Going to face the audience at his first runway show in the documentary Dior and I, Raf Simons, the Belgian designer who was chosen to succeed John Galliano at the House of Dior, puts up a forced smile to quickly -- but just barely -- cover his mouth-tightening wince. At that moment of professional, artistic ascension and nerves, the dark-haired prodigy looks startlingly like the pop star Morrissey.
This is a rich coincidence since the doc Dior and I (Dior et moi) tells the story of a man's identification with a cultural role-model, using the same life-model as did Morrissey in his 2006 single "Christian Dior." Morrissey's song is one of the great gay songs and brotherly tributes ever recorded. It demonstrates artistic commiseration that is also a statement of principle.
You've got to know how Morrissey looks back at the life of one of the premiere 20th century fashion designers and pays tribute to both his artistry and his personal sexuality. You need to hear the way Morrissey serenades the life Dior didn't live but was rumored to live -- then acknowledges the creative drive that took precedent over common pleasures; how Dior discretely exemplified a model of personal conduct, becoming a giant in art history and gay consciousness. He was what, today, is simplified as "an icon."
If you already know Morrissey's song, the Raf Simons doc will make you recall it and not forget it. Director Frederic Tcheng doesn't get as imaginatively personal as Morrissey. Rather, Dior and I is a testament to the change in gay consciousness since Dior's post-World War II prominence. Gayness is casually presented in the film by Simons's assistant Pieter Mulier. What matters to Tcheng (who had previously made documentaries about Valentino and Diana Vreeland) is the work-life of a fashionista.
Dior and I creates identification with a legendary artist through Simons's efforts to live up to the Dior label's quality -- yet while contributing his own originality to the courtier's reputation. Yes, it's a film about Simons's success, but it is also, more importantly, about his allegiance to standards of excellence that a gay pioneer established. It's not a film about fame, wealth, and power but the work and perseverance that come before acclaim.
It is fascinating to see Simons work among the House of Dior's long-established matrons -- the Premieres -- who are not just laborers, they are business women, committed to maintaining the Dior standard. (A remarkable backstage moment shows seamstresses removing appliques like needling through a field of jewels). But when Simons reacts to his predecessor's images he admits feeling challenged by "a legacy so gigantic and sublime."
While gay life in the 21st century may casually appreciate cultural acceptance -- extolling gay celebrities simply for being gay celebrities -- it was trailblazers from the past who struggled for that ease and nonchalance. Morrissey both pondered and extoled it when he contemplated Dior "making the poor rich smile." That great lyric "poor/rich" is a politically astute contrast, holding the rarefied fashion industry to account in an unequal society that also recognizes the dissatisfactions of wealth.
Simons wears Dior's inheritance gallantly, showing only bits of temper and impatience that Tcheng captures freely. (Simons' personal life is unlike the "street boys from Napoli" in Morrissey's suggestion of the promiscuity that Dior sacrificed.) Simons' different approach to couture (and to the demands placed on designers by clients who both envy and insist on their attention) can be seen in his professionalism -- a proficiency and dedication that was ingeniously disguised in Dior's wit. In Tcheng's wise inclusion of historic Dior footage and voiceover, the maestro describes a signature blooming-skirt style as, "I draw flower women." (A lovely example of this can be seen in Jean Seberg's striped peplum dress in Godard's Breathless.)
As designer and careerist, Simons values "the joy of chance." This modest and grateful quotation understates the struggle Morrissey envisioned when his song commemorates Dior as a "Lionized maverick/ Design if you can/ A way to just be a man."
Dior and I opens April 10 in select cinemas. Watch the trailer below: