Raf Simons took over the helms of Jil Sander in 2006. Since then he has worked hard to reposition the brand at the height of the luxury market, not only satisfying the German label’s loyal fanbase, but also recruiting a legion of new fans.
Raf Simons may not have been awake long, but he looks fresh faced in a crisp black shirt, paint splattered shorts and Prada brogues. It’s midday and the Jil Sander headquarters – a stunning, modernist building on Foro Buonaparte in central Milano – is flooded with sunlight. The floor to ceiling glass doors to the show space (where the men’s and womenswear collections are presented each season) have been flung open looking out on to the sun-drenched street below. The team have gathered for lunch – a healthy spread of fresh vegetables, pasta, salad and strawberry cream cake (baked that morning by Jil Sander’s Head of Communication, Andreas Bergbaur). When Raf enters the room, he greets each member of his team with a kiss on the cheek before they sit down to eat.
“I have this strong desire with Jil Sander to open it up, to be extreme. This company has a lot of possibility in the future, and a lot of freedom to rebuild.”
In the adjacent room waits a crowd of impossibly good-looking boys, slouched on chairs and sat cross-legged on the floor, listening to iPods, texting their girlfriend/ boyfriend/family/friends, smoking cigarettes and waiting patiently for the casting session to begin. With the spring/summer 12 Jil Sander menswear show just eight days away, there’s a palpable air of excitement running like electricity through the team. “Last night was the last good night’s sleep I will get,” Raf jokes. “For the next eight days I will be locked in here from morning to night!”
Since taking over the helms of Jil Sander on 1st July 2006, Raf has worked hard to reposition the brand at the height of the luxury market, not only satisfying the German label’s loyal fanbase, but also recruiting a legion of new fans. Today Jil Sander is once again the house every model wants to walk for, every magazine wants to write about and every fashion lover wants to wear. It’s been a long hard slog for the designer, who built his reputation as a radical menswear designer in his native Belgium, and took over the helms of the luxury house during a challenging time. Founded by Jil Sander in Hamburg in 1973, the label’s passion for clean, utilitarian silhouettes, exceptional craftsmanship and innovative materials (Sander was the first designer to bring Japanese fabrics to Europe), perfectly tapped into the mood of a generation. The German designer championed modernity and an elegant, stripped back sophistication, and together with designers Helmut Lang, Prada and Calvin Klein pioneered the 90s trend for minimalism. Despite steady growth, things weren’t all plain sailing and in 1999 Sander sold her label to the Prada group, only to leave four months later. She briefly returned in May 2003, before departing for good in November 2004. Her comings and goings rocked the house to its very core. “It was a very troubled environment,” Raf confirms, as we take a seat in a meeting room to steer clear of preparation for the show. “There were a lot of problems and it was something I had to address before accepting the role.”
Born in Neerpelt, Belgium in 1968, Raf didn’t enter the fashion industry via your conventional route. Instead, he studied industrial design at the Genk Design Academy, and on graduating began a career as a furniture designer. The emergence of the Antwerp Six (a group of influential, avant-garde designers from Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts) and an internship at Walter Van Bierndonk’s design studio swiftly changed his direction, with Raf debuting his own name men’s collection in Milan in 1995.
Raf took over the helms of Jil Sander eleven years later, presenting his first menswear collection for autumn/winter 07, followed by his debut womenswear collection – despite no former womenswear experience – in September of the same year. “I was just this young kid from Antwerp,” he recounts lighting a cigarette and taking a sip of coffee, “who’d only done menswear, so I was apprehensive as to what everybody would say, but it wasn’t like that. I had a very welcoming reaction, which was great.” Raf’s independent, free-spirited approach, precise cuts and dedicated research into new silhouettes injected new life into Jil Sander. While his passion for music, art and contemporary cultures infiltrated into his designs, offering a poetic quality that immediately appealed to the new generation.
