raf simons, the visionary

Every once in a while a designer comes along with the ability to change the fashion industry forever. Whose vision is so unique, belief system so strong, that their work exists up there amongst the fashion hall of fame. Raf Simons is that designer. At...

by Terry Jones
14 June 2012, 5:10pm

Raf Simons

Emotion, emotion, emotion. Fashion shows are not expected to bring tears to the eyes of their audience, but Jil Sander's autumn/winter 12 show turned out to be more than just another sunny spring day in Milan. Rumours of Raf Simons departure from his post as Creative Director of Jil Sander had been bouncing around the industry for months, but the official announcement came a mere two days before his autumn/winter 12 womenswear show. An anonymous leak had been forecast in a German newspaper that Jil Sander was returning to the brand she founded

i-D has followed the careers of both designers and Raf has become a personal friend. His final show for Jil Sander was masterfully elegant, cementing his position as one of the most important designers working today. Shown at the Jil Sander headquarters - a stunning, modernist building on Foro Buonaparte in central Milano - Raf's models meandered their way around Perspex boxes housing floral bouquets on eye level plinths. Reminiscent of a Marc Quinn art installation, the flowers were left to wither poignantly in the weeks after Raf's departure from the studio. "The flowers were symbolic," Raf told me after the show. "It was an abstraction of a very domestic environment, the idea of a garden and something very feminine. A woman in her environment, in her house, amongst her family..."

Sevenyears as creative director of Jil Sander has seen Raf mature not only as a menswear designer with a seriously strong reputation, but also as a visionary womenswear designer. By nurturing a team of talented individuals - a skill learned during his three-year professorship at the Vienna Fashion Institute-Raf took an established brand forward, pushing ideas that were respectful of Sander's past while exploring, refining and researching modern tailoring, fabrication and manufacturing techniques.

Raf's final three collections for Jil Sander saw him step forth in an elegant new direction, and to many offered a hint of what was to come. The arrival of simple, couture like shapes and precision cuts harkened back to Dior's New Look, showcasing Raf's passion and flair for craftsmanship. Who can forget the cocoon like coats, dresses and cashmere ski caps of autumn/winter 11 and the purity and elegance of spring/summer 12. Raf's final collection for Jil Sander saw him present a collection of beautiful, laser cut, cashmere overcoats, sculpted eveningwear and pastel nightgowns in dusty pink, pale mint green, blue and grey.

"The colours, in a way, were very pure," Raf explains. "The beauty of it was very wholesome, very romantic. Kind of like when you're outside, walking in nature. Beauty isn't always obvious; you have to search for it. That's what I find most romantic."

Simons will make his Dior debut at Paris couture week in July. It will be the first time he has officially designed couture, and the excitement in the fashion industry is high. "It marks a totally fresh and exciting new beginning," Fashion East's Lulu Kennedy told The Evening Standard. "Raf's humble, untroubled character will somehow wipe the slate clean for the house after the events of last year."

At Jil Sander it was very much about purism and minimalism. Yes, I like minimalism very much, but it's not the only thing I like. At Dior, you don't have that restriction. Dior celebrates femininity, elegance and nature. It will be an interesting development for me and a greater structure to tell my story.

The New Look Jil Sander has given us a glimpse of what Raf's brain is capable of. His sensitivity and respect for women I am sure will make his and many mothers proud. "It will be a challenge," Raf says with enthusiasm. "At Jil Sander it was very much about purism and minimalism. Yes, I like minimalism very much, but it's not the only thing I like. It is one of the only things I find challenging. At Dior, you don't have that restriction. As a house, Dior celebrates femininity, elegance and nature. It will be an interesting development for me. Many people might think it's unnatural for me to go to Dior. But Dior offers a lot for me, a lot of responsibility and scope for my designs. I will have a greater structure within which to tell my story. I'm not the kind of person to sit in the corner doing sketches. I work very much in dialogue with my team."

Raf's final show for Jil Sander saw the audience storm the stage in respect. It was an emotional, heartfelt reaction to what many deemed the most powerful and important collection of his career. The audience's emotionally charged response not only brought tears to the eyes of many an editor but also to the designer himself. So how did the standing ovation make Raf feel? "It was so emotional it's hard to describe," he says today. "I didn't want to come out. I didn't know how I was going to. It was so hard. I'm not going to lie about that. But when I did it was so beautiful. I thought 'Oh my god, this is really it. This is the last time it'll be in my mind.'"

