On Monday, April 9, 2012, Christian Dior announced the appointment of Belgian designer Raf Simons as creative director of his historic fashion house. Simons was an unexpected candidate to succeed the controversial John Galliano, who was fired from his 15-year stint at the label following an anti-Semitic outburst at a Parisian café.
Simons, who has maintained his namesake menswear line since 1995, was an unlikely choice for a house with a strong foundation in haute couture. During his time at Jil Sander, he approached collections with a predominately minimalist aesthetic that emphasized simple lines and clean silhouettes. Plus, he tended to stay out of the spotlight.
“The people who know about Raf are the people who covered menswear and who saw his shows in 1996, ‘97, ‘98, and ’99,” The New York Times’s former fashion critic Cathy Horyn said in a new documentary, Dior and I. “It was the beginning of the real revival of the skinny black suit. You could say that was minimalism, but I think it was that idea of energy, of something new and modern.”
Written and directed by Frederic Tcheng, whose previous fashion documentary credits include Valentino: The Last Emperor (co-producer/co-editor) and Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has to Travel (co-director), Dior and I follows Simons during the eight weeks he has to prepare his first collection for Dior for haute couture fashion week in July. Premiering at the Tribeca Film Festival on April 17, the film juxtaposes the founding of the house by 41-year-old Christian Dior in 1946 (and his first presentation in February 1947) with Simons’s debut—both of which occurred at the same atelier at 30 Avenue Montaigne in Paris’s eighth arrondissement.
The similarities between the two collections are uncanny, with the later pulling direct inspiration from the house’s first 10 years. “I find that period between 1947 and 1957 extremely attractive, and there was a lot of modernity,” Simons told The New York Times in April 2012. “There was the romantic appeal looking back to his mother and the belle époque, but there was also a constant evolution in shape, changing proportions and the ideas connected to the World War were revolutionary.”
The film places a strong emphasis on the Dior customer and legacy—showcasing feminine pieces with soft silhouettes, radiating romance. With Simons taking the reins, many—including the pre-existing atelier—wondered how he would seamlessly integrate his aesthetic of modernity and youthfulness. The audience catches a glimpse into Simons’s design process; he does not sketch. Instead, he provides the designers with concepts (in this case, 12) who then create the pieces. For his debut collection, the atelier’s craftsmen drew between 150 and 200 sketches, which Simons then turned into a 54-piece collection. This process is shown alongside black-and-white flashback clips of Christian preparing for his first-ever presentation.
It is the intimacy that the audience is given into Simons's design eye, however, that is the most fascinating. Understanding the backstory behind some of the collection’s pieces, particularly Sterling Ruby paintings (or as Simons described it, “gothic Rothko” and “Romeo Gigli on acid”) and his style of emulating the idea of a brush stroke through fabric that brings his debut presentation to life in a way not previously seen.
The closing scene of the documentary is, of course, show day. Nerves are running high as the world’s biggest editors—Anna Wintour, Glenda Bailey, and Carine Roitfeld—and fashion designers—Marc Jacobs, Alber Elbaz, Diane Von Furstenberg, and Donatella Versace—sit anxiously in the front row, anticipating what Raf will do with Dior.
Two years later and a handful of successful collections under his belt, it's clear that Simons was the perfect choice for the iconic fashion house. But that first collection, relived again through Dior and I, was seemingly one of the most magical. “At a time when much of high fashion is influenced by images, whether iconic photographs of the ’50s or digitally manipulated images, Mr. Simons’s debut essentially asks you go trust your own eye,” Horyn wrote in her show review. “The collection was beautiful, modest, and thoroughly engaging.”