For womenswear autumn/winter 11 Raf drew inspiration from the late American photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe to create a visionary collection that offered the perfect hybrid between skiwear and haute couture. The Jil Sander models strode around the show space like a team of downhill racers. Sharp, ergonomic silhouettes accentuated graceful, athletic frames, while expertly cut fabrics surged voluptuously around the body in a powerful, aerodynamic fashion. Standout pieces included padded cocoon dresses in bright primary colours, luxuriously soft cashmere sweaters in acid yellow and green (perfect for a spot of après-ski) and rose printed midnight blue belted coats, dresses and boots inspired by Lyon silk house, Bucol. Silk T-shirts came duvet padded to create shape (and protection) around the torso, while stirrup trousers were pulled tight through craftily engineered holes in the heel of the boots. Models’ hair came slicked up upon the head like ice-cream swirls, or concealed neatly beneath bright cashmere ski caps. Lips were a flash of bright red and eye shadow an icy shade of blue. A soundtrack of howling arctic winds, Hitchcock and hip hop completed Raf’s vision of a stellar collection that was futuristic and essential for modern living. Intelligent and measured, Raf takes his time to respond to questions, but when he does it is considered and from the heart.
You took over the helms of Jil Sander in 2006. What was it about the brand that you identified with?
I think it was the purity and the sense of serenity. In the 90s, Jil Sander captured the direction of the time, it was very minimal and something that I naturally understood and felt attracted to. The second reason I took the role was because Jil Sander was such a big brand, compared to my own menswear label. To step into a huge environment with lots of employees and different branches is something I’ve wanted to experience since childhood.
How did you approach the first collection?
My first collection was very linked to the brand’s heritage and the process of how Jil developed a collection. Jill did not collect a lot of story-based inspiration. Instead she worked very much out of material, from a laboratory approach – how fabric performs, how it could be developed. At the beginning it was important for me to follow Jil’s attitude. I used that thinking process to approach the things Jil had not yet focussed on, taking an abstract approach, while still addressing important factors such as the Jil Sander woman’s need to be free and to aspire towards something historical.
Your last two collections felt like a new direction in terms of shape, colour and silhouette, I loved them.
Thank you. I have this strong desire with Jil Sander to open it up, to be extreme. This company has a lot of possibility in the future, and a lot of freedom to rebuild. I really believe that I can keep on building on the idea of purism and minimalism; starting with colour and building slowly from there. I think the African collection was a breaking point [spring/summer 09], because it was literary. I wanted to explore everything that was so-called ‘taboo’ – an odd culture, an odd time, accessories, eveningwear... The autumn/ winter 11 collection is very related to last summer’s collection. Last summer was a reaction. It was a reaction against what was going on in general, the new minimalism in fashion. With Jil, the starting point was to do the complete opposite and do maximalism!
Do you think there’s room for both minimalism and maximalism in one’s wardrobe?
[Laughs] You tell me! You know, it worked out. We received a fantastic reaction and we opened a very new interesting dialogue with the audience, which, I think, is essential.
The cultural references in your work are always huge. Where do you start?
My research is always growing. I need it for myself to keep myself excited about the possibilities. At the beginning I was rejecting it because I did not perceive Jil Sander as an environment where it was possible to say, ‘Ok I’m going to do a disco collection, or an African collection, with eveningwear and lots of jewellery’.
Out of respect for Jil?
Yes, but I still think what we do now is out of respect for Jil: the woman, who believes, needs, wants and has an attraction to this brand. I always peel back the past to bring out its purity. Because I think if I don’t start with something pure that’s a narrow path to go down. In terms of colour, colour was something Jil did not deal with so much. Usually anyone who saw Jil would find grey tones, caramel, beige and white and that’s it. It’s a ‘classic’ colour range used automatically by many commercial brands. I thought it would be interesting to use the ‘labour’ mentality Jil used with fabric towards colour, because I have to say what was most astonishing for me and my favourite thing about this company today is the way fabric is developed.
Had you done a lot of fabric research at your own label or was it new to you?
