Raf Simons on His Love-Hate Relationship with Modern Day Fashion

The following is an excerpt from Daphne Merkin's article, which appears in the March issue of Elle magazine

Raf Simons, the 46-year-old, boyish-looking Belgian with the thoughtful gaze who has headed Dior since 2012, in the wake of John Galliano's rancorous departure, is very much the fashion designer of the moment—the figure, indeed, who is pegged to give this somewhat beleaguered multibillion-dollar business a newly conceived, not to mention thrilling, momentum. Yet he comes across as anything but a fashion diva caught up in the ruffles of his own ego, blind to all but the glory of couture, haute or bas. Instead he is a man of many interests, including art, film, flowers, and music, and an entirely personable individual, one who carries himself with an air of dignity but without any of the sweltering amour propre that might be expected from someone who has vaulted to the top of his field in a relatively short time.

It is 8:30 on a rainy morning in early November, and I'm having breakfast with Sidney Toledano, the president and CEO of Dior, at Le Parker Meridien Hotel in Manhattan. As we talk over eggs and toast, it seems clear that what really stokes Toledano's passion for the business is his vision of Dior as being imbued with a sense of family, of concern for interpersonal relations. The way in which Simons was deemed as suited to that aspect of the house—or as Toledano put it, "how he cares about someone else"—seems as important in the decision to hire him, especially post-Galliano, as his having jibed with the aesthetic of the brand.

"We talked a lot about how he foresaw working with people. The atelier was very good," he goes on, referring to the men and women who actually make the clothes. "We needed to bring in someone with true charisma," which might be another way of saying someone who was sure of himself without being high-handed. "There are many designers with talent," Toledano notes, "but Raf has a kind of maturity and knows how to engage in dialogue. At the end of the day, he has to make decisions on the look, but how you explain decisions is important. He has a very strong point of view, but he doesn't have a diva attitude."

Later that same day, I meet Simons at the downtown hotel where he's staying. He bounds over to my table wearing a sweater and jeans and smelling deliciously soapy. Within minutes, he is talking avidly about films he's recently seen, the good (Under the Skin and Holy Motors) as well as the bad (Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), which he enjoys almost as much. Just as he is hitting his stride, explaining why he likes the movie Bridesmaids and is a fan of Susan Sarandon, I nudge him in the direction of clothes. By his own account, he has something of a "love-hate affair" with his chosen métier—one that results, it seems to me, in a productive and intriguing tension.

There is the side of him that regards dressmaking with a degree of impatience bordering on disdain; he refers to the growing "boredom" he senses with fashion, not because the clothes are simple (Helmut Lang is his favorite designer) but because the "access is too easy" and "too much gets smashed in people's faces. Fashion is now pop, where it used to be a niche. It moves with such speed," he says, that "sometimes it leads to a lack of depth. The mystique is gone. Now being a fashion designer is like becoming a lawyer." He pauses, then adds, as though this next thought is something he's wrestled with and finally accepted, though just barely: "Fashion is overtly about commerce. That's okay."

Then there is the side of Simons that is "conscious of the power of a house like Dior" and the lineage that comes with it. He's fascinated by "the possibility of construction—how volume is created"—as exercised by the "atelier of 80 women who understand better than me the DNA of the house." (Dior has separate ateliers for couture and ready-to-wear.) He goes on to explain that, in contrast to a lot of fashion, "which is based on the treatment of the outer shell—embroidery, prints—I prefer to reinvestigate the architectural aspect of a garment, making lots of variations in terms of shape."