The season's dramas did not end in Milan. Rumours of Raf going to Yves Saint Laurent fell away with the announcement that Stefano Pilati would step down as creative director and be replaced by Hedi Slimane. Slimane hit headlines in 1997 when he became Creative Director of Yves Saint Laurent menswear, before moving to Dior Homme in 2000.

Suzy Menkes' sensational article for The New York Times (February 26, 2012) condemned our journalistic hunger for breaking fashion news, and our lack of sensitivity for the careers of highly creative individuals. "We are all guilty of this mess," she wrote. "The current state of fashion, with designers enticed to houses where they may be rejected, removed and re-embraced, leaves a queasy feeling... Caught in this maelstrom are the designers. By their nature artistic and fragile people, they see themselves treated like commodities, bought and dispensed with as the corporate house pleases." Today designers face pressures from large corporate managements to deliver consistently successful collections at increasingly regular intervals. Pressure in these financial times is part of the job, but handling it can never be done alone. Most successful designers have professional management teams behind them, most crucially recognising that designers are not robots and creativity not only needs experience, it needs time and space to grow. As Suzy concludes, "This is not a game of chess. And that real people - especially sensitive designers - deserve not to be treated as pawns in someone else's game."

Despite rumours to the contrary, Raf insists that his appointment at Dior was not finalised until after his departure from Jil Sander. "After the show is when we really started talking," he says. In a short statement released after the news, Dior applauded Raf as "One of the greatest current talents," and welcomed his ability to "inspire and propel [Dior] into the 21st century" with "tremendous excitement". Raf too spoke out about his appointment. "It is with the utmost respect for its tremendous history, its unparalleled knowledge and craftsmanship that I am joining the magnificent house of Dior," he said. "I am truly humbled and honoured to become artistic director of the most celebrated French house in the world."

Here he discusses the major influences on his career, his summer soundtrack and the inspiration behind his final Jil Sander collections. Raf Simons we salute you.

The flowers were symbolic. It was an abstraction of a very domestic environment, the idea of a garden and something very feminine.

You've worked in the industry for seventeen years. Who have been your biggest mentors? 
First and foremost, Olivier Rizzo. I wanted to study at Antwerp's Royal Academy so that I would get to know people like Olivier. They were all studying there, so obviously I wanted to go there too. There was a period in-between moving to Antwerp when I did an internship with Walter Van Beirendonck, he was another influence on my early career. At the time I didn't have my own house in Antwerp, I was still living in my village with my parents, so during the week I would come to Antwerp and stay with a friend. I was still at school while I was interning at Walter's and I would see Olivier once a year after the Academy shows. That was 1991 to 1993. Then he graduated and I got to know him a lot better. After that I moved to Antwerp permanently and for two years, until I started my own label in 1995, we saw each other everyday. Myself, Olivier, David Vandewal, Peter Philips and Ingrid... We were this big bunch of kids sitting in a café talking until 4 o'clock in the morning. There was this 'intellectual café' in Antwerp, where everyone would hang out. Some were artists, some were reading their books and we were the fashion kids. The idea to start my own collection was always there.

Did you ever imagine your label would be where it is now?
I never really think about the size of something.

But you must have had ambition?
Back in the day I didn't want to start a collection alone. I wanted to start it with somebody else. The only reason I did it alone was because the two girls who were going to do it with me both pulled out. One got really scared very early on and the other one got really scared once the fabric bills started to roll in. It was then that they both realised how serious it really was. Even I was afraid getting all those bills. I never thought about how big the label could become, nor the possible impact it could have. At the beginning I just did it because of all of the kids I was hanging out with - Olivier Rizzo, David Vandewal, Peter Philips, Ingrid and some other girls. It represented how we felt about fashion. I thought I could give an opinion. It certainly wasn't about setting up a huge business and being in the fashion world.