I learnt a lot about fabrics when I came here. Jil Sander is absolutely a fabric house, born out of Jil’s strong attraction to fabric, how fabric performs and how fabric needs to perform in order to create a certain style. Because Jil had such a pure, minimal language, fabric became ultimately important. You are not blowing your audience away with thirteen metres of printed couture; it’s a whole different mentality. I wanted to celebrate that in the beginning then by the second collection we decided, ‘Let’s add colours.’ So we opened with strong primary colours like yellow, green, orange, fuscia... We approached colour in the same way we approached material, very researched. It’s what this company has always done and it’s what I love about this company.
Do you do all the fabric research here on site?
Yes, of course this is where everything comes together, but we also do visits to France and Japan every season. We work with Japanese craftsmen and Japanese suppliers to build up something unique and not easy to find.
You play a lot of techno in your show music for Jil Sander. Did you used to go clubbing a lot when you were younger?
Yeah, I used to. Not enough, unfortunately! Sometimes the only place I still go is in London, because in Belgium there’s almost nothing and also in Milan. When I go to Berlin I always end up in places that I think are a lot of fun.
Like Panorama Bar?
What music have you been listening to lately?
Everyday I listen to Plasticman. I listen a lot to The XX too. I’m quite obsessed with their first album and I’m really curious for the next. It doesn’t bore me and I can leave it on repeat. It’s very impressive. Lately I’m also very interested in These New Puritans, their sound is very experimental and I really think they have something to say. They have really diversified themselves from the generation of young English bands we have seen coming in over the last six/seven years and I find their experimentation and taste very intriguing. Then I also listen to classical music a lot and lately I have been listening a lot to Bowie too.
Does music still inspire your collections as much as it once did?
Yes, always. I can already tell you that The xx, in a very abstract way, was the one and only inspiration for my spring/summer 12 menswear show. Then there was also a Bowie influence in a loose way. I was more inspired by his audience. We have also used Bowie in previous shows; the Japanese inspired show for women for example. Music’s always interesting in relation to Jil. Especially in terms of keeping things in control, which is what this brand is all about. Controlled and well produced. So if you have an interest in music, an interest in Bowie, you will see that in the shows.
Do you still listen to Kraftwerk?
I listen to Kraftwerk a lot, especially when I was a boy. I grew up in a small village in Belgium, where there were not really a lot of cultural institutions, no cinema, and no gallery for instance... My environment was very dull.
How did you keep up with what was going on in the world?
There was one record store, where I found records by Kraftwerk very early on. I was always attracted to things that were visual and that felt different, records from Joy Division and records designed by Peter Saville also.
Had you heard of these musicians before, or did you buy the EPs simply because you were attracted to the covers?
In Peter Saville’s case it was very often an attraction to the record sleeves. Then I started to find out who the musicians were and what it was about, because at that moment I was a little bit too young to experience the whole Joy Division thing. But Kraftwerk were always a big thing for me.
Was your idea of fashion initially shaped through music?
I think it was always around. I was a New Wave kid, so l dressed in black, with dark hair. I used to buy my clothes in a Dutch city called Eindhoven. They had a shop called Mac & Maggie. It was very fashion. It copied pieces from Comme Des Garçons’ black period; there were a lot of high-waisted black trousers and huge oversized denims. It was the period where music and fashion were very much in Belgium. When I was fifteen/sixteen there was a musical wave in Belgium called New Beat, which was, I think, the last musical style linked to a very extreme dress code.
You must have stood out in your small village?
Yes, but I wasn’t the only one. The village had a strong new music scene going on. We all dressed in black... But we studied at a conservative college where dressing this way was not really welcomed. We were told that we weren’t supposed to be dressed like that and at one point we were told we couldn’t stand together in the playground!
In case you intimidated people?
