Frederic Tcheng Unthreads the Secret World of 'Dior and I'

It’s 2012. The fabled house of Dior has caused a stir with the announcement of their new creative director, Raf Simons, a designer who many felt was an odd fit. Simons, faced with insurmountable odds and high expectations, has only eight weeks to complete his first couture collection. Frederic Tcheng, a documentarian embarking upon his first project as sole director, is there to document it all.

Dior and I, the fruit of Tcheng’s labors, is a documentary feature that has been heralded as the most realistic fashion film ever made. It combines the high-stakes drama of the now legendary 2012 Dior show with the real life drama of the employees of Dior, from the newly hired Simons to the army of seamstresses and couture constructionists in Dior’s arsenal, without which a fashion collection would be inconceivable. It debuted at the Tribeca Film Festival to rave reviews and high praise from film critics and fashion aficionados alike.

The film, released theatrically in America today, is the third feature of this nature in Frederic Tcheng’s repertoire. After establishing himself as the fashion world’s preeminent storyteller with Valentino: The Last Emperor and Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, Tcheng proved an invaluable fit to tell the stories of all those swept into those frenzied 8 weeks at the house of Dior. Milk Made’s Jake Boyer spoke to Tcheng for a conversation about the extraordinary process of bringing this film to life.

What drew you to this project? I know you were fresh off of Diana Vreeland, so was Dior a natural next step further into fashion?

It was a chance encounter, like all the best things in life. We were presenting Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel, in Paris to some fashion VIPs in a private screening. Someone, Olivier Bialobos, came up to me at the end of the screening who happened to be the head of communications at Dior. He told me that they were going to make an announcement soon about a new designer and that they were interested in my point of view. He really liked the Diana Vreeland and wanted us to collaborate. Then I met him again in New York and we started talking. Dior was pretty much on board with the project by the time they made the announcement. So I jumped on the filming of it.

You entered at such a tumultuous time for the house, and the choice of Raf Simons as the new head of house was very publicized. Were you familiar with Raf before the project began?

To me it was kind of Raf or nothing. I was so excited about Raf, I can’t even explain it. I felt that there was some kind of connection. I don’t know. Either something that I had in common with him or something that was fascinating about him to me. I don’t know. I felt that I could make a film about him. He was on the top of my list, and I don’t think I would have even made the film if it had been another designer. The process of choosing a subject depends on falling in love with the world that they’re in. That’s what happened with Raf. I don’t know if I would have been as in love if it had been another designer. But Dior told me on the phone that, ‘There’s only one problem: Raf doesn’t want to make a film.’ I was like, ‘Yeah that’s a little bit of a problem.’ So I wrote a letter to Raf explaining what I was interested in doing and who I was. Ralph responded a few days later saying, ‘I can’t say no, I can’t say yes. Why don’t you come for a week and we’ll see what happens.’ So I went to Paris and basically we started shooting. I met him through the lens of the camera because we started filming the day that he arrived at Dior to meet the seamstresses. That’s the first scene of the film where you see him, and that was basically the first time I had seen him. We hadn’t really talked. It was a very strange situation and in a way it forced me into the seamstresses’ point of view, which was very interesting. I was meeting Raf as they were meeting Raf. I was warming up to Raf as they were warming up to Raf. All of that was simultaneous.

And all of that immediately translates to the audience as well.

Yeah, exactly. I think the process of making the film ends up being in the film. By the end of the week, we had filmed great footage, but I still didn’t know if Raf wanted to continue or not. Raf’s worry about making a film is that he cherishes his privacy. He doesn’t want to engage with the celebrity culture because I think he thinks it’s a little absurd sometimes, and it can also change the relationships you have with people. He didn’t want that, so he expressed those concerns. The film that I was going to make, as I told him in my letter, was going to be about a dialogue, and the dialogue that he has with the seamstresses. To me that was the strongest story to tell because it was about the future, and the past. That seemed to reassure him, and he allowed me to stay on for the rest of the collection.

