Last Sunday was Mother’s Day in Australia and I found myself at 10.30 am on a chilly morning with my daughter in a cinema watching a documentary about the fashion industry.
There were ten people in the theatre two of them middle-aged men sitting alone and we speculated what their interest might be. We soon forgot about them though and became engrossed in the film, a compelling look at the development of a collection, but an even more interesting study of the dynamics of a work place.
Following the disgrace of Galliano, the top designer job at Dior had been vacant for many months. It must have been quite a surprise for the staff to learn the new director was to be Raf Simons, a Belgian who spoke limited French and whose initial training was in furniture design. He would continue to live in Antwerp and to drive himself the three hours plus from his home to Paris until the powers that be at Dior forced him to have a driver when he had almost fallen asleep at the wheel several times.
Simons is not a particularly warm character and somewhat of an introvert. The chief designer’s role is definitely that of an ideas person. He does very little of what I would describe as actual work. He looks at models wearing old Dior costumes with his hands at the side of his eyes as, I imagine, an aid to focus. He somehow generates his vision, which is translated by the drawings of other staff and made into toiles by other staff. In this case he was bouncing off the post war New Look at Dior, said to be ‘very feminine.’ That seems to mean flat chests, tiny waists and full mid calf length skirts, not every woman’s cup of tea. (Certainly not mine.)
This documentary has the same obsessive interest as The September Issue. There is an impending deadline, Simons only has eight weeks to get the collection together, and it has one person who steals every scene he is in. As with Grace Coddington, the counterweight to Anna Wintour at U S Vogue, Pieter Mulier, Raf Simons’ ‘right hand man’ charms the viewing audience and the staff at Dior. I doubt that Simons could have achieved his project without Mulier. He befriends all the Atelier staff, and although Belgian, has impeccable French and he has that magical ability all great communicators have, the ability to make his listeners feel valued and heard. He seems to be the one who gets the inordinate amount of extra work out of the staff, or perhaps he has the ability to connect with their established tradition of teamwork and pride in what they create.
And this for me was the most interesting part of this documentary: the amount and quality of work that comes from the team and what a personal sense of commitment they feel. The tiny stitches, the embroidery, the beading, the cutting, the constant revamping, every aspect of the detailed designs has to be perfect. And they still work up under the mansard roof, although now their workrooms are well lit and they wear white jackets instead of fusty black.
Simons’ collection is a success and he has gone on to raise Dior up after the crazy times of Galliano. But questions arise.
Who wears these clothes? There is mention of a client who spends 350,000 Euro per season on clothes from Dior. She has to be kept happy. But who is she, a film star, the wife of an arms-dealer? Is it ever justifiable to spend this kind of money on clothes? You and I might say no, but it is an industry, bringing money into France. But to whom? I was most curious to find out how much the highly expert staff are paid. No luck on Google. If anyone can tell me I would be most grateful. My suspicion is that because it is a traditional industry into which entrée is via a kind of apprenticeship system, the wages are quite low. Especially as they are one of the last in-house ateliers in France. These skills are a dying trade. The low wages could be justified in the ‘you’re lucky to have this job’ rationale. But I am speculating.
A fascinating and thought provoking documentary about work and people, with the added delight of hearing a lot of French spoken.
Dior and I : director, writer and producer Frederic Tcheng