by Cari Borja
“My obsession has been—and is still—the feeling of being there. Not of finding out this and analyzing this or performing some virtuous social act or something. Just what’s it like to be there.” —Richard Leacock
“All art is a kind of exploring … To discover and reveal is the way every artist sets about his business.” —Robert Flaherty
“Of course there’s conscious manipulation!Everything about a movie is manipulation … If you like it, it’s an interpretation. If you don’t like it, it’s a lie—but everything about these movies is a distortion.” —Frederick Wiseman
What do we look for in a documentary? Why are we the viewers interested in the stories of others—whether a culture, a personality, or a process? These days we are taken in by celebrity—whether in the world of food, fashion, or film itself. We have been living for decades in the cult of personality, and there are various means of production that give it to us—radio and TV, live concerts, performances, on-stage conversations, and of course, film. We want to dig deeply into the lives of others, learn about them, understand their worlds in the hopes of making ours richer. We want to be inspired by them to do more, want more, become more—and at times become them. We as a culture covet the lives of others. We are always watching as outsiders, occasionally as insiders … We go to the cinema for many reasons, and the first question to ask is: Why? Literally, why am I here, watching this film?
I come to this piece very last-minute, and it caught my attention as procrastination to doing a two-part article on my recent trip to Paris with my 11-year-old daughter Royal. This suggestion was a much-needed energizing distraction. For once I began watching Dior and I , I was hooked. It may have been the memoir nature of the opening—as a contemporary clothing designer, I could perfectly relate to its introductory monologue. I’ve uttered similar words time and time again. It’s the crisis of identity for any creative person who makes things, whether physical, visual, textual: Which is the real me? Dior writes and a voice narrates:
“The time seems ripe for a confrontation with this siamese twin who precedes me everywhere since I’ve become Christian Dior … He is the designer … born in 1947. He is a thousand workers, dresses, pictures in the press … I myself was born in Granville … 1905. I like intimate gatherings with with trusted friends. I hate noise, worldly agitations, and any too-sudden change.”
And then the film fast-forwards 55 years, to 2012, with Raf Simons taking over as head designer only eight weeks before the unveiling of his debut collection for the House of Dior.
When people buy your clothes, see your films, eat your food, read your books, they want a sense of the author, the story of a life lived that somehow gets transferred to the wearer, watcher, writer— the feeling of being there, or of being them … We desire the lives of others—whether musicians, chefs, artists, fashion designers, or filmmakers—just as much as we desire what they do day to day. For a filmmaker, there are two creative paths—the way of fiction or the way of documentary—and each of them have their beauty, their expectations, their way of telling someone’s story through their own eyes. In many ways the filmmaker has to make an argument for why we are watching. Why is it relevant?
But let’s back up—I not only come to Dior and I from a designer’s point of view, but also with a background in film—both academic and festival-based (or commercial). I know a bit about contemporary cinema in terms of selling a film: it needs to have an audience. And what is the audience for a traditional couture house reinterpreted by a very contemporary designer like Raf Simons? In the age of Project Runway , which has overtaken our already fast-paced, reality-driven, competitive meanness—”I’ll do what it takes to get there” editing, forced narrative, by-now predictable storytelling arc—the current generation of film-making may be at odds with the tradition of haute couture, and what one might imagine is the best way of telling the story of Dior.
Audience and filmmaking expectations aside, for me, both the act of making clothes and of seeing films are intimate, emotional relationships between myself and a screen, myself and fabric. They are personal, inspirational, transformative and precious. They are also physical. We feel when we watch and do. We identify. We become part of the process. There is an act of watching and doing that is the beauty of why we go to the cinema, of why we do the job we have chosen. Ideally, there are rewards. I call them my “take-away.”
Of course, Dior and I has its detractors. I’ve read them. And as a film critic or grad student, I agree with A.O. Scott’s take-down of the film. Similarly, I have my own personal problems with Bertrand Bonello’s recent film Saint Laurent , which screens at SFIFF on Sunday. It depends on why we want to see a film on an iconic designer. I want to see process, inspiration. I want aspiration—I want to see possibility, the potential to become more, and Dior and I delivers that for me. Saint Laurent is more of a biopic, and it opens up the question of how much we really want to know about a designer’s life—do we want to know about their transgressions and fantasies, the intimate details that may serve as inspiration in their passionate affairs, but might also be perceived as overly indulgent, possibly inappropriate? This fiery side might also be Yves’s raison d’être—the muse that helped his work come to be. Saint Laurent gives us this more intimate portrayal of the man behind the clothes. Dior and I takes a different approach, bringing the past into the present through a new perspective—a new set of eyes.
