ARCHIVE: Raf Simons x Peter Saville, A Meeting of the Minds

For his Fall/Winter 2003 collection, entitled, "Closer," designer Raf Simons was granted full access to the archives of Peter Saville. Rail thin, pale skinned boys walked the runway in garments on which appeared imagery that for fans of Manchurian music would look familiar. Patches that read "New Order," subtle accents, like the "F" logo of the bands' record label, Factory, and images from bands, like Joy Division and New Order's album covers, adorned an array of army-inspired outerwear and hooded sweatshirts. 

AnOther Magazine has since called it "the ultimate pop culture collaboration," with "Saville’s iconic visual accompaniments to the post-punk era clashing with Simons’ idiosyncratic stylings." 

But Saville did not start out in fashion. The Manchester-born graphic artist first put his post-university design skills to work designing posters for The Haçienda nightclub, which was run by the now-defunct Factory Records. A partner in the Manchester-basedrecord label, as well as its artistic director, Saville was tasked with the creation of the Factory artists' record sleeves - the role for which he is best known. 

Inspired by Kraftwerk, a German electronic music band formed by Ralf Hütter and Florian Schneider in 1970, and in particular, their Autobahn album sleeve, Saville would go on to design the sleeves for some of Factory's most acclaimed talents, including Joy Division and New Order, among others. Rarely given any direction from the bands regarding the artwork, Saville says, "I was left to my own devices … I never had to answer to anyone." This was especially true given the "non-commercially structured" nature of Factory, which "allowed us to make statements that we believed in and wanted to make, without much compromise," says Saville.

Beginning in the mid-1980's, when fashion culture was simultaneously being commercialized by high street chains, and coming under the microscopes of then then-budding conglomerates that we now know as LVMH and Kering, Saville was invited by an array of admirers to work on projects outside of the music industry. And so, he created advertising campaigns for Japanese designer Yohji Yamamoto and for John Galliano, who was serving as creative director of Christian Dior at the time. He continued to design album sleeves, such as those for Britpop bands, Pulp and Suede, and worked as a consultant for fashion houses that ranged from Stella McCartney to Givenchy.

Then, in 2000, along with Nick Knight, he launched SHOWstudio, a digital platform that has since pioneered fashion film (a project with which he is no longer associated).

In the meantime, Belgium-born Raf Simons, a formally-educated industrial designer graduated from a small university in the Belgian city of Genk in 1991. Upon attending Martin Margiela’s all-white collection show that year with Antwerp Six member Walter Van Beirendonck, with whom he had an apprenticeship, Simons shifted his focus away from furniture design to fashion.

Almost entirely self-trained when it comes to the design of garments, Simons launched his eponymous label in 1995 in Antwerp. His first few collections were based almost entirely on motifs of subverted school uniforms combined with recurrent references to rave, punk and new-wave. Specifically, this took the form of close-fitting, uniform-inflected tailoring mixed with edgy, youth-culture references: slashed garments, leather, and slouchy knits, and complete with "models" street casted at Antwerp’s common teenage hangouts.

The youth references, themselves, have varied: Some took the form of classic Americana varsity sweatshirts, complete with a "Youngsville University" insignia and prep school blazers paired with shorts (for A/W 1997, editorials for which included boys and girls); the corresponding S/S collection, entitled Teenage Summer Camp (which was emblazoned on the back of workwear shirts, along with the locale "Salt Lake,") was complete with sleeve-less tees bearing a packing list of sorts -- one read: "I have 2 pairs of black jeans, 2 turtle necks, 2 tee shirts" and so on; another with the word "Generation" printed on it a handful of times or the word "Teenage;" and more knitwear.

Writing about the eighties revival in 2000, Vogue’s Hamish Bowles noted that Simons’s “menswear aesthetic champions the robotic look that Kraftwerk’s Ralf, Florian, Karl, and Wolfgang developed.” He has since been labelled by the New York Times' former fashion director, Cathy Horyn in 2005, as "probably the most influential menswear designer of the last decade," certainly referring, at least in part, to his introduction of the the slim cut silhouette in 1995, as distinct from the boxier, roomier shapes that preceded it. 

That same year stylist/editor Marie-Amélie Sauve (Nicolas Ghesquiere's right hand during his tenure at Balenciaga), told the New York Times Magazine: "[Raf Simons] did everything before anyone else, and everybody has copied him."

