what will raf do next?
Last week Raf Simons announced his departure from Dior after just three years at the helm, catapulting fashion into high speculation mode as to the future of the house, Simons himself, and our industry. Anders Christian Madsen reflects on Simons’ reign...
When Raf Simons first joined Christian Dior in 2012, I asked him if he felt like a couturier yet. "Technically and theoretically, yes. Psychologically, I don't know," he answered. "After 17 years I don't even know if psychologically I feel like a fashion designer. I don't feel like fashion is the only thing I could do or would do, but I'm doing it and I'm enjoying it a lot so it's probably the best thing for me to be doing right now. But I also see that as an advantage psychologically, because I know that if it goes away - and it will go away at some point - I won't be sad and be like, 'Oh no, what am I going to do with my life now?' Not at all." When I read the news of his departure after just three years at the house on Thursday afternoon, his words echoed in my head.
What makes a continually praised designer leave one of the biggest houses in the world? Any answer to the question is speculation, but those who watched Dior and I - the documentary about Simons' first haute couture collection for the house - will have witnessed a strong sensitivity in Simons. He feels his work a hundred percent, even if it's for a big house under a corporation. That thought led me to something Simons told me about Christian Dior, the man, three years ago. "He wasn't so interested in the attention and all that. It was just happening to him and it blew up into this kind of gigantic company, and the attention followed. He was living a very private life, but at the same time he was doing it because that's how the game is played."
"But he wasn't out for it, and I feel the same. I don't really care that people say, 'Wow!' I don't care. It's not so different for me whether I do this or if I do something else. It's really weird. It's difficult to explain." Unlike Mr Dior, Simons knew the spotlight he was stepping into—it didn't happen out of the blue—but being a game player doesn't have to mean you enjoy it. In his statement on Thursday, Simons said: "It is a decision based entirely and equally on my desire to focus on other interests in my life, including my own brand, and the passions that drive me outside my work." On the backdrop of his spring/summer 16 collection for the house, in the show notes to which Simons questioned the relevance of the entire runway system, you wonder if perhaps he is dealing with industry values on a greater level.
Simons' last three shows for his eponymous menswear label have rebelled against the system. He's taken us to a warehouse on the outskirts of Paris with a democratic show format where seats and hierarchical seating charts have been replaced by a raised runway and an invitation to stand. It's worked phenomenally, too. At his spring/summer 16 show this summer, he uncharacteristically refused backstage interviews, an unexpected move for a designer with such astute ideas about his work. Whatever has been going on in the mind of Raf Simons, it seems to be about change—and in that, the desire to take control. The menswear field, for instance, has changed considerably since he became a couturier, with artisanal values increasing by the season.
It wouldn't be unthinkable that Simons would want to focus on this new age of menswear through his own label, be his own boss and create a brand similar to that of Rick Owens by adding a womenswear line. He already included women in his Raf Simons show for autumn/winter 15. "I was very seriously thinking about it in the last couple of years, but then the Dior thing fell on my head, which is not just something you're going to forget about," he told me three years ago. "Doing my own women's label was something I was discussing with somebody in terms of setting it up. When we were talking about a certain kind of future that might relate to a women's brand we also made a list of other possibilities, thinking that it would probably never happen. It was quite a weird experience, actually, because it was a very short list. And Dior was on that list. And then it happened."
It's perhaps unlikely Simons would go to another house under a conglomerate just yet, although time and the right conditions heal all wounds—just look at his predecessor at Dior, John Galliano, who announced his Maison Margiela menswear takeover and a fragrance launch on the same Thursday afternoon Simons quit Dior. After his hiatus, it seems Galliano is doing better than ever. Under the right circumstances and vacancies, however, it's not unthinkable that Simons could find a second home under an American company such as PVH, which owns Calvin Klein, whose legacy people have often drawn parallels to when referring to Simons' aesthetic. But remember, Simons' list is short.
In 2012, he told me he didn't care if people wanted to label him a minimalist. "But considering my decision to go to Dior, I'm surprised people call me that. If I had taken something like Calvin Klein - not that it was possible - then I think people could start making conclusions, but now I think it's just a little bit boring to me, to express myself nicely, that they find me to be that because clearly they must also see that I'm out to explore something in another direction." If his three years at Dior have proven anything, it's that Simons is out of the minimal box. I look back at his tenure there with fond memories of shows, and his amazing collaborations with make-up artist Peter Philips, maestro Michel Gaubert, stylist Olivier Rizzo, and photographer Willy Vanderperre—all great friends of his, whom he brought with him to Dior.
But I also remember Nicole Kidman in that icy floral Dior dress in Cannes when she chaired the jury in 2013, looking like a 40s porcelain Barbie. Or Jennifer Lawrence in a more dramatic Dior number, stumbling up the stairs at the Oscars the year after. Simons' residency at Dior characterises a pivotal moment in fashion, which began with a recession and culminated in the departure of John Galliano and the grandeur he represented. In many ways, Raf Simons has been the poster boy for the spirit that has dominated womenswear in the time that followed. With his own departure from Dior, we'll now cement a new zeitgeist in fashion, which is already happening with the return of Galliano at Maison Margiela.
Who will take over at Dior, then? My guess is as good as yours, but the rumour mill points to Riccardo Tisci, who wouldn't even have to change employer since Givenchy is already owned by the same company, LVMH. Erdem Moralioglu's name already came up back when Galliano left Dior, but with the success his brand is currently experiencing he'll practically have built his own Dior come Christmas. Nicolas Ghesquière is already LVMH's golden boy at Louis Vuitton, and Phoebe Philo their golden girl at Céline. Maybe Marc Jacobs would want to work two jobs again, but he left Vuitton to take his own brand public and that still hasn't happened, so an added job seems unlikely. Then, there's that new feeling in fashion, a craving for fresh blood, pioneered by Gucci and the success this year of the little known Alessandro Michele, now a superstar in his own right. Could Dior handle an unknown designer? It's a brave new world.
Text Anders Christian Madsen
Portrait Willy Vanderperre
Catwalk photography Mitchell Sams, Christian Dior spring/summer 16