ARCHIVE: Raf Simons, The Man Behind the Brand

In the grand scheme of fashion, relatively few designers form connections in their respective eras so deeply that they not only captivate their audience in the moment, but also create garments and themes that simultaneously transition seamlessly into the future landscape of fashion. There are the classic masters, Cristóbal Balenciaga, Hubert de Givenchy, Coco Chanel, Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent, and Jeanne Lanvin, who certainly need no introduction nor do they require an explanation as to why they reside in the position of fashion’s most elite.

There are also relatively newer (read: mostly still living) figures that are pushing the industry forward. Azzedine Alaïa, for instance, is a master at flattering the female form, stemming from his deep understanding of a woman’s anatomy and of her essence.

Hussein Chalayan is one of the industry’s most cerebral designers, fashion’s arch avant-gardist, having shown designs including dresses containing moving airplane parts, a robot dress constructed with Swarovski crystals, LED pixelated dresses, and Tyvek garments that resembled furniture and could be folded down to envelope size. The late Alexander McQueen with his bumsters, his frocks made almost entirely of fresh flowers and his armadillo shoes, and his otherworldly runway shows, elevated fashion with his fevered creativity.

Miuccia Prada, John Galliano, Jean Paul Gaultier, Rei Kawakubo, Karl Lagerfeld, and Alber Elbaz are a few of the other names that are commonly referenced when looking to the individuals who are responsible for breaking new ground in the modern era of fashion. These are the individuals who have moved mountains, so to speak, and in many cases, continue to do so.

Raf Simons can also move mountains. He would surely argue that he cannot; he is modest despite his immense success. However, if we take a studied look throughout the fashion industry, how many designers are actually in his league? Not many. 

One of the most obvious points at which to begin an examination of the career of Raf Simons thus far surely would be at Christian Dior, the design house where he took the reigns in 2012. Simons created the house’s Fall 2012 haute couture collection - his first ever - in eight weeks. That collection was his debut for the storied Parisian house, and it was surely the antithesis of a soft opening. As the New York Times’ Suzy Menkes wrote: “A lot was riding on the show, even the future of Dior’s haute couture, which had sagged since the abrupt departure of John Galliano in spring 2011.”

Prior to the show, Emmanuelle Alt, editor in chief of French Vogue, said: “I haven’t been this excited to see a show in a long time.” Her American counterpart, Anna Wintour, an individual known for her icy exterior, smiled during the show. Dior referred to the garments not as a collection but “a manifesto.” Style.com’s Tim Blanks described the scene: “Hysteria,” which certainly sounds far more fitting for a Beatles concert circa 1963 than a Parisian Haute Couture show.

The collection was welcomed not only by the fashion press, but was similarly praised by Simons’ peers and his superiors. Alber Elbaz, the creative director of Lanvin, for instance, was quite taken by Simons’s A/W 2012 couture collection, saying: "[It was] absolutely poetic. It was perfection. Today was a beautiful marriage between a designer and a house." Marc Jacobs, who was still serving as the creative director of Louis Vuitton at the time, called the collection “absolutely magnificent.”

Famed couturier Pierre Cardin told Vogue: “It was very emotional,” admiring the fraîcheur of Simons’s approach and his decision to embark upon his tenure with a collection founded upon a “classic base,” in particular, Christian Dior's New Look, the revolutionary silhouette that put the spotlight on the female form over six decades ago. Following the show, LVMH Chairman Bernard Arnault told the New York Times’ Cathy Horyn: “I think he was the perfect choice.”

That was Simons’s highly anticipated commencement at Dior, his moment on the highest of mountains. However, if we liken Simons to a mountain climber, then we know that he did not begin at the top. In fact, Simons, who was known throughout much of his career to date primarily for his menswear creations (he had not formally designed womenswear upon his appointment at Jil Sander in 2005), began as a fashion outsider, and his journey is equally as intriguing as his destination.

Not an institutionally trained fashion designer, Simons, who hails from Neerpelt, a rural town near the Dutch and German borders, studied industrial design at a small university in Ghenk. In 1991, he began an internship with fellow Belgian, Walter Van Beirendonck, one of the Antwerp Six, the famed collective of designers that helped position the quiet city on the map as an emerging fashion capital.