(Note: Some argue that Hedi Slimane, was, in fact, the one who started the skinny-silhouette menswear revolution in his days at Dior Homme, which commenced in 1996 and lasted until July 2007. Chanel's creative director Karl Lagerfeld, for instance, was so taken by the Slimane skinny silhouette that in late 2000, he decided to lose about 100 pounds in order to adopt Slimane's aesthetic and properly wear the garments Slimane showed). 

Cathy Horyn, however, certainly never fell into that camp, as indicated by a 2004 review she wrote, essentially saying that "without Mr. Simons’s template of slim tailoring and street casting, there would not have been a Hedi Slimane." Even the New York Times seemed to side with Slimane in 2008 when Guy Trebay wrote: "Credit Hedi Slimane or blame him … Within a couple of seasons, the sleekness of Dior Homme suits made everyone else’s designs look boxy and passé, and so designers everywhere started reducing their silhouettes."

In 2002, Simons showed his Fall/Winter 2003 collection, entitled, Closer, which, according to the show notes “reflects on the process of growing up and (re)considering adulthood," citing references that included childhood dress codes, formal business looks and influences from the ghetto. (This was before a noteworthy change in Simons's direction, away from an overarching theme of youth codes and towards an aesthetic more purely governed by shape and form). It was for this collection that Simons was granted full access to the archives of Peter Saville, and the collection, with its seeming ode to Saville, made a lot of sense.

The two seemed like natural partners. For a large part of their respective careers, both men have been largely inspired by youth culture and have worked to explore the "interzone" (a Joy Division song title and a term with which both Saville and Simons identify), the in-between space between design and art, pop and modernism, and fashion and music.

When asked to identify "inter zone," Simons stated: "I can’t define it. I’ve been trying to find out for two decades now and I find myself ending up in interzones without knowing how to define it but it’s something that attracts me very much. [Saville and I] used to create that kind of space and moment in relation to the world."

In fact, Simons has suggested that Saville's work, in addition to that of a few others (Martin Margiela, Walter Van Beirendonck, etc.), is what guided his transition from furniture design to fashion. Of Saville's work, Simons said in an interview with Rolex's The Talks:

One of the first things I picked up when I was very, very young out of a record store was work from Peter Saville, the early things he used to do for Factory Records. I come from a village of 6,000 people, so forget about Berlin, London, New York – I didn’t know anything. So I picked up things because of the imagery. We have to think back in time – no computers, no mobiles, no nothing – it was pure isolation in a way […] And then suddenly there were these things from New Order, Power, Corruption, and Lies with the flowers and the wreath. I was like, “What is that?”

With a bit of context, we look back to Simons' Fall/Winter 2003 collection with its integrations of Simons' personal selection of Saville-designed works, some of which were previously unseen and which range in reference from modernist symbolism - which Saville explored in the late 1970's - to classical art references juxtaposed with complex coding, which Saville began working on in the early 1980's. 

German military parkas and leather Perfecto jackets adorned with Saville's work, hooded sweatshirts layered over turtlenecks and under flowing trench coats, retro-hued cardigans and button up shirts, knitwear, and flat newsboy caps came together to form the collection. More than merely a fan favorite, the collection has influenced an array of collections to come … some as many as ten years later. One, for instance, is Supreme's 2013 Power, Corruption, Lies collection. The NYC-based cult streetwear/skatewear brand covered sweatshirts, footwear and skate decks with Saville's appropriation of Ignace-Henri-Théodore Fantin-Latour's work, Basket of Roses, an image that Simons referenced in his F/W 2003, as derived from Saville's 1983 New Order album cover.

In addition to their collective influence, both Saville and Simons continue to make their marks individually. Maybe more important than any of his individual projects in the fields of art, music or fashion is Saville's ability to complete the cycle among the three, and the same goes for Simons with his work in fashion, art, and beyond (think: Kvadrat x Raf Simons). 

Of Simons, Saville told Dazed & Confused a few years ago: "Raf is one of the great pioneers of convergence, transporting the art of sub-cultures into contemporary fashion." While Simons's ability to channel sub-cultures and express youth codes at Dior is somewhat limited, he has his eponymous label for this; "an interestingly awkward position," he calls it. For Simons, his eponymous label is a haven for creativity and an outlet for his vision for "outsider" boys, of which he says: "It is an independent company and it is an approach that I like. Its a lot about experiment and its a lot about freedom."

* This article was initially published in April 2013.