Raf Simons: The Early Years
It’s difficult to know where to begin when analysing Raf Simons as a fashion director. Born in Belgium in 1968, Simons began his journey into fashion in 1990 with an internship at the Antwerp office of Belgian designer Walter Van Beirendonck. The internship involved Simons working on the design and decoration of Walter’s showrooms. It was Van Beirendonck who first introduced Simons to a fashion show.
“As a student I always thought that fashion was a bit superficial, all glitz and glamour, but this show changed everything for me. I walked out of it and I thought, That’s what I’m going to do. That show is the reason I became a fashion designer.” Raf Simons
By 1991 he had graduated in Industrial Design and Furniture Design. It was during his time as an undergraduate where he became friends with the likes of Olivier Rizzo, an established stylist Raf often collaborates with. Though now graduated, Raf’s internship lasted until 1993. Linda Loppa, head of the fashion department where Raf was interning, was key in encouraging Raf to completely alter his own destiny and pursue fashion design.
After a year crafting his menswear collection, his eponymous menswear label was born. His minimalistic style possesses heavy traces of youth culture and futurism. Raf himself admits he questions his young Antwerp scouted models on the fits they adorn. If one or two models despise his collection, he recognises the particular models lack of taste. If multiple models dislike their fits, he equally recognises the weak connection built between his outfits and youth culture.
‘Sometimes they say: “I think it looks like shit.” These kids from Antwerp, they don’t care. If one in 40 say it’s shit, you think: he had no taste. If 20 say it, you think: maybe this isn’t what this generation is interested in.’
The start of the new millennium brought forth a teaching role at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. A role held by the likes of Vivienne Westwood and Helmut Lang. Simons had momentarily stepped away from fashion at this moment. The business side of fashion had taken a toll on Raf’s creative flow. His new teaching role would be fulfilled for five years while planning and executing his various collections for his own label.
Riot! Riot! Riot!
This small sabbatical only helped brew up expectation for his iconic return to fashion with a much smaller company and design team. This was Simons’ attempt to downsize in order for his creativity to surface once more. The result was his Fall 2001 show, and boy was it iconic. The show was titled “Riot! Riot! Riot!” and the underlaying theme was evident from the very beginning. The collection was a radical new style from Simons.
Allow me to set the scene. A damp, dull warehouse juxtaposed with fashion’s finest. A huge chasm seen by the models on stage to the audience, so profoundly entranced. Predominantly black fabrics were utilised in typical Raf Simons style.
The streetwear pieces had oversized hoodies, trench coats and bomber jackets. The highlight piece has to be the MA-1 riot bomber pieced together using army surplus material. The bomber features images of missing Manic Street Preacher’s guitarist Richard James. Richard James disappeared in 1995 and is thought to have committed suicide soon after. Current market value is upwards of £40,000. The piece has been styled by the likes of Kanye West, Kim K and more recently, Drake in the music video of his latest single Toosie Slide.
SS02 Woe Onto Those Who Spit On The Fear Generation…the Wind Will Blow It Back
This collection is definitely a favourite amongst Raf Simons fans. The ‘Fear Generation’ collection perpetuates a mix of doomsday meets Assassin’s Creed. The fits are monochromatic looks of black, white, and red. The slogan embellished on some of the fits reads, “We Are Ready and Willing To Ignite, Just Born To Late”. Some of the models held flares adding to the fear and chaos the show looked to portray. At the very heart of the collection lays the portrayal of youth culture. A rebellious generation ready and willing to embrace the chaos. This is what menswear should be. Bold and unyielding.
The reason this lives on in the hearts of many who witnessed the collection are the events which followed months after. 9/11 marked one of the most disastrous events of the millennia. Events which would influence the world for years to come. The eerie foreshadowing this collection has makes it nothing short of an inadvertent masterpiece.
2005 marks the 10th anniversary of Raf’s label. A glorious 10 years for Raf, with the glory days not quite over yet. For 2005 was the year Raf was approached by struggling brand Jill Sanders.
At this point it is interesting to note that Raf has no experience in womenswear and though his work is well recognised, he has not yet worked for a brand with the weight of presence that Jill Sanders offers. Prada group, parent company of Jill Sanders recognised the potential Raf could bring to the brand. Jill Sanders is known for their minimalistic tailored looks. Raf was the perfect match with his 2006 Fall collection epitomising the brand to a T. When it came to crafting the menswear collections, Simons’ experience and expertise in suit tailoring and design was called upon. The brands biggest sales came from men’s and women’s suits.
I want to briefly mention spring summer 2009 as the womenswear collection is truly outstanding. I had initially added one of the dresses to my Instagram story so you may recognise the piece.
The same dress adorned by model Miranda Kerr for the Met Gala.
The whole collection was an investment into pure minimal aesthetic. There was huge emphasis on the cut-outs owing to a sense of freedom and willingness to break free from the dress in a literal sense and perhaps from societies limitations in a more figurative sense. Not the first time Simons has portrayed an idea of freedom and rebelliousness. There is a more notable touch of elegance embedded into each design as opposed to the rebellious “Riot! Riot! Riot!” menswear collection. Raf’s tenure at Jill Sanders came to a sombre end in 2012 after the house’s namesake founder returned back to the brand.
The house of Dior were keen to appoint Raf after his successful spell at Jill Sanders. As of April 2012 Dior named Simons as the artistic director for women’s haute couture, ready-to-wear, and accessory collections. Haute couture originates in France and describes tailoring hand crafted and high quality garments specifically to a clients needs.
Raf’s debut Dior collection was the haute couture fall 2012 collection. He instantly set the dialogue for how he plans to add his vision to this luxury house. The bar hourglass silhouette is a staple for the brand and Raf utilised this perfectly in some of the dresses on display.
His Ready-To-Wear Fall 2013 collection introduced Andy Warhol inspired themes. Raf made it known that he was not afraid to experiment with colours and textures and did this with immaculate effect for this collection.
2013 was the year Raf Simons collaborated with Adidas presenting a new take on the classic Stan Smiths. The drop was very popular amongst sneakerheads with the letter ‘R’ embellished through the leather. A minimal style that had Simons fans in love.
Fast forward 2 years Raf presents his Spring 2016 collection. It would be his last collection before his resignation. I won’t speak too much on the collection itself. The collection epitomised his time at Dior: simply elegant. The looks were more commercial than conceptual and so nothing truly spoke out as ground breaking.
Whilst on the topic of commerciality, since Raf’s arrival, Dior sales rose by 60%. Given such a positive turnover, it is difficult to understand what motivated the Belgian designer to part ties with such an established house. I suspect that whilst Raf loved designing womenswear, he would have liked to return to his own men’s label. It can also be said that the pressure of handling 6 shows a year could have hugely disrupted Raf’s creative process. With such little time between shows I suspect Raf yearned for a break from the high paced house of Dior.
“When you do six shows a year, there’s not enough time for the whole process. Technically, yes — the people who make the samples, do the stitching, they can do it. But you have no incubation time for ideas, and incubation time is very important.“
Enter Calvin Klein.
End of Part 1