Simons Says

Frédéric Tcheng, Dior and I, 2014, HD video, color, sound, 90 minutes. Raf Simons.

FRÉDÉRIC TCHENG has been affiliated with two of the more high-profile fashion documentaries of the past decade, both portraits of exceptionally outsize personalities in a profession rife with them. He served as coeditor of Matt Tyrnauer’s Valentino: The Last Emperor (2008), a hagiographic chronicle of the final year of the Italian couturier’s reign, and codirected Lisa Immordino Vreeland’s Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel (2012), a charming bauble on the peerless fashion editor and epigrammatist. For Dior and I, his first nonfiction project as sole creator, Tcheng focuses on a far less outlandish figure in haute couture: Raf Simons, the Belgian designer who was appointed head of the venerable Paris-based house of the title in 2012 and whose most outré behavior would seem to include downing too many cans of Coke Zero and wearing knee-length white shorts with black socks and black shoes in the atelier.

Tcheng includes no mention of the scandal that led to Simons’s anointment, namely the anti-Semitic barroom ravings of John Galliano, who oversaw Dior from 1996 to 2011. But he does structure his film around a dramatic crisis—the highly compressed eight weeks that Simons has to present his first haute-couture collection—whose outcome is a foregone conclusion: deferential chitchat with Anna Wintour, cheers, smiles, tears, backstage photos with Marion Cotillard. Yet Tcheng animates this countdown to inevitable triumph, too often the organizing principle of designer docs, by giving ample time to those who have frequently been overlooked in the genre: the white-smocked men and (mostly) women who cut, sew, and alter, unflagging artisans who can be found hand stitching thousands of bugles onto a gown at 3 AM.

Of these behind-the-scenes craftspeople, two—both middle-aged women—especially stand out: the premières Florence Chehet, adored by Simon’s chief adjutant, Pieter Mulier, for her unwavering cheerfulness, and Monique Bailly, who assuages her deadline anxiety with a container of Haribo Gummi candies. Their contrasting personalities point to a larger schism in high fashion, in which meeting the needs of private clients can sometimes conflict with those of the collection. (Another split, that between public and private life, is the central theme of Christian Dior and I, the New Look designer’s 1956 memoir, passages of which are read throughout the film.) Tcheng illustrates these clashing priorities with footage of Simons’s mildly indignant exchange, played out behind a halfway-closed door, with Catherine Rivière, the imposing directrice of Dior Haute Couture, who argues that Chehet had to be spared for a few crucial days to fit a customer in New York willing to spend 350,000 euros on bespoke garments. To Rivière’s assertion that one can’t say no to clients, Simons sniffs, “Well, you also can’t say no to me.”

His employees certainly never do, even—or especially—when they can’t understand him: Simons is fluent neither in French nor in the particular decorum of this rarefied world. (Prior to his appointment at Dior, Simons was the creative director for Jil Sander.) “In haute couture, we say Monsieur,” a veteran seamstress gently points out to her new boss, who isn’t especially keen on the honorific, during his meet-and-greet with the staff. Though the film is unquestionably a flattering portrait of Simons, it is also more broadly, and more fruitfully, a testament to a tradition and to those who have upheld it for decades—and who have as equal a claim on the first-person pronoun in the film’s title as Monsieur does.

Dior and I opens April 10 in New York and Toronto and will expand to other cities on April 17.