Fashion is a very cinematic subject. Oscar-nominated films like Phantom Thread and Netflix’s Halston series show the drama behind the design.
Filmmaker Frédéric Tcheng knows this better than most, as the director of the award-winning Dior and I and the documentary Halston, and part of the filmmaking team of two other fashion documentaries about the designer Valentino and legendary Harper’s Bazaar editor Diana Vreeland.
Valentino: The Last Emperor
A graduate of Columbia University’s film school, Tcheng grew up loving films like Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor.
Curiously enough, towards the end of film school, a friend, Matt Kapp, asked him to work on a documentary he and director Matt Tyrnauer were making called Valentino: The Last Emperor, about the imperious Italian fashion maestro and his complicated relationship with longtime partner Giancarlo Giammetti.
“They were going to start shooting this documentary in Italy and France, but they were going to need someone in France to help them rent a car and things like that,” says Tcheng, who is French-Chinese, born and raised in Lyon before he moved to America to study film. “So I started as a production assistant, really, and worked my way up to eventually become a co-producer and co-editor of that film.”
Tcheng spent a lot of time with Valentino — “we shot for several years” — and says Valentino is very much as he is portrayed in the film.
“Valentino: The Last Emperor was, to me, much more than a fashion documentary,” he says. “For all of us involved, we didn't really come from the fashion world. I do like looking stylish, for sure, but I don't think I'm a fashionista.
“We saw it as a great story — a great human story of a partnership. And that's how I've approached every film, really. Not necessarily as a fashion insider, because I've never been inside the fashion world. I've always been a filmmaker looking at that world, and trying to find universal stories in them.”
Tcheng says he fell in love with documentaries after working on Valentino: The Last Emperor. It taught him “the way that you can look at reality through your lens, and sort of interpret reality for the viewer.”
Diana Vreeland: The eye has to travel
Three years later Tcheng worked as part of a team again on Diana Vreeland: The Eye Has To Travel, which was directed by Lisa Immordino Vreeland, Diana’s granddaughter-in-law.
“I was personally fascinated with Vreeland’s philosophy of life,” says Tcheng, who helped direct, write and edit. “She is part of a long tradition of thinkers/ poets who exulted artifice, dating back to Baudelaire and Oscar Wilde. She channeled that through fashion, and expressed how fashion could be a place where you could invent yourself. She revealed the creative aspect of fashion.”
Tcheng loved collaborating on these fashion docus. On this one, especially, he learned a lot about the writing process, which would be crucial in preparing for his next film, in which he would be the main auteur.
Dior and I
After the House of Christian Dior fired John Galliano for his anti-Semitic comments in 2011, they hired Belgian designer Raf Simons — fresh from a stint at Jil Sander — as creative director.
Tcheng had read Christian Dior’s autobiography and thought it would make great material for a movie. It was then a matter of convincing Dior owner LVMH and Simons that he could make a film about the transition at Dior and Simons creating his first haute couture collection in the span of eight months.
Just as Simons felt there were eerie parallels between his life and Christian Dior’s, Tcheng felt that he and Simons were in similar positions: “On a much smaller scale, of course, but he was doing his first couture collection, and I was doing my first film directing by myself. So there was a nervousness that allowed me to really understand somehow what Raf was going through, even though what he was going through was even more nerve making.”
When Tcheng started shooting Simons, he read Christian Dior’s memoir again. “I would be shooting during the day and at night I would be reading the autobiography, and to me it was so striking how much their experiences were similar and had parallels.”
In Dior and I, Tcheng superimposes footage of Christian Dior creating his legendary New Look over Simons’ white toile dresses taking shape on the mannequins in the darkened atelier during his critical launch in 2012, and the juxtaposition is so poetic and beautiful it brought tears to my eyes.
“I found it fascinating to be able to portray this designer, Raf Simons, who had to step into the shoes of this legend, Dior,” Tcheng says.
Also witnessing the scale of the effort and collaboration required to produce a couture collection in eight months — and feeling the pressure himself of having to produce a film in the same amount of time — Tcheng turned a particularly humane eye on Dior’s two premières, Florence Chehet and Monique Bailly, who supervised the dress- and suit-making teams, respectively, as well as the team members themselves, whom you get to know by the end of the film and cheer on as they arrive at the fashion show eight months later to see the fruits of their labor.
Wandering around the venue, mouths open in wonder at the million colorful flowers Simons has covered the walls with, then seeing the particular dress they hand-sewed come to life on a swanlike model, is a supremely satisfying and moving ending to this modern fashion fairytale, which won the Documentary Special Jury Award at the Seattle International Film Festival.
Two years before the Netflix series, Tcheng wrote, directed and edited Halston, a documentary about the flamboyant designer that investigates how he lost his eponymous empire noir-style, narrated by a private eye played by pioneering fashion influencer Tavi Gevinson.
“Originally I myself was the seeker,” Tcheng admits. “But when I was doing the research for Halston, I just found myself completely intrigued. There was an aura of mystery around him, this enigma of who he was. And I began investigating, reading, and was fascinated with the investigation itself. I was getting documents from the Halston estate but also documents from the businessman, and I was trying to parse out the truth. For me it was a little bit of a whodunit. Halston had an incredible rise and an incredible fall, and the question always remains: Why did he lose his empire?
“The businessman that I talked to had one version of it, and then Halston had a different version of it. Others thought it was Studio 54 and there were many different theories, so I was the original investigator, and I wanted to put the viewer in the same position.”
Since the designer had passed away decades earlier, Tcheng used testimonies from people who knew him and archival material, but left room for complexity and ambiguity because, like Rashomon or one of his favorite movies, Citizen Kane, he didn’t think there was necessarily just one truth.
“I think there are different ways to look at the truth,” he says. “Another element that was really important is the business storyline: I felt like there was such a strong art-versus-commerce story with Halston, and the way he fought the corporation that owned his name was remarkable and almost like a thriller.”
The only thing he’ll say about Netflix’s Halston series is, “I think fiction is very different than reality. I like the complexity, the depth and mystery of reality, and fiction has to be something different.”
Tcheng, who has also done commercial work for Vogue, H&M, Jimmy Choo, Ferragamo, and is starting work on a new fashion documentary, has understandably been typecast as a fashion documentarian. “It's a curse, but it's also a blessing because I get to actually tell stories about the fashion world in a different way.”
He would love to break out of this niche, however, and make documentaries about other subjects that fascinate him, like music. “I've had lifelong obsessions with Prince and David Bowie,” he says. “I was actually writing a David Bowie script at some point, and maybe in the future I will be able to revise this project. I would love to do a documentary on Janelle Monae.”
As for me, I would love to see whatever documentary this talented filmmaker creates next.