raf simons talks trump and punk
The iconic Belgian designer gives a wide-ranging interview that touches on Margiela, Margaret Thatcher, art museums, the Women’s March, and so much more. Here are just five things we took from one of Raf’s most revealing conversations.
Photography Willy Vanderperre
Just over a week before he unveils two new collections in New York City — first, his eponymous brand's menswear offering at the Gagosian Gallery, then his highly anticipated Calvin Klein Collection debut — Raf Simons sat down with GQ for a very insightful discussion about his life, his work, and the state of fashion today.
The Belgian designer — who launched his own menswear label in 1995, before rising to international acclaim as the creative director of Jil Sander a decade later — has long been considered a youth oracle, and a thrilling, provocative modernist. Though Simons's brand doesn't approach the size and scale of the other houses on his resume (Dior and now Calvin Klein) it is perhaps the most influential menswear brand to have ever existed. Over the past 20 years, Simons has exploded the possibilities of menswear garments by constantly re-defining them, and how men dress in a modern world. He's done so by looking to the street, and to his music world idols, long before this was a common practice in fashion.
The interview discusses this towering influence: what it means to him, how his understanding of his own place in fashion has shifted, and who his legacy impacts. Here are five things we discovered about Simons.
He's not going to sit around and cry about Trump: Raf discusses how a certain New Yorker's terrifying rise to global power has impacted his life and his work: "Coming here. Living here. Your partner. Your dog. It's a new city. New experiences. Starting a new job. And then suddenly — woosh! — something happens which is like the last possible thing you could even imagine." But he's keeping focused in turbulent times: "You can go and sit there and [cry] or you can just say, I'm going to do my thing. I have things that I have to do. And I have not only a responsibility, but a challenge." He says both of his forthcoming collections will touch on the challenging and uncertain times, but declines to explain how: "It's too fragile to express in words. It's something you have to feel."
It took a slap in the face for him to think about fashion differently: Trained as an industrial designer before undertaking an internship with Walter Van Beirendonck, and encountering a Margiela show in 1990 that changed his life, Raf has always seen fashion from a different, at times strained perspective. "I used to have this love and hate relationship with fashion because I thought it was a lower form of creative expression. And at the same time I started to feel that it was dull. I thought, Oh my, we just keep on producing clothes, clothes. Like, we could do something so much more relevant, you know?" That outlook didn't begin to change until one unnamed individual "literally slapped me in the face" and told him, "you have to start looking at it differently, because otherwise you're never going to be proud and happy about what you do. Because you inspire people. You bring something out that they literally need. So you do a good thing. Not a bad thing. And that's how I've started to think lately."
His next collection considers punk's emergence: How has Raf's perspective on youth and rebellion changed over the years? He'll answer that with his next collection. "I'm thinking a lot again about that period when there was a political climate that caused punk. My thing is not gonna be punk, but you know, what it meant, and why it came at that point — the whole thing with England and Thatcher," he said of Great Britain's ultra-conservative Prime Minister. "With Thatcher and the punks — I think that a good president or a good king should be a good father or a good mother to their children. So that's where it started when I began thinking about doing that kind of collection," he explains, suggesting this forthcoming collection might be the beginning of a new series of work. "There was this era where I started to think a lot about the relationship between audience and spectator," he explains. "I said what I needed to say. Now we're talking about something else."
He sees himself, Miuccia, Marc, and Phoebe as the "activators" of today: "What changed in fashion so much is that it no longer belongs to a bourgeoisie small environment," Raf explains of the topic he's been pondering often. "Up until young kids said, 'We are going to look and consume and react and say something and have a dialog. Even if we are not in that show. We are not in the court. We are not in the castle.' And that's what's happening now." As for the designers breaking down that bourgeoisie, speaking to today's youth in new ways? Interviewer Noah Johnson cited Vetements and now Balenciaga head Demna Gvasalia, Gosha Rubchinskiy, and Off-White's Virgil Abloh — all people Johnson believes are deeply influenced by Raf's work and its legacy. That's the subject of a recent conversation Raf and Miuccia Prada had in System Magazine, which Raf expounded on for GQ. "I know it's the same thing for Marc [Jacobs]. I know it's the same thing for Phoebe [Philo]. We all feel like we have to shut up. But we are the activators. I hate to talk about this because it always makes you sound pretentious, but we are the activators. Fashion doesn't exist if we don't exist."
He bows to Tom Ford's crossover into film: Given his ongoing collaborative relationship with artist Sterling Ruby, his industrial design background, and his love-hate relationship with the fashion system, Simons is often asked whether he'll pursue a career in visual art. "If ever I would do it, there cannot be fashion anymore in my life and I would do art. But how are you going to erase 21 years of fashion?" he asks Johnson, who cites Helmut Lang, and Tom Ford's directorial efforts. "[Raf does a small bow in his seat] Really. I bow for that one," Simons says of Ford. "The work that has to be done to get to the point that this movie is coming out, aside from doing the collections. Wow. I find it mind-blowing. I don't know if I could do that similarly."
Read the full interview here.
Text Emily Manning
Photography Willy Vanderperre