Yeah, but we were not aggressive, we just dressed differently. It wasn’t that extreme. But I suppose for a small village, it was? When we went and stood at the forecourts of the football field then maybe it could be perceived as extreme! But it was only until I was 18, and then I went to a totally different city, to study industrial design. Immediately it was a whole different environment that I felt completely comfortable in. That was probably the period where it all started to make sense for me. When Belgium designers like Martin Margiela started to come out. It was a very strong, impactful time for any Belgium who was interested in fashion.
In what ways do you think your studies in industrial design shaped the way you approach fashion today?
I don’t really know. What I know about industrial design is that I found it very isolating and I wanted to move away from it, but now I feel attracted to it again. In the last ten years I’m once again interested in the idea of furniture and making something that lasts and has a different presence. I trained as an industrial designer for four years and designed everything from car interiors, to a bicycle for a handicapped person, to a door handle. At the end we had to choose the direction we wanted to go in and I chose furniture. That’s also what I worked in for a couple of years after graduation.
What furniture did you design?
A bench on wheels, all kinds of stuff... I graduated with seven pieces of furniture that were actually cupboards based on human body types. It was then that people began to realise I may actually be interested in fashion. We presented our collections in Antwerp and Linda Loppa (former Director of the Antwerp Academy) came to the opening. The idea was to create something for a gallery, that she would be in charge of, but I was always like, ‘I want to start in your academy, I want to start!’ But she refused. I was really mad at her for that. In the mean time, I had been to see some fashion shows, because I interned with Walter van Bierendonck a few years before graduating. He took me to two shows in Paris and one show did it for me. After that show I knew I wanted to be a fashion designer. It was the third Martin Margiela show with the little black children. A very impactful show, I think four out of five people were crying. After that I had a very different idea of fashion.
Do you think fashion can still create the same impact as that Margiela show?
I certainly hope so. I think that every designer should strive to make a difference, to question things, to find a way of having a dialogue with their audience. That is the most satisfying part for a designer, if your brain and heart is very much about creation. But you can be in this environment for very different reasons. I have a lot of respect for people who are only here for business. Obviously after fifteen years in the business I am very much about finding a beautiful balance between those two choices. But for a very long time my main aim was only to have a very intense dialogue with my audience, to question them, and to have them question me.
Did Loppa let you study at the Academy in the end?
No, I never studied fashion. Loppa thought it would be frustrating for me to join a class of eighteen year olds when I was 25-26 at the time. She was also unsure if I was serious. Instead she told me to make something myself and see how I felt about it. That’s when I got really mad at her. I took distance and didn’t contact her. Then I worked on something and eventually showed it to her and she realised she had underestimated me.
So you have Walter Van Bierendonck to thank as an early influence?
Walter showed me the next step. The first fashion shows I saw were though Walter, he took me to Margiela and the next day we went to the Jean Paul Gaultier show together, where Jean Paul introduced Junior Gaultier. Nuns came out of the ground with Neneh Cherry turning around on a chair. It was amazing. I was 21-22 years old and I’d never seen anything like it before; first the trashy yet conceptual environment of Margiela, then the very glamorous and huge – 2,000 spectators – environment of Gaultier. I was very thankful to Walter because I was only an intern at the time. Walter’s environment was very alive, there were always kids around, and I met some really good friends there who were also interns, like Peter de Potter and Olivier Rizzo.
Were you aware of i-D when you were growing up?
Yes, of course. i-D and The Face were the two London magazines I grew up reading.
Do you remember the first i-D you read?
No, but I do remember stories from the early issues, early work from Martin Margiela and all the Belgium designers, the London scene, Bodymap, Christopher Nemeth... The acid house period with the smiley face was when I started reading i-D. I was at college and at the beginning I didn’t even buy i-D myself because I had no money, but I had friends who had copies at home. A couple of years later I started to buy them too.
Have your feelings towards fashion changed over the years, do you still think of it in the same way?
