Fashion Has Much to Gain From Honest Documentaries

Staff Writer
Columbus Monthly

c.2015 New York Times News Service


One of the thorniest questions in the fashion world right now — the one that keeps designers and chief executives up at night, and arguing during the day — is not, as you might think, whether it is beneficial for a brand to have Kimye in its front row, or what global currency fluctuations will mean for business, but rather one of access. Specifically, how much should be granted to the outside world?

Fashion is an industry of stagecraft, of smoke and mirrors and “the dream” that everyone natters on and on about because it drives sales: You want that dress/bag/shoe (you don’t need it) because it represents some possible better version of you, and seeing the sweat and tears and computer modeling that goes into making it could destroy its transformative appeal.

But this is an age of direct communication and transparency, of selfie sticks and presidential tweets, of the consumer-as-partner and Facebook friend, of DIY and Etsy.

You see the problem. To be part of the modern world, fashion has to let people in, yet its mystique is built on keeping them out. What’s a brand to do?

An answer of sorts can be found in “Dior and I,” a documentary opening April 10 in the United States and in the summer in Europe.

Directed by Frédéric Tcheng, who was also involved in the Diana Vreeland documentary “The Eye Has to Travel” (2011) and “Valentino: The Last Emperor” (2008), it is the best fashion documentary since R.J. Cutler’s “The September Issue” in 2009 and an entirely convincing argument why brands should face their fears and choose transparency.

Put another way, it is as effective a riposte to the knee-jerk criticisms of the fashion world — that it is superficial and cynical about exploiting consumer insecurities — as anything I have seen.

On the surface, “Dior and I” seems to tell the story of the debut of the brand’s new creative director, Raf Simons, who joined in 2012 with eight weeks to create his first couture collection, and it takes its name from a 1956 memoir written by the house’s founder about his own conflicted relationship with his public self.

But the real subject of the film is the human side of fashion: the men and women in the couture atelier who toil away in white coats, making the clothes by hand, some of whom have been doing so for more than 40 years. And the inescapable point after 90 minutes is simple: More than any logo or single person, they are Dior.

What gives the film its heart and power is the tension between the new regime and these men and women — especially Monique Bailly, the premiere (head) of the tailoring atelier, whose anxiety over change as represented by Simons is revealed in constantly pursed lips and wringing hands; Florence Chehet, head of the dressmaking atelier (flou), whose easygoing smile suggests long-term perspective; and Catherine Rivière, head of couture, who, when Raf gets upset because Chehet has been sent to New York (overnight) for a client fitting, says, “When a woman spends 350,000 euros a season, we do not say no.”

If Oscars were given out for best supporting actors in a documentary, they would all be nominated.

In other words, just as “The September Issue” made a star of Grace Coddington by revealing her emotional investment in her work, although Anna Wintour was its purported leading lady, it is the willingness of Bailly and Chehet to show how deeply they care about their handiwork and the house they have inherited that leaps off the screen and translates far beyond fashion.

In many ways, what the film really demonstrates is that the key relationship in a fashion brand is between the designer and the workroom, and although the former may come and go, it is in the latter that institutional memory resides.

Indeed, the one notable omission in the movie is any mention of why Simons arrived at Dior in the first place: the 2011 implosion and firing of his predecessor, John Galliano, for anti-Semitic remarks during a drunken rant.

If you didn’t know about the 15-year Galliano era (or, for that matter, the Marc Bohan/Gianfranco Ferré eras that preceded it, and the Bill Gaytten caretaker year that followed), you might be forgiven for thinking the House of Dior went straight from Dior’s time to Simons’.

It’s too bad, because while the film is very good at dramatizing the weight of responsibility on the designer’s shoulders (“It’s fun, but it’s heavy ... heavy,” says Simons in a car going back to Belgium), the stakes were exponentially higher given the drama surrounding Galliano’s ouster and Gaytten’s brief tenure.

Tcheng says that the decision to leave the Galliano story out of the film was his alone and was made in the editing room, as opposed to any strictures from Dior. “I wanted to make a statement that this was not a film about the media aspect of fashion,” he said.

According to Tcheng, when he originally met Sidney Toledano, the Dior chief executive, Toledano brought up the Galliano mess and told him “it’s not something you want to ignore.”

And in fact, the Galliano situation indirectly contributed to the genesis of the film, according to Olivier Bialobos, Dior’s worldwide communications director, whose idea it originally was.

Bialobos approached Tcheng at a screening of the Vreeland documentary in late 2011, he said, and suggested making a film about Dior, prompted in part by a desire to refocus the brand’s public narrative.

“It was important to show our human family,” said Bialobos, who also acknowledged the associated risks of giving up control, as did Toledano.

While Dior was “pretty involved” in financing the film, according to Tcheng (“We were co-producers,” Toledano said), part of the deal going in, the director said, was that “I wasn’t going to do a corporate video. I wasn’t interested in interviewing Marion Cotillard. I talked to a lot of lawyers about how to protect myself.”

There was a reason. When the subjects of the Valentino film, Valentino Garavani and Giancarlo Giammetti, first saw the documentary, which revealed their working relationship and friendship in all its excess, honesty and occasional ridiculousness (my favorite moment involves Giammetti telling Garavani he is “too tan”), they were horrified, Tcheng said. For a while he was not sure if the film would ever make it to theaters.

“It was not the movie they were expecting,” he said. “Where was Gwyneth Paltrow singing their praises?”

But while that film was a U.S. production, “Dior and I” was French, and that gave the director the moral right over the final cut.

“Anyway, if you don’t risk,” Bialobos said, “you don’t get.”

It’s an important lesson for other brands, especially because as the trend for fashion documentaries continues to pick up steam.

Fashion has been flirting with documentaries since the success of Douglas Keeve’s “Unzipped” in 1995.


Along with Tcheng, his fellow French documentarian Loïc Prigent has been something of a go-to director for the industry, having directed the five-part series “Signe Chanel,” on Karl Lagerfeld’s 2004-05 Chanel couture collection, “Marc Jacobs & Louis Vuitton” and, most recently, “Le Ligne Balmain.”

Then there was “The Director,” the James Franco-produced documentary about former Gucci creative director Frida Giannini, and “Mademoiselle C,” about the making of Carine Roitfeld’s magazine “CR Book.” And at some point there will be a Tiffany documentary, currently in the works from director Matthew Miele (“Scatter my Ashes at Bergdorf’s”).

Just because they get made does not mean they are good. “The Director” was particularly on-brand-message and unengaging.


But of the films that have been most successful, there has been one constant: the willingness on the part of the brands to expose themselves, in all their gilded flaws.

To cry, as Simons does on screen. To doubt, like Bailly. To talk back, like Rivière. To push themselves for each other, as do all of the above.

At the end of the premiere of “Valentino: The Last Emperor” at the Venice Film Festival — a premiere the film’s producers were not sure the film’s subjects would even attend — the entire audience stood, turned and gave Garavani and Giammetti a standing ovation. It was, Tcheng said, a Damascene moment for Garavani.

“He realized the film made them like him,” he said.

In the end, there may be nothing as disarmingly alluring as transparency, and not just when it comes to chiffon. It’s a good look for fashion, if they can only try it on.