If we look at Dior and I in a larger context, it is part not only of a repertoire of films by the director, Frédéric Tcheng, but also part of the allure of designers and fashion in general. As a designer I have seen the proliferation of desire to be in the fashion world, whether it’s Alexander McQueen at the Met, or thousands of fashion design students vying to get a spot on Project Runway . It’s become very cool, just like food. And it’s worth understanding, thinking about, even celebrating—not only what goes in our bodies, but what goes on them as well. So, let’s.
“Vain trifles as they seem, clothes have, they say, more important offices than to merely keep us warm. They change our view of the world and the world’s view of us.”
—Virginia Woolf, Orlando
Dior and I is the third fashion documentary by Frédéric Tcheng. He has also made a name for himself with the beautifully edited and to me quite profound Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel (2011) and the more constrained and conservative, but equally powerful Valentino: The Last Emperor (2008). And as with all creatives, there is the love of experimenting with technique and ways of doing—not just what story is being told, but how. And it is the how here that is precisely what the detractors target—that blurring of cinema verite with the omnipresence of reality TV. But for me it is “es muss sein”—particularly since the start of Project Runway back in 2004. Tcheng gives us one of many ways, possibly the best way, for this narrative drama to open and reveal itself. And why not?
This story is not about the history of the House of Dior, but very specifically about its translation through the mind and literal hands of its creative director and his atelier of workers. It’s this process, along with the energy of an eight-week deadline for Raf’s first collection and runway show, that gives the film its momentum and shape; that defines its way of telling.
And within our current social media-obsessed, nonstop Snapchatting ever-moving inventory of images that get replaced instantaneously with new visual/verbal snippets— new It Girl, new collection, next season, another designer—in the end, we desire something or someone to slow us down and hold us in the moment for the length of a feature film. It’s what many of us yearn for and desperately want, as a way not to forget: a moment of history captured, retold, memorialized (like in Simon Curtis’s Woman in Gold , from this year); or the questioning of documentary truth itself, re-contextualized through generational interpretations (like in Noah Baumbach’s 2014 While We’re Young ).
What’s appealing and distinctive about Dior and I is not only the obvious process of creating the collection, and its eventual realization on the runway, but rather the many levels of acts of translation both literal and conceptual that happen when you work across cultures, languages, traditions; and how that very collaboration of atelier workers and creative head/CEO (in the form of Bernard Arnault) comes together in a singular rendition of Raf’s first season.
It’s beautiful; the process, and how the collection comes to be.
I make clothes, collaborating not only with outsiders, but within my studio with assistants, specifically my assistant designer Racheal Matthews. That process of having an idea or 12; creating a collection; thinking through the strands of inspiration, realization, impediments, music, space, models, guests, seating; and suddenly the day arrives to present the collection. A performance needs to happen, be seamless and more or less related to that original vision. It’s the not-knowing—this space between original idea and actualization—that is the point of this work. It’s about seeing it through, about being there. It’s about vulnerability, and not having all the control of an end product, because there are so many voices, so many viewers, and no one can control the outcome. It’s about letting go, and in many ways, as goofy as it sounds, relinquishing control. It’s the anticipation and realization of that moment that is the why, the take-away.
Living on the edge of risk, and the anticipation of possible success that’s at the root of performance—how do we capture it? For me, it’s the finale model walk followed by the designer’s walk, but more specifically the handshake, the nod—that close-to-final moment—the acknowledgement, the full breath, the exultation, the friendship; being surrounded, loved.
Dior and I is heavily crafted, with hundreds of hours of footage edited down to 90 minutes. It’s one version of a dozen possibilities, and we as viewers each bring our own interpretation, our own willingness (or not) to be transformed. Tcheng took as his subject matter a traditional couture house with a history, and juxtaposed a new voice within that space, wanting to see what would happen. In many ways, the movie is like Esther Perel’s philosophy of love — of how to maintain desire and eroticism in a longterm relationship. It’s about the space that is opened up to experience another way of being—a sense of anticipation, surprise, not-knowing. Sure, aspects of it can be predictable. We know the collection will be a success; but what Tcheng captures along the way is touching, deeply poignant, inspiring. And yes, there may be a specific audience in mind. Luckily, I am that audience.
“From the idea to the dress, my work is my life’s reason.”
DIOR AND I
Cari Borja began her career as a clothing designer while earning her PhD in anthropology and film at UC Berkeley in 2001. Since then she has created collections inspired by film and food, and has become known for her salon dinners in her Berkeley atelier, where she weaves together people from different disciplines and professions. Cari is currently writing a book of interviews with dinner guests featured on her FashionFilmFood blog, and she also consults with start-ups and other companies curating dinners and connecting people. Click here and here to read about Cari’s salon dinners in Berkeley.