Haute couture comes alive in ‘Dior and I’

“Dior and I” burrows into the world of haute couture, chronicling the making of a spring collection at the famed Dior house in Paris.

Working fly-on-the-wall style but including a talking head or two and some imaginatively rendered history, French writer-director Frederic Tcheng (“Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel”) delivers a fashion procedural, an artist portrait and a ghost story.

Shortly after arriving at Dior in 2012, new artistic director Raf Simons must make a personal imprint on the fashion scene and essentially channel Christian Dior, the 20th-century legend famed for his elaborate, feminine designs.

Something of a misfit, Simons is Belgian, speaks little French, and is considered a minimalist known for menswear. He lacks experience with haute couture. He wants to be called Raf, not Monsieur. He doesn't easily connect with employees, who prefer dealing with his personable assistant, Pieter Mulier.

Indispensable players include Florence Chehet, who oversees the dress-making atelier, and Monique Bailly, whose crew makes suiting.

A ticking-clock intensifies the challenge. Simons has eight weeks to complete his spring collection – one-third of the time normally involved. Obstacles, naturally, occur.

Simons decides to create dresses based on the blurry-looking spray-painted canvases of artist Sterling Ruby. Fabric experts deem his demands near-impossible.

Simons fumes when learning that Bailly, at a crucial time, has been away in New York, helping a client with a fitting.

Envisioning “Versailles,” Simons determines that the big runway show should take place in a rented mansion with sheets of fresh flowers covering the walls.

Deviating from standard fashion-doc formula, Tcheng makes the spirit of Christian Dior a character of sorts. These sequences feature photos of Dior, narrated passages from his 1956 memoir, and playful visuals with a supernatural tone.

Yet Tcheng's attempt to connect Simons and Dior in the psyche department – both men feel uneasy about the fame and glory aspects of their work – falls short. As a character portrait, the film includes fun quirks (Simons looking anything but fashionable in white shorts) but tells viewers little about his vision or background.

The respectful film doesn't address elitist aspects of haute couture, and doesn't mention the scandal in 2011 when former Dior creative director John Galliano was arrested, and fired, for making an anti-Semitic rant.

Yet the access Tcheng gained to the Dior institution has resulted in an absorbing, eye-popping look at how high fashion is created. The film also shines as an appreciation of women and men who sew.

Chehet and Bailly, whose expertise and excellence elevate everything, alone merit a documentary. Their workers, a refreshingly unglamorous bunch, are fascinating as they stitch lace onto fabric and describe their long history with Dior.

Viewers become so involved in their proficient, collaborative activity that the catwalk spectacle is almost dull in comparison.


Dior and I

Three stars

Starring: Raf Simons, Pieter Mulier, Florence Chehet, Monique Bailly

Written and directed by: Frederic Tcheng

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 29 minutes

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