It was Van Beirendonck who accompanied Simons to his first-ever runway show, Martin Margiela’s S/S 1991 all-white show – an experience that played a significant role in Simons’s transition from industrial design to fashion, as he has stated time and again. Simons frequently indicates that music also plays a meaningful role in his life and career.

In a town as small as Neerpelt, which is, at least in part, a farming town, art and music were the only mechanisms for Simons to keep up with the world at large. He followed the work of Belgian art curator Jan Hoet and listened to bands like Kraftwerk, The Virgin Prunes, The Cramps, New Order, Joy Division, and Sonic Youth, amongst others, and studied album-cover art, particularly that of Peter Saville. These references are rampant in Simons’s work. His Fall/Winter 1998 Radioactivity collection comes to mind instantly.

For the collection, which was dominated by skinny tailoring (think: narrowly-cut shoulders and lapels paired with slightly baggy trousers), Simons derived his inspiration from Kraftwerk, Laurie Anderson, Vanessa Beecroft, the 1980's New Wave movement, and punk. Thereafter, Simons’s Fall/Winter 2003 collection, entitled Closer, also falls into this camp, as it was infused with works from Saville’s archives. Most recently, his Spring/Summer 2015 collection, which consists of uniform-inspired garments adorned by collages that are deeply personal to Simons, included illustrations that read “NO,” certainly a New Order reference.

Beginning in the mid-1990’s, Simons showed his menswear collection in Milan, eventually settling in Paris in 1997. He set out to make his mark on the industry, to “make clothes for a young generation that [he] could relate to,” and his mark, so to speak, really cannot be emphasized sufficiently. The first point that comes to mind is the silhouette, which has since been synonymized with Simons’s moniker. It took the form of minimalist suits that were noticeably slight in the shoulders. The same ones that caused Linda Loppa, head of the fashion department at the Antwerp Royal Academy and a mentor of sorts to Simons to respond with: “Wow, beautiful, but Raf, aren’t they too small?”

But his signature does not halt there. Noteworthy is his choice of models, the pale-skinned boys, who were not actually models, but were street casted at popular teenage hang outs in Antwerp, probably not unlike the ones where Simons and friends would congregate in his early days of designing. Additionally, there is also Simons’s exploration of youth culture. Combined, these elements firmly cemented Simons as one of the most influential menswear designers of the time.

In fact, Cathy Horyn would go on to write in 2005 that Simons was “probably the most influential menswear designer of the last decade.” With this in mind, it is probably most accurate to say that Simons’s Dior debut represents a second major peak in his career, as defining the silhouette, and arguably the greater menswear aesthetic, of a generation is hardly a minor undertaking.

Looking beyond the staple Simons silhouette and his penchant for the interloper, one of the most remarkable aspects of his work is his ability to create garments that were as groundbreaking when they initially hit the runway as they are cohesive with the current landscape of fashion nearly twenty years later.

Whether you pluck the cut-off sleeves and ultra-skinny, sharp tailoring from his S/S 1998 Black Palms collection; the oversized multi-layer looks from his A/W 2001 Riot, Riot, Riot collection; or the faces hidden behind wrap-around scarves and shawls that dominated his S/S 2002 Woe Onto Those Who Spit On The Fear Generation…The Wind Will Blow It Back collection; these elements, for instance, could transition quite fluidly onto a modern day runway.

 Raf Simons F/W 2004 (left) & Louis Vuitton S/S 2018 (right)

Raf Simons F/W 2004 (left) & Louis Vuitton S/S 2018 (right)

This is demonstrative of Simons’s ability to identify and analyze the state of the world at the time and to simultaneously anticipate the times to come; fashion is inherently cyclical after all. Ever the contemplative designer, Simons’s collections are often the embodiment of his interpretation of and comment on any array of external forces and the happenings of the outside world (as fashion often does).

Nearly all of his collections, particularly his early ones, involve a studied look at youth culture and the associated codes (“It was very much related to kids, clubs, bands, the idea of wildness in a way,” he says). Yet, despite each collection’s direct tie to a certain time, in retrospect, we can see that they exhibit a sense of timeless. But certainly do not take my word for it. Look to the archives of many of Simons’s peers and undoubtedly, you will see the dated divide, the failure to transcend from the age of their creation.

