from ’95 to Dior
interview by OLIVIER ZAHM
portrait by WILLY VANDERPERRE
photography by OLA RINDAL
style by MARINE BRAUNSCHVIG
Raf Simons is one of a generation of Belgian designers who have changed the face of fashion. Starting as an industrial designer, simply seeing fellow-Belgian Martin Margiela’s white show inspired him to enter fashion. Launching his own brand in 1995, Simons remains among those who define fashion. Drawing on the music and cinema of the ’90s, from Joy Division to Kraftwerk, he has moved through youth culture styles to minimalist styles, collaborations with Jil Sander, Fred Perry, Adidas, and Eastpak. In 2012 he entered the inner circle of Paris haute couture, becoming creative director at Dior, to project its essence into the future. All the while he’s maintained the remarkable Raf Simons menswear brand he first created in Antwerp and continues to live and work there today.
OLIVIER ZAHM — For many of us, Dior is a symbol of postwar French renaissance glamour coming out of catastrophe, fresh and innocent, a rediscovery of possibilities. How do you see it?
RAF SIMONS — Whether it was coming from naïveté or cleverness or simply coming out naturally, the most amazing thing for me is that Dior took things that were pure and easy and made them globally understood. That’s what attracts me to Dior and what challenges me most there. Dior is a very romantic house.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Now you’re designing for women at Dior and for men with your own label. How do you manage the two at once?
RAF SIMONS — I’ve always done two things. I don’t know why. It’s something I need. So whether I’m working with Jil Sander or Dior, my brand is always there. My own brand is very important to me and may be seen as conceptual or intellectual or minimalist, because it’s always put in that context.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Always doing two things at once.
RAF SIMONS — I think it calms me. I realized early on that I don’t like to be absorbed in one thing alone.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you divide your time and work between these two brands?
RAF SIMONS — I’m in Antwerp for a week, then in Paris for a week. When I go back to Antwerp I see everything again and activate new ideas. During the week that I’m gone, my teams have to make decisions and work on them, which can be very satisfying for everyone. You know, when the boss is away, things can be fun.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you like to work with a team, rather than alone, like Karl Lagerfeld?
RAF SIMONS — It challenges me. It keeps me fresh, because my teams can come up with things I hadn’t thought about. Then we work on it all together. I like the freedom to give and to get. It’s very satisfying. Maybe I like what they’ve come up with, maybe I don’t, but there’s a constant dialogue. The F/W Dior couture show was partially about that because these days, as a designer, I don’t want to control things totally. I like to control things only up to a point, which I see as my responsibility. Our world is constantly moving and rolling. That has to do with the lifespan of fashion these days. It’s a very important issue now.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You’re not a control freak?
RAF SIMONS — I stepped over that when I scaled up. I like being creative in collaboration with other people. The people I work with are essential to me. In fashion there’s a constant dialogue with your team, the girls you work with, the client, the press. You work with the body and its psychology.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How did you decide to get involved in fashion?
RAF SIMONS — Originally, I went to school for industrial design, which was very much about product and how a product goes into the world. That creative process is very technical, so you don’t have much dialogue with people, which is something I like.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Why did you give up on industrial design?
RAF SIMONS — I think it was because I felt disconnected from people. Being an industrial designer is a rather isolated profession in comparison with fashion, working at your computer all day long.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You had a pretty isolated childhood in the Belgian countryside. What pushed you toward a creative career?
RAF SIMONS — When I was 15 or 16, trying to become a creative person, I lived in a village, nothing like Brussels or even Antwerp. I come from a place full of farms. There was the record shop, with its music and album covers. There was television, where I learned about people like Jan Hoet, who was a very important Belgian curator and in the news very often. He curated the “documenta 9” exhibition, for which he invited artists to exhibit in private houses in Ghent. People still talk about that show. It was a very controversial idea. So I went deeply into art and I’ve stayed deeply into it. I also started to develop an interest in fashion. As a kid, you want to dress cool and have the kids around you see it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What was your first work experience?
