Fast-rising documentary film director Frederic Tcheng has released his beautifully crafted “Dior and I,” which follows Raf Simons as he launches his first haute couture collection for Christian Dior in July 2012. Given just eight weeks to complete the collection, as opposed to the four to six months normally allotted for the creation of couture, Simons spends the early days going through the Dior archives and pondering how he will incorporate Dior's classic "New Look" tailoring — confident, discreetly bold yet feminine — with his own influences, especially from the world of contemporary art. For Fall 2012, Simons was inspired by the paintings of Gerhard Richter and Sterling Ruby -- the latter of which he teamed up with for a collection under his eponymous label a few seasons later.
In addition to capturing Simons' more modern approach to couture and to the house in general, Tcheng, who is probably best known for his 2008 film, Valentino: The Last Emperor, also does a particularly good job capturing the expertise, dedication and enthusiasm of the Christian Dior couture craftsmen, some of whom have spent 40 years working in the atelier. One woman, for instance, began as an intern and is still employed in the atelier 39 years later. As the Fall/Winter 2012 show nears and pressures mount, Simons suggests holding the runway show in a massive townhouse, and covering the walls in blankets of flowers. The effect is breathtaking: one room enrobed with blue delphiniums, another with white orchids, yet another in multicolored roses.
While you wait until the debut of the film in the U.S. next month, here are a few things I learned from viewing it …
1. Raf Simons does not sketch designs. He "prepares files," according to his long-term "right hand," Pieter Mulier. At the newly modern, forward-thinking Dior, Simons creates expansive files of images and inspirations for his concepts. Each member of the design staff is handed a file, and everyone then sketches their ideas, creating around 200 sketches for each prospective suit, dress or skirt. From these, Raf chooses 3 or 4.
2. In the atelier, Simons rather radically, prefers to go by "Raf", as opposed to "Monsieur Raf." Dior CEO Sydney Toledano told the staff that this is appropriate as "a token of modernity."
3. Most of the couture seamstresses in the Christian Dior atelier are able to select which individual look or looks they will each create from the final sketches of the collection.
4. Simons insists that he is not a minimalist. In the car from Paris to Antwerp, a ride he takes nearly every weekend, Simons explained: "I have found myself in a situation in the last couple of years where the audience sees me as a minimalist, and I'm not. I mean, in a way I find it quite surprising. Did I take on a minimal brand? Yes. Yes. [Referring to his tenure at Italian design house Jil Sander]. But does that mean that I am only about minimalism? Well, let them judge after the show I would say."
5. The flower walls that served as the backdrop for the Fall 2012 couture runway show took 48 hours and a team of 50 people to create; and was an idea that has to be approved by Toledano and LVMH Chair Bernard Arnault.
6. Raf is humble. Speaking about Dior's focus on femininity being the starting point for his collections, he says: "I don't want to suggest in any way that I am talented enough to compare myself with Mr. Christian Dior." In another scene, he says: "There was this book he wrote himself, about himself, him as the label and him as a person. And I started reading it; it was very weird. I had to stop it. I thought maybe I'd better not, until the first show is done. It was intimidating."
7. Christian Dior was largely influenced by his childhood home, which is located in Granville, France, and now serves as a museum. In his journals he wrote: "In a way, my whole life was influenced by its architecture and environment." The house was "a soft pink" in color mixed with grey gravel -- "These have remained my favorite colors in couture," according to the late designer. Surrounded by flowers, Dior said: "I inherited from my mother a passion for flowers. I was happiest among my plants and gardens."
8. Simons speaks at length about modernizing Dior couture. The idea of juxtaposing "something so specifically from [Christian Dior's] time with something so specifically from this time is, for me, already modernity in itself," Simons says. He primarily says he wants to modernize the collections and make them "dynamic" because "I find women very dynamic now."
9. According to Catherine Riviere, Dior's Director of Haute Couture, Dior is "one of the last two houses that still work in the great tradition of haute couture, with our own ateliers, one for suiting and one for dresses."
10. Joining Dior was daunting -- Pieter Mulier said: "When you tell someone you're going to work for Dior, that's a lot of weight on your shoulders because this house has so much DNA that it'll be hard to find creative freedom. It scared us a little. I was scared a little." To this point, Raf said: "I think it is rather challenging to face a legacy which is so gigantic and is so sublime."