by Alice Fisher
It is quite wrong to say I'm a minimalist," declares Raf Simons, a designer who has been routinely, reverently, described as a minimalist since he delivered his first collection 18 years ago. "I have shown work in my own brand [menswear label Raf Simons] that has been completely not minimal. When I worked at Jil Sander, the heritage of that brand was actually purist. Jil was such a purist she even threw away her own archive." He pauses to look part impressed, part alarmed by this rigour. "My point is, you get stamped all the time: conceptual designer, minimal designer… but I don't have to be the avant-garde kid now: I'm not 25, I'm 45."
For a man who has always striven to make his work modern rather than conforming to any particular -ism or -ist, it must be frustrating to be defined by his past. Even if it is a past full of clothes that have been adored by critics and that have had a wide enough impact to affect the way people have dressed, filtering down to the high street in the form of tight suits in the past decade and neon flashes in the present. Though his work at the Raf Simons label, started in his native Belgium in 1995, and as creative director of Jil Sander menswear and womenswear from 2005-2012, played with prescriptive ideas, it wasn't driven by them.
If you really want to pin down his modus operandi, it is to explore new ideas. Something he's shown in every collection since he became creative director for the house of Christian Dior in April 2012. His new role is one of the most influential in fashion: Dior, the jewel in the crown of LVMH, the world's largest luxury conglomerate owned by French businessman Bernard Arnault, is one of the few truly global fashion brands. It is not, by any stretch of the imagination, a job for a minimalist.
"For me, it's more interesting to think of what I will not be," he says. "I will never be theatrical, that I know. Kick me out when I'm theatrical – I think it's disgusting. The only thing I haven't been called is a less heavyweight word. Like nature, or flower, or playful, which is very much in me."
He doesn't look very playful as he says this. Rather formidable, in fact, sitting cross-legged and straight-backed in his dogtooth check jacket and slim black trousers, stark against the white panelled backdrop of a salon at Dior's avenue Montaigne HQ in Paris. He says what he loves is dialogue. It is a debate about clothes and the lives of those who wear them that he has championed throughout his career.
He launched his menswear label after working with Walter van Beirendonck, one of the original "Antwerp Six" – a group of avant-garde Belgian designers whose radical vision influenced fashion in the 1980s. Simons had originally trained in industrial design, but used to sneak away from his work placement at a factory, where he was meant to be designing crates to hold 24 beers, to work for Van Beirendonck. When he launched Raf Simons he used models cast from Antwerp's streets. He'd run a minibus of these kids along with any family members who wanted to go along for the ride to his Paris show on a fashion awayday. He talked to the boys about their lives and their opinions on his clothes. "These kids, they didn't care. If one in 40 said [your design] is shit, you thought: he has no taste. If 20 said it, you think: maybe this isn't what this generation is interested in."
Now he applies the same courteous interest to women buying luxury ready-to-wear from Dior, one of the top houses in the international fashion market. They may be unlikely to tell him his clothes are shit, but these women are just as opinionated as his Belgian kids and he wants to hear what they think. "For me, I work in tune," he explains. "I love the active/reactive thing. Fashion is a melting pot. I need to have a direct dialogue with women, with colleagues, with people," he explains. "You sniff it up, you hear it, one thing brings you to another. You learn and read from reactions. Because of the size and history of the house of Dior, there's dialogue all the time, which is fascinating. It's interesting to have dialogue with the world."
It seems to be working. He's produced seven collections of modern tailoring, shimmering ballerina skirts and colourful, sexy bustiers; clothes that investigate and innovate the tropes of couture and the feminine ideal that form the legacy of Christian Dior. Clothes that are playful and clever and very wearable. They have also been financially successful – the brand's global sales rose 17% in 2012.
Though Dior's original house vision was simple, updating it for today's increasingly complicated fashion market is no small feat. Simons' approach has been inspired. His last two shows – resort 2014 and couture autumn/winter 2013 – were bigger and more varied than these collections typically are. The pieces he presented moved significantly away from the traditions of Dior. At resort, the lace and the flowers were mixed with zips and a sporty feel; at couture – a fundamentally European artform – African, Asian and American motifs were given equal space on the catwalk. It's a smart proposition for how a fashion house equally stabilised and held down by the weight of its history can move forward. The focus on couture is particularly interesting. Sales have risen 24% during Simons' time at Dior, and though it seems like an archaic artform to most of us – fashion's "dusty sister", as Simons puts it – he's fascinated by it. "I think choice is a big luxury these days. I want to offer possibility and direction. In couture, when look number one to number 45 is very much about one thing, it's controlling. It's not how young people see the world."