Today the fashion industry is a very different kettle of fish. It was the same with i-D. When we started the magazine it wasn't so that we could be a publisher. It was to put across a point of view, to reflect what was happening on the street.
Exactly. Starting my own label was to do with myself and the people around me. We weren't pleased with what we saw. So the label was a reaction against this. There were things we did like, and it was our aim to properly connect them. I was obsessed with Martin Margiela and Helmet Lang. I related to their slick silhouettes, the knee-length coats, and the small trousers... But of course, my label was very much linked to my own past and to my own environment, which was not ascorporate-city-slick as Helmet's. It was dirtier, darker, more underground... There was a feeling of schoolboys and Catholicism, village and college. There was a whole period before I started my own collection, that I was buying clothes, which heavily resembled the Helmet Lang aesthetic. It would maybe be one piece, but usually not even one piece because I couldn't actually afford it! I wanted to connect to that world, because I thought it was really cool. I was going out making sure I looked like that, even before I started designing. Martin Margiela was another designer who very much inspired me. Martin was the reason why I wanted to be a designer. When I saw his show, I thought 'Now, this is fashion'. I didn't get fashion before. It was only after Margiela's show that I started to realise how fashion can emote an audience. There were people in the audience actually crying! From that moment on, a fashion show became a whole different thing. Suddenly I thought it was very intellectual, fragile and at the same time very radical and emotional. It was a different world. I was a 60s kid, growing up in the 80s so it was all about Mugler, Montana and Gaultier.

We first met when you did your installation at the Fashion and Cinema Biennale in Florence in 1998. You were completely uncompromising. There was a darker side to your younger self, which feels much lighter now.
I think there is still a dark side. It's easier for me to talk to people today than it used to be. To talk about the things that scare me, make me nervous and uncomfortable. Some of my close friends now work in my company so they know what makes me uncomfortable. I guess that helps.

I was talking more about your aesthetic. In the past you have explored symbolism such as skulls...
I think there's a dark side in everybody.

At your last Jil Sander womenswear show you played Mazzy Star, Fade into You, Sonic Youth, Superstar and the Smashing Pumpkins, Tonight, Tonight. When you go home do you listen to something similar or do you always look for new music?
To be honest, I listen mainly to old music. Not to say I'm opposed to new music. Lately though I've been coming back to the things I really know and like - something classic like Beethoven, Plastikman or The xx, which I've had on repeat for years.

In your autumn/winter 12 Jil Sander menswear collection I felt a Berlin club vibe...
Totally! I am happy you saw that. I knew I was doing a collection that would enable people to project their own ideas on to it. What you see in a collection is a reflection of who you are yourself. I was rather surprised that certain people had interpreted it as something completely unrelated. Memories from a dark past were never in our mind. What we had in mind was an extreme businessman, but also an extremely sexual man with a dark side. The working man in the street, but at the same time the family man with children. The man who remains a boy maybe...

The life of a banker after dark?
Yes, an office clerk or a father who has three kids at home waiting to play with him. Or maybe he's just a guy that has never grown up and still has dinosaurs in his room! Not for one second did we have ideas relating to the army, the police, or the dark side, so I was so surprised to hear that referenced in reviews. The door on the catwalk was to suggest that there could be a club behind it; a New York street in the middle of the night.

It had a comic book feeling to it, a Tintin meets Will Eisner's Spirit.
This was definitely also an idea. We wanted to portray a classic gentleman who had shadowy things going on in the background.

That's what I admire about you; your work has always been much more than just clothes.
Especially when it comes to my own label. With your own ideas, you don't have to limit yourself. Very often I communicate ideas knowing that there is no specific outcome. Fashion is not there to educate you, but to challenge you. Sometimes I speak with young kids and I have the feeling... not that they have no interest, but that they look at in a different way. This is the reason I chose to do fashion, to create a dialogue and bring people together.



Text Terry Jones
Photography Willy Vanderperre
Styling Olivier Rizzo

Photography assistance Romain Dubus, Tine Claerhout
Production Mindbox
Florals Mark Colle
Thanks to Henri Coutant at D'Touch and Stephanie Jaillet at Janvier Paris
Raf Simons wears all clothing Raf Simons.
[The Lights, Camera, Action Issue, No. 319, Summer 2012]

terry jones
Raf Simons
fashion interviews
olivier rizzo
willy vanderperre
the lights camera action issue