GOLDFINGERS: High fashion’s most secretive activity is getting the cinematic treatment.
“Haute Couture,” a film by French director Sylvie Ohayon, focuses on the lives of the seamstresses who produce exclusive made-to-measure dresses for the world’s 1 percent, and the house of Dior plays a central role in the plot.
The story centers on Esther, a “première d’atelier,” or head seamstress, played by Nathalie Baye, who is preparing her last collection before retiring from the French fashion house. One day, she has her purse snatched by Jade, played by rising star Lyna Khoudri, a young girl who is later filled with remorse and comes to return it.
Against expectations, Esther offers her an apprenticeship, and the two women’s complex realities become intertwined.
Ohayon said the plot was inspired by her own relationships with her daughter and stepdaughter, her fascination with the craftsmanship of couture, and her belief that France is a meritocracy where people with special skills will often find a helping hand.
“I wanted to film the seamstresses at work and to show that behind this splendor, there are normal people who create magic,” she said in a statement.
Indeed, the film eschews traditional images of runway shows to focus on the behind-the-scenes word of the seamstresses. Ohayon did add a small touch of glamour by setting the atelier in a disaffected government ministry, whose gilded decor contrasts with the clinical whiteness of the actual Dior couture workshops.
Justine Vivien, a costume designer who works for the Dior Héritage archive, was a technical adviser on the shoot. The brand’s 1949 Francis Poulenc dress, with its pleated panels inspired by fans, makes an appearance, alongside more contemporary designs that bear a resemblance to the work of Maria Grazia Chiuri, artistic director of women’s collections at Dior.
However, the film portrays the brand’s creative director as a man, who makes only fleeting appearances.
A spokeswoman for Dior declined to comment on the movie, although parent company LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton featured a clip, and Baye as a guest speaker, at a recent event celebrating its craftsmanship training program. The group is on a drive to recruit young people amid a shortage of specialized workers in areas like leather goods production and retail.
Vivien worked with the actresses to help them get a feel for fabrics and for the kind of gestures that come naturally to experienced seamstresses, known in the trade as “petites mains,” which translates literally as “little hands.” The tag line of the film is: “The beauty of the gesture.”
“Acquiring the automatic reflexes of couture in the space of three hours is virtually impossible,” she noted.
“During our first meeting, I tried to make the actresses dream and to make them aware of what they would have in their hands: precious materials and dresses that make the whole world fantasize. I explained to them that you don’t make it into haute couture without passion, hard work and perseverance. It’s a very selective profession,” Vivien said.
Khoudri said the film was all about confronting prejudices. Her character, Jade, is initially like a fish out of water in the highly codified world of couture, but is curious enough to stick around. “That’s what I find touching about her: she’s trying, she works hard, because she sees in it something new and she needs to find meaning,” she said.
The film will be released by UGC in France on Wednesday.