RAF SIMONS — Between the third and fourth years, students have to do an internship at an industrial design office. I wanted to go to Walter Van Beirendonck’s studio, where they didn’t simply design clothes; he also made furniture and created installations. I thought, if I’m lucky, he’ll take me. I was already showing an interest in fashion. But there was no access. I faked some ideas — fake magazine covers for i-D and The Face, some sketches, and in the back I put my industrial designs. I arrived, nervous as hell. Dirk Van Saene was standing there, looking at my stuff with Walter, flip, flip, flip. I remember that day so well. Then he saw this egg holder I did and something we had to do for a handicapped child. He was fascinated and said, “When can you start?” So I started right away. The school was so mad at me for going to a fashion designer that they obliged me to take another internship in hardcore industrial design, a place that develops crates for 24 beer bottles. I had to go there for a month. After two days, I was depressed, so I called Walter’s office and said, I’m getting out of here. I don’t care if they’re going to be mad at me at school, I just can’t do it. He said, “Come.” So I was there for a long time, maybe four months. Then he took me to Paris to help on his presentations — making chairs and hangers; he hadn’t started doing shows yet.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What was the first fashion show that you remember seeing and enjoying?
RAF SIMONS — Walter took me to Martin Margiela’s third show. It was the first show I ever saw in my life. Children were running around a playing field on the outskirts of town. It was a garden of kids and the Margiela invitation showed their hand drawings on a piece of cardboard. Before that my perception of fashion was superficial.
OLIVIER ZAHM — In what sense did it change your perception of fashion?
RAF SIMONS — This show made me want to be a designer. The main thing was the emotion I got, and the psychology, which was so different and so completely the opposite of what I had expected from a fashion show. I thought fashion was about runways and glamour. It was of course that, but what I didn’t know about was how emotion was also a big part of it. When the audience sits there, a whole array of social and psychological things occur simultaneously. And with Martin’s show, having all those kids around created a very intense experience. The day after I saw that show, Walter took me to the second show of my life, a Jean Paul Gaultier show, which, I think, was where he introduced Junior Gaultier, with Neneh Cherry and with nuns emerging. That was like a knock on the head and was so mind-blowingly the opposite of what I had thought of as a fashion show.
OLIVIER ZAHM — After these experiences, how did you make the transition from industrial design to fashion?
RAF SIMONS — Even if I was excited by fashion, it took time to give up industrial design, because I had my friends there and my training, and you know how it is when you’re 22. So I finished school and then for a couple of years I worked on things that were fashion-related. Then I went to Linda Loppa, the director of the Antwerp Academy, who’d taught all sorts of fashion designers. I wanted her to get me into the school, but she didn’t. She just wanted me to do things on my own — she never said why. She must’ve thought I already knew where I wanted to go.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Was it Martin Margiela who made you realize that there could be a connection between art and fashion?
RAF SIMONS — It wasn’t that simple. Before the age of 16 or 18, in the ’80s, I only saw fashion on television. We had no computers, no easy access to fashion. But I became part of a very creative scene in Antwerp, where I was confronted with an environment of people strongly connected to fashion. That was the period when the six designers from Antwerp — the Belgian Six — started and then hit the news and went to London and so on. They did a lot for Belgium.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Suddenly Belgium was on the fashion map.
RAF SIMONS — You know, we forget how extreme all that stuff was in the beginning, coming from one place.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So you understood that Belgian fashion was more than just collections; it was a cultural movement and had an energy that was radical and exciting, like music or cinema…
RAF SIMONS — Definitely. I realized it was a cultural force and I wanted to be part of it.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Your access was still limited though.
RAF SIMONS — You know, when you’re young and interested in something, you explore your interests. It’s not like fashion was accessible. With Margiela, I had some access because I was based in Antwerp. But for Helmut Lang, for example, even when you knew he had done a show, you had to wait months to maybe see some pieces that were maybe in a store not too far away. This was before computers, which is the way information travels these days.
