New Dior designer Raf Simons looks at a vintage Dior dress from the documentary “Dior & I,” directed by Frédéric Tcheng. Courtesy of CIM Productions.

In his 1956 memoir, Christian Dior and I, the founder of the House of Dior declared that he hated “sudden change.” But it was his undeniably abrupt break with women’s post-World War II fashion that elevated Dior as one of the most influential designers of all time. His designs ventured far from the ascetic styles of the 1940s when women’s fashion was dictated by geopolitical upheaval. At 41 years of age, his first show — two years after the war had ended — turned the fashion industry upside down. Dior’s “New Look” created a delicate, flower-like femininity with tight-waisted dresses that billowed over the hips in sensuous fabrics and accentuated the curvature of the female body. The new man of haute couture may have despised sudden change, but he had done just that with his provocative departure from those who came before him.

It was with inquisitive hesitancy, then, that Raf Simons — the focus of Frédéric Tcheng’s new documentary Dior and I, which opened Thursday at the Tribeca Film Festival — seemed to have taken the helm as Dior’s artistic director in 2012. Branded a minimalist for his men’s ready-to-wear designs while at Jil Sander, Simons was an unexpected choice to head the Parisian haute couture house. Throughout the film, we watch with apprehension as the new man of Paris fashion straddles, more than walks, a tightrope, his legs dangling back and forth between Dior’s legacy and his own desire to usher the House of Dior into the 21st century. French-born Tcheng, who wrote and co-directed Diana Vreeland: The Eye has to Travel (2011) and produced and edited Valentino: The Last Emperor (2008), balances this dramatic tension with a craft as graceful as the seamstresses of Dior’s atelier.

Tcheng casts historic shadows onto the canvas as soon as the lights dim. The ghost of Christian Dior is not just a legend wandering the halls of his fashion empire — “Dior is still here…checking on our work,” one seamstress muses; the director’s opening scenes conjure the fashion master from old film footage and are accompanied by voiceover readings from Dior’s memoir. Tcheng is adept at shifting from past to present, as if the two were fluid bodies of water flowing in and out of each other. The 2012 team is meeting their new director. With language barriers and generational awkwardness, Simons notes bashfully that he prefers “Raf” to “Monsieur Raf.” An uneasy chuckle spills from those who will now report to their handsome, well-dressed, and much younger Belgian-born boss.

The story follows Simons and his team as they frantically attempt to work together and create his first Dior collection in eight weeks. As light bulbs are replaced, sepia-toned photographs of workers painting staircases 50 years earlier slide into the frame. Once again Tcheng wills Dior to life as a counterpoint to the incoming artistic director. Time seems to have stood still in the House of Dior. But can it? Indefinitely? “Juxtaposing from that time with this time is modernity itself,” Simons declares — setting the tone for the rest of the documentary. Time, under Simons’ direction, won’t stand still.

The new director seems to embrace the challenge and yet also struggles at times. “The past is not romantic for me. It’s the future that’s romantic for me,” Simons says sifting through flowered fabric swatches favored by Dior. He then tells his fabric team that he wants to replicate the process of color on thread (not printed on the woven fabric) but with abstract art. There is more than a shock of horror on their faces. Tcheng excels at creating, in subtle candid shots, dramatic tension between the team — a squint of the eye; a muffled scoff; a raised eyebrow — captured on camera, even if the players in real life hadn’t picked up on the nuances of subconscious body language.

Whether pieced together in the editing room by Tcheng or not (at times the filmmaker’s hand seems heavy), there are uncanny similarities between Simons and Dior. One of the most striking scenes exemplifies just how akin the two men seem to be. A deadline hasn’t been met, and Simons expresses more than frustration. He leaves the team, which will now be working on Saturday, and stares miserably out the window, glimpsing at a field of windmills. Has he embarked on a quixotic adventure? Dior’s voice appears from the ether, “I sometimes feel remorseful. Despite my efforts to be diplomatic, I hurt someone’s feelings.” The camera cuts to an empty atelier. The light of a full moon shines through suspended toile dresses like ghosts swaying in a gentle breeze. Old footage of Dior and his models are projected onto Simons’ dresses, creating a surreal blending of past, present, and future. On first reflection, Tcheng’s technique may appear cliché or even sophomoric, but the beauty of the scene encapsulates the essence of what is transpiring in the House of Dior.

With the ghost of Christian Dior, enters the spirit of Raf Simons.

The film concludes with Simons’ much anticipated debut as the new artistic director of Dior — a swirling of long-legged young women bejeweled in Dior’s traditional lines and Simons’ dazzling modern colors set against a backdrop reminiscent of Koons’ Flower Puppy. It is eye candy of an ethereal kind. Had Dior been there, he’d surely be smiling.

After working collaboratively on other haute couture biopics, Tcheng, like Simons, has risen to the challenge. Dior and I ‘s creative success sets him up as a director fully capable of capturing the essence of the fashion world and putting more than just a pretty face on its brand. There are many others the world has yet to understand…and would be richer with him in the director’s chair.

 Rating: 3.5 out of 4 Stars

“Dior and I” is making its world premiere at this year’s Tribeca Film Festival, which runs from April 16-27, and can be seen during the following dates: Tuesday, April 22 at 9:00pm, Bow Tie Cinema Chelsea; and Friday, April 25 at 9:00pm, AMC Loews Village. For more information about the film and purchasing tickets, please click here.

Video Courtesy of Christian Dior/TFF.

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