Though he's open to new ideas and ways of looking at the world, there is one thing Simons has as a constant. The influence of art. This love is at the fore in all his work at Dior – in the Andy Warhol illustrations that pepper his autumn/winter 2013 collection and the surrealist designs that shape his knitwear – but it is also apparent throughout his career. His last Raf Simons show was set in the Paris outpost of the Gagosian. The art references during the Jil Sander years ranged from the pop of Yves Klein blue in his 2008 spring/summer collection to the more obscure influence of ceramicist Pol Chambost in 2009. "I need art," says Simons. "I cannot live without it. Ce n'est pas possible. It's like air."
Art shaped his worldview long before he knew fashion existed. Simons was raised in the tiny village of Neerpelt in the Belgian province of Limburg, "between farms and disconnected from culture", by his parents Jacques Simons, an army night watchman, and Alda Beckers, a cleaner. He went to a "very dusty" school run by priests and focused on mathematics and Latin. "I was well bored, but I took it seriously because my parents said once, when I was 15, 'You'd better take it seriously or you might end up doing the things we do.' I always remembered it. So I would sit on a bench doing Latin, thinking, 'Shit!'
"All I had for culture was a record store and a television. My dad was a sports person, and when you're brought up on football then, bah, you look for something else. One summer  an important Belgian art curator, Jan Hoet, did an ongoing project called Chambres d'Amis [in which works of art were hung in private homes]. I was intrigued by it. Every day I followed it on television and I travelled to Ghent, the city where it happened." he could he started a personal art collection – which includes an eclectic mix of contemporary artists such as Sterling Ruby (who designed the interior of Simons' Tokyo store in 2008), sculptor Olafur Eliasson and George Condo – and he has worked as a consultant for the Cigrang Freres art collection in Belgium. He thinks that one day he'll move into the art world professionally. "It's a very beautiful environment. Most of my close friends are artists, so I wouldn't ever want to be in a position where I needed to make money from an artist. Curating, though, I find super."
As soon as he could he started a personal art collection – which includes an eclectic mix of contemporary artists such as Sterling Ruby (who designed the interior of Simons' Tokyo store in 2008), sculptor Olafur Eliasson and George Condo – and he has worked as a consultant for the Cigrang Freres art collection in Belgium. He thinks that one day he'll move into the art world professionally. "It's a very beautiful environment. Most of my close friends are artists, so I wouldn't ever want to be in a position where I needed to make money from an artist. Curating, though, I find super."
His face lights up when he talks about art and it's nice to see such a warm smile. In a business renowned for neuroticism and bitchiness, Simons has a reputation for being one of the nicest men in fashion – a man who personally makes sure that journalists at his shows are given the access they need and answers every question with grave respect. Even the one – which still makes me cringe – that I asked him about the weather after the resort 2014 show held in May. His driver, who shuttles him between France and Belgium, is given food to take home by Simons' mother when he drops the designer in his homeland. "Well I'm not always sunshine," he says. "I can be a meanie. But I don't want to hurt people because I know how it feels to be treated badly."
He thinks his attitude is down to how and where he grew up. "I don't know about hierarchy. I think it's a psychological thing. But then why should I behave differently to the cleaning lady in the house to Mr Arnault [who owns it]? We are all humans."
His approach to his career in fashion is as pragmatic as to the people working within the industry. He already says he knows when it will be time to quit. "My thought process never stops. My ideas have always been such a natural process, they overlap in a constant flow. It's not a calming thing. I have to text my ideas to myself or run quickly to the office to sketch them down. I have a sketchbook next to my bed because I wake up from it sometimes – but not every day, don't think I'm a freak.
"So I said to myself 18 years ago that when I have to think too hard, sitting at my desk, that's seriously the day that I have to get out." Hopefully it won't happen too soon. But Simons looks quite fascinated by the idea. He looks happy and open. Interested in what the future holds.