OLIVIER ZAHM — The magazines were a more powerful force in that sense, too, especially i-D and The Face.
RAF SIMONS — But you only saw fragments in magazines, which created a mystique. Not knowing everything creates a mystique, because you dream about it. Now it’s difficult for people to dream because they get it all onscreen before they’ve even had a chance.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Everything’s on Instagram.
RAF SIMONS — Voilà. And it’s everywhere and constantly reinterpreted and recommunicated. In my opinion that creates chaos. A kid can rephotograph something and transport it back into the world. Then someone says something about it and it’s read and rewritten and rewritten again and it becomes a different thing.
OLIVIER ZAHM — So we lose the dream and maybe the mystery of fashion.
RAF SIMONS — We’re not losing it altogether. But we do have to fight to keep it. I don’t want to lose it, because I’m still very dreamy about it. But if that’s the future of fashion, then we have to think about how to make things that are interesting, exciting, modern, romantic, and energetic. Maybe romance will have a different definition in the future. Anyway, we were not raised with all that, and we still know what fashion was like then, when it seemed so inaccessible.
OLIVIER ZAHM — I remember fighting to enter the shows, sneaking in because I didn’t have a ticket.
RAF SIMONS — I copied tickets for a Helmut Lang show at a copy shop near the Centre Pompidou — no computer, no mobile phone. We’d find a fax copy of Helmut’s invitation, which was faxed to him, at his own office — a trashy printout in that clean white Helmut Lang setting. The problem was always the sticker, which was always in color, and you never really knew how it actually looked and you didn’t want the wrong one, especially if it signified a front row seat and they didn’t know you.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Do you think there’s less radical fashion today than in the ’90s?
RAF SIMONS — I think young designers have lost patience. I wonder how many will be happy if only five people like their clothes for the next three years and if they have the patience to wait and see what happens. That’s how I thought in the beginning. I hoped my four friends from Antwerp liked what I did. I wasn’t thinking globally. Maybe I was way too naïve. Then of course there weren’t all the communication tools that we have today. So the lack of patience is probably the result of the speeding up of communication. I find that a very important issue in the context of what I now do at Dior, which is clearly a global institution.
OLIVIER ZAHM — In the ’90s it was important that your friends liked your fashion, or that young people liked it. Today everyone has to relate to it — there’s a bigger public and a bigger audience. Hasn’t that changed the nature of the industry?
RAF SIMONS — Yes, but I’m not sure that counts for all the people in all situations and across all generations. It might also cause a problem for the young generation. Talking about Dior, I totally agree. But when a young talent comes along, I’m not sure. I get the feeling that they’re maybe too engaged with the structure, the PR, and so on.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Young people are too conscious about the fashion system.
RAF SIMONS — Fashion is an environment that always embraces individuality and newness, so in that sense, a young person can come in with whatever is strong in terms of creation and even non-systematic behavior. It just has to be good.
OLIVIER ZAHM — People see the ’90s approach to fashion as conceptual, which is very strange to me because this was a period of innovation and research that was connected to youth, punk music, and permanent risk. Today, fashion is not about that. It’s about conforming to public demand. And there’s not so much research or innovation.
RAF SIMONS — Fashion shifts all the time. The thing is, as a designer, you have to please yourself emotionally and psychologically. It’s your heart, your life; it’s everything. But fashion is also a business, a responsibility, a collaboration with people. It’s sometimes difficult to find a balance, which is why I have such strong feelings for that period.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Are you nostalgic for the ’90s?