You mentioned that he was a little hesitant at first, but there are so many other subjects in the film as well. Were any of them hesitant about filming?

Some people were hesitant, but not at Dior really. It was kind of an amazing period. During those two months everyone was so lovely. Peter, you can see in the film, is so charming. And you can see that all the studio assistants and couture supervisors were all really welcoming. Once we established that we were going be there for the duration of the collection, they realized that we were really interested in what we were making, not just getting a b-roll, you know? Once you establish that, it’s all a human relationship in the end. Your intention always transpires into a relationship. Our intention was to do a film about a group of people. Not just Raf.

Well speaking of Raf, his breakdown on the roof that you managed to capture was unbelievably moving. As a documentary filmmaker, is it difficult for you to capture those moments objectively? To know that these are real emotional moments and not actors?

It’s like torture a little bit [laughs]. I mean, it’s not like torture but you feel very conflicted because as you said, you feel for the person and you’re filming them. To what extent are you betraying them? You’re capturing their emotions, but you have to do it with a certain amount of empathy and respect. It’s a matter of distance really. It’s something that I’ve thought about a lot recently. It’s not an easy process for Raf to be exposed publicly. And yet I’m inflicting that on him by making this movie, and of course I want it to be successful, but I’m filled with gratefulness because he’s given me the only thing that he has, which is privacy. He’s given it to me and no one else. It’s very humbling.

What is it about the fashion world that keeps you coming back feature after feature?

I don’t think it’s me coming back to the fashion world, but the fashion world coming back to me [laughs]. I don’t know. I’ve never sought out a fashion documentary. It’s just by chance or opportunity. I just grab the opportunity if it’s something that I feel like I respond to on a deeply personal level. It could have been music or anything. I think I was lucky. Obviously there’s been a trend of documentary filmmaking during the last 10 – 15 years because cameras have become so cheap. And there’s been a trend of fashion films as well. Fashion is in such a different place than it was 20 years ago. It’s much more mainstream and public. Movies like The Devil Wears Prada were a hit, so it changed the game a little bit. It was no longer a niche interest. I guess I’ve been served in that way.

What was the most important thing you learned from this project?

Oh my God, there’s so many! [laughs] You know I’m completely transformed by this adventure on many different levels. On a personal level, this was my first film where I was the only director. I’m sort of the face of the movie. That’s why I’m sitting in front of you now. That’s never happened before. It’s completely exciting and crazy and scary. I think the reason that I ultimately wanted to make this movie was because I wanted to learn something. That’s why I was attracted to this subject. With this film I think it was collaboration and the artistic process. I’ve learned so much about my own artistic process, it was a total learning experience.

Was there a particular day or moment during filming that was very intense?

I mean the day of the show obviously, but also the day of the first fitting. Raf was discovering the first mock ups of his dresses and the dresses were late. That was very, very tense. Raf was very tense, which made everyone tense. Florence was away and she was late. I remember I got stuck in the elevator with this dress, and my battery was running out. I barely made it to the end of the scene and replaced my battery. It was crazy.

I’m really glad that you captured that moment in the elevator on film. It was laugh out loud funny.

Yeah that elevator worked a lot, so it broke down on a regular basis. It’s interesting because it’s so much about upstairs, downstairs. The seamstresses are actually upstairs and the studio is downstairs. So we were constantly in the elevator going up and down and sometimes you would hear the greatest things in the elevator. It’s just all about that space in between, a place for information and transits.

This documentary has been called the most realistic fashion movie ever made in some reviews. How does that make you feel?

I guess fashion is not very realistic sometimes. [laughs] But I also think the cliche about fashion is that it’s this rarified world, inaccessible. We wanted to flip that cliche on its head and show that there are lovely people working in fashion, especially on the creative side. Hardworking, humble. Maybe not everyone, but we chose to focus on the ones we liked. It’s too bad that people have so many preconceived ideas about fashion. It doesn’t do justice to what it actually is.

Which is?

Pure art.

‘Dior and I’ is in cinemas now. Visit the film’s official website here

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