No, I think I’ve changed. There are things that you want to keep the same but at certain points you realise that they too have to change. The nature of fashion is that it changes automatically, and at gigantic speed. The period when I started designing is a very different period to now, from the buyers’ perspective, to how the shows were supposed to be, it was a lot more low key and sometimes very trashy for the younger generation. Now we see on the New York scene very young designers with professional shows much earlier on and I question that. I wonder if they do not do this will it not be accepted? Maybe it was just a Belgium thing, but fashion shows used to be rather clumsy, poor, trashy, low productions and this was ok, people came. Today, I hear, ‘Oh, we can’t host in a place like that because it’s too dangerous or too trashy or whatever...’
Do you think the audience are less open to new ideas and experiences, or is it more about big business?
I don’t really know. The amount of media attention was nowhere near as big back then nor were the shows on the same scale. I remember in the 90s, Helmut Lang – at the very high point in his career – still showed to a very small audience in a very small gallery in Paris. After that there was an explosion of communication and media, and today with the internet there are so many more magazines and bloggers the audiences are naturally much larger. It’s more interesting, but it makes it more complicated. Fashion used to be a lot more distanced from the public. But today, fashion stages itself as if it’s supposed to be for a lot of people. I often question how this will affect it in the long run and whether it is necessary?
Do you feel under pressure to promote Jil Sander in a similar vein to say Dolce & Gabbana or Burberry, who screen the show live and film backstage?
No, not so much under pressure, more that I question the nature of fashion. I wonder what the evolution is going to be. It’s more a question, a curiosity for the future, could fashion really be for everybody or will it return to a small scale once again? Right now the whole thing seems very blown up. I think it takes a little bit away from the mystique of fashion. I used to be obsessed with trying to find out what my favourite designers had been working on and really searching out places where I could see their work. When I was a kid, I was a huge Helmut Lang fan and we would wait and wait to see a couple of pictures from his show, perhaps in i-D or maybe, if we were lucky, see a special report on TV. But those days are over of course, because now with the internet everyone can see everything instantly. We must adapt to the new generation. It’s difficult, but not less interesting. In the end a fashion show stays a fashion show; it’s just a little more polished and clean.
What about the Jil Sander women, has she changed since the 90s or simply evolved with the brand?
Both. We still have clients that are very much connected to what Jil Sander was. Then we have new clients discovering Jil Sander for the first time. For us it’s about trying to find the balance between the two. It influences the dialogue between the show and the collection. The idea of building a collection to allow women to wear a certain kind of garment and working out something that is more language orientated, where you talk with an audience who are interested in high fashion.
You’ve brought more femininity to Jil Sander, femininity that’s not sexualised but strong. Was this intentional?
Yes, absolutely. Eveningwear and fluidity were not so present in Jil, yet they were all things I wanted to embrace because I see that’s what a 21st century woman absolutely is wanting. In the 90s, a lot of women really educated themselves in one brand. Today, in the 21st century, women adopt more of a stylist’s approach. I don’t want to say, ‘I am the designer of this brand therefore everybody should wear this brand head to toe.’ I don’t want that mentality; I believe that women should have freedom.
How would you describe the Jil Sander woman today?
Our new customers are women who like to be challenged. They don’t expect to have camel, marine or embellishment just given to them. They expect to be challenged by what I call the nature of fashion, and the return of a positive or negative reaction. A person should feel confrontation with what a designer is offering. This has two possibilities; offering things that people will love and offering things that people will want. That’s why I like the new Jil collections. In the 90s the general mentality was different. The designers were building on a certain language, that was slowly evolving, but always offering what people knew would be coming. Whereas lately, designers with strong voices in fashion are offering very different things all the time and that is because the industrial structure of fashion has changed so much.
Does it upset you that the industry has changed in this way?
No, it’s evolution. It’s decided by the people, to fight against it would be bad.
When you took over Jil Sander did you have a goal?
Yes, the goal was to find that beautiful balance. I’m not someone who is happy with gut reactions. I’m a creative person so I love the dialogue and energy of the shows. But overall I want to make sure people fall in love with the brand and that they are satisfied.