RAF SIMONS — That’s a difficult question. My brand was born in the middle of that period. I was brought up in nature and simplicity, the environment of my parents. I fought my way out of there, needing to move to a city, to see things. Now, for almost a decade, I’ve felt myself wanting to return to the calmness of nature. So it’s also important to me, psychologically and intellectually, to think back to the period when my brand was born. In the ’90s, things were calm but things could shift quickly, and that was fascinating. Lots of designers, including my brand, worked with a very small team. Now for my own brand, I have to rebuild, again rethinking with a lot of emotion, taking concepts from the early days, while adapting to new values and a different system. Otherwise it won’t work.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What’s changed?
RAF SIMONS — I have the feeling that back in the day, when people fell in love with designers they adamantly fell in love. But these days, in fashion, I’m not so sure they communicate when they’re in love. I think a younger generation might suffer from that.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Today, there’s such a variety, and fashion is such a huge industry with so many designers and brands, that there’s not a clear line for people to follow. They go here and there.
RAF SIMONS — There are more brands and many more lines. People consume so much faster, so how do you enjoy something that’s constantly shifting from one point to another? And young designers are judged so quickly. They should be given time. We were given time to grow, because people seriously supported what we were doing.
OLIVIER ZAHM — At Dior you not only design the collection, you are also the art director, who has to give a new image to an institution. That must be quite complex.
RAF SIMONS — It is.
OLIVIER ZAHM — How do you see the future of Dior?
RAF SIMONS — You need to be patient when you take on a house like Dior. It’s not like stepping into a niche brand. I had to learn that. You can’t move a mountain, because you can’t expect that everybody will be with you immediately, inside or outside. You have to prepare yourself psychologically.
OLIVIER ZAHM — For resistance?
RAF SIMONS — For reactions. A big part of my work is based on the reactions of people I don’t know and then creating a dialogue with them. At this scale you can’t please everyone because there are always different opinions.
OLIVIER ZAHM — With a house like Dior is it possible to find calm? Dior is a timeless, romantic brand, but with a global message. It doesn’t have to constantly change.
RAF SIMONS — Yeah, I know what you mean. It’s a brand that stands there and may stand there forever, which feels good. But when I speak about young designers, I also speak for myself. I have to start this work at Dior; so for me, this is an incubation period, and I hope I’m not judged too quickly.
OLIVIER ZAHM — What do you mean?
RAF SIMONS — An incubation period doesn’t end in three collections. For me, it means years. I’ll do everything I can to challenge people who love Dior. But it’s also important, in this incubation period, to see how people react. For example, the F/W couture show was an exploration of the general state of couture. OLIVIER ZAHM — And how couture can speak to the whole planet and be modern, because so much fashion is retrograde. RAF SIMONS — The problem with couture is the way you feel it is past. There’s a lot of beauty yet to explore, while also making it interesting in relation to the way things are now speeding up. A dialogue between a woman and a house can start from there. That’s why I also like Dior’s timeless feeling of calm. It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot already, and it’s also happening, but not under the eyes of spectators, and it’s not about exposing things to a huge audience, because then you kill the privacy.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Exposure kills privacy.
RAF SIMONS — Also couture and ready-to-wear are so different. Couture requires a strongly suggestive garment. That’s one approach. I’m directed by an approach that is very reactive, and very different from ready-to-wear. Ready-to-wear clothes are in the stores six months after your show. People know that, and that there will be a certain number of choices. Couture is very different. A couture show creates momentum when women are interested in something that inspires them. That’s what they need, and that’s when and how couture starts.
OLIVIER ZAHM — A dialogue?
RAF SIMONS — If the couture client is attracted by the collection, they come to us and we work things out, but it might be very different from what was first seen. People’s perception of couture in general is too literally based on the show, the spectacle, and the aesthetic, like a woman on a red carpet.
OLIVIER ZAHM — You had an unconventional concept for your couture show. You chose four photographers to shoot the collection — Terry Richardson, Patrick Demarchelier, Paolo Roversi, and Willy Vanderperre — and projected their pictures during the show. How did you come up with the idea?
RAF SIMONS — Well, these days everything is reinterpreted so quickly that I decided to