A notable exception here is Hedi Slimane, who rose to fame during his seven-year tenure at Dior Homme, beginning in 2000. The rock-n-roll aesthetic, complete with skinny boys in pin-thin trousers, that Slimane embraced at Dior is very much aligned with what he is presently showing at Saint Laurent. Whether Slimane’s work entails the type of agelessness that Simons’s exudes or merely represents a recreation of a past aesthetic, as some critics have suggested, is up for debate.

Regardless, Slimane is one of Simons’s closest rivals, and a mountain climber and mountain mover in his own right. In 2007, upon his departure from Dior Homme, Fashion Wire Daily summed up his tenure, writing: “Slimane leaves Dior with the well-earned reputation as the single most influential men’s designer this century, the most copied of his peers and the only one to achieve the status of a rock star.”

The two designers, who were very much pitted against one another during the Spring/Summer 2013 womenswear show season, may share a similar “skinny boy” aesthetic, but they arguably differ quite a bit in practice. In his position at Saint Laurent, Slimane has been dabbling in the past, both his past (namely, his vision from Dior Homme) and that of the late Yves Saint Laurent himself. Franca Sozzani, editor in chief of Vogue Italia, encapsulated Slimane’s debut collection for Saint Laurent quite well, saying: “[It was] very Yves Saint Laurent.”

While some critics have claimed that Slimane’s recent collections are too closely tied to the past, the result is far from unappealing, and sales are proof. In fact, these collections are currently one of the key sources of growth for Saint Laurent’s parent company, Kering, in the face of nearly non-existent growth for Gucci, a fellow Kering subsidiary.

Simons, on the other hand, largely divorces himself from the past. Indisputably, he is one to employ references, but he is continually moving forward with his distinct brand of minimalism, both experiential and emotional; his sophisticated reworking of youth codes; and his incomparable knack for incorporating contemporary art into his work. He explains his practice matter of factly: “By nature, creative people like to evolve and explore.” As for how he references the past while still moving forward, Simons says: “It’s about dialogue … It’s about the juxtaposition of futurism and the typical Raf Simons thing of what I feel is happening right now in fashion.”

Moreover, the designer has moved forward quite a bit since he launched his eponymous label. While he still hones the youth codes of his own past for references, his focus has noticeably shifted since the launch of his label. His focus has shifted towards a more restrained and futuristic aesthetic, combining technical sportswear and formal tailoring.

In 2005, Jo-Ann Furniss, then the editor of Arena Homme Plus, wrote: "The key turning point was A/W 04-05 (Waves), when the obsessive youth culture codes of his past were turned into clothes that were purely about shape and form." It was around this time that Horyn noted the shift in Simons’s direction, noting: that he had “initiated the shift toward formality […] His clothes have a rightness that is derived from an understanding of proportion.” In this same article, Horyn addressed Simons’s calculated proclivity for accelerative motion: “[He] moves fashion forward in ways that are bracingly logical.”

Despite the numerous accolades that have been attributed to him in connection with his work (i.e., genius, force of nature, natural iconoclast, the great modernist, designer of a generation, one of the most exciting designers working in fashion today, the future of fashion, etc.), Simons appears to pride himself most for creating wearable garments, both for his eponymous label, and for Dior. Simons is straightforward. He shies away from the theatrics of his predecessor, John Galliano, for instance. Speaking out about his distaste for such presentations, he told the Guardian last year: “Kick me out when I'm theatrical.”

However, it would be plainly inaccurate to claim that Simons’s creations lack emotion or that they fail to evoke a greater mood or resonate with the show-goer. He told Vogue not long ago that he wanted “to bring some emotion back, to what I felt in the nineties I see a lot of amazing clothes, but I don’t see a lot of emotion now.”

His eponymous label’s Spring/Summer 2015 show is representative of this, complete with its standing room-only set up (Simons says “you perceive things differently when you're upright”) and eerie atmosphere (red and green lights, the same combination employed on the sets of 1970’s horror films, were utilized).

Thus, in his modest, seemingly quiet way (qualities not unlike his native Antwerp), Simons captivates, and there are sales to back up this assertion. While the vast majority of houses are doing away or have already done away with the arguably impractical and very expensive practice of haute couture, Dior, for instance, has seen a rise in the growth of its collection under Simons’s watch, a testament not only to his ability to balance art and commerce but also to his ability to captivate. Of his role at Dior, Simons told Vogue in 2012 that he has charged himself with making Dior “more than a brand that functions only for a special event.”

He continued on to say: “I don’t think that’s what Christian Dior wanted. He wanted his clothes to be on the street.” As for Simons’s eponymous label, it is growing in size (he team has been expanding a bit of the past several years) but more so, in sales. The success of his online pop up shop with artist Sterling Ruby, In The Name Of, speaks to this point; each look from the duo’s Fall/Winter 2014 that debuted for sale on the site sold out - often within hours.

The pure reach of Simons’s influence demonstrates another one of his most notable successes, especially when it is measured against his tangible presence in the fashion industry. His skinny silhouette was the dominant one of the 90’s and has shaped much of what we see on the runways today. Yet, prior to his appointment at Dior in 2012, and before that, at Jil Sander in 2005, where he spent seven years, he was virtually unknown outside of the small world of European men's fashion. His appointment at Dior and his relatively recent and ongoing collaboration with German sportswear genius adidas, as well as the two flagship Raf Simons standalone stores in Tokyo and Osaka, Japan, certainly increase the exposure of his eponymous label.

Simons’s eponymous label is still operating under the radar quite a bit, for the most mainstream minds, at least. It is a small operation; as of last year, his Antwerp studio consisted of a team of less than a dozen people. Simons seems to lavish in the relatively small-scale operation that is his eponymous label. Privately owned, Simons has complete creative control and commonly refers to the dichotomy in his work between Dior and his own label, the latter of which is quite discernibly more underground and independent.

Outsider, rebellion, isolation, the interzone - all terms with which Simons identifies (and the latter two of which are also Joy Division song titles) - are undeniably definitive of his eponymous label, which was debatably underappreciated when it first hit the scene and certainly when it was first stocked in the United States, further adding to Simons’s mountain climbing, mountain-moving story. Like the designer himself, Simons’s garments are unassuming.

They do not scream, but that does not mean they do not speak or draw attention. Quite the opposite; in fact, Simons’s creations have been heralding a movement of sorts for some time. In addition to the aforementioned silhouette, Simons has had a hand in pioneering a vision of street style that has paved the way for a large handful of designers to follow (think: Kris Van Assche, Lucas Ossendrijver, the array of streetwear-minded designers with whom we have become accustomed over the past several years, and last but quite obviously not least, depending on who you ask, Hedi Slimane).

Simons’s architectural tailoring, stark colorways, youthfully sophisticated garments, and underground themes have birthed an immense following, among fashion enthusiasts and practicing designers, alike, and others can attest to this. Marie-Amelie Sauve, who served as Nicolas Ghesquière’s right hand during his tenure at Balenciaga, encapsulated Simons’s effect quite nicely, saying: “He did everything before anyone else, and everybody has copied him.” Harper’s Bazaar echoed this sentiment years later, writing: “Where he led, others followed.”

In this way, Simons joins the company of the famed Belgians, who began moving mountains some years before him, the ones who set out on a path to elevate Belgian fashion beyond the figurative valley that it was when only Paris, London, Milan, and New York (barely), were on the map in terms of fashion capitals. 

If you were to ask Simons of his influence, he would likely answer as he did when speaking last year of his career up to this point, saying: “You can't move a mountain, because you can't expect that everybody will be with you immediately, inside or outside."

And yet, I do not believe is it a considerable stretch to posit that we are all with Simons in one way or another, whether it be directly, as shoppers of Dior or his eponymous label or as a student who studied under Simons during his tenure at the University of Applied Arts Vienna prior to his Jil Sander appointment, or indirectly, as individuals influenced by his contributions to the industry. In some form or another, the industry and all of those who fall in its periphery are bearing witness to Raf Simons, one of the greatest mountain movers of fashion in our time.

* Simons made his exit from Christian Dior in October 2015 on the heels of his Spring/Summer 2016 collection for the house. In a statement, Simons said: “It is after careful and long consideration that I have decided to leave my position as creative director of Christian Dior's women’s collection. It is a decision based entirely and equally on my desire to focus on other interests in my life, including my own brand, and the passions that drive me outside my work."

In February 2017, he made his debut for Calvin Klein, where he oversees both the menswear and womenswear divisions. 

* This article was initially published in 2014.