set down, walk through the floral rooms pre-show in gaping amazement.
“It’s beyond Alice in Wonderland,’’ one says, beholding the work they’ve helped create.
“It’s absolutely incredible,’’ says the other.
And that’s (fashion) show business.
Dior and I,written, directed and produced by Frédéric Tcheng, is now available on DVD and Blu-ray. In French, Italian and Flemish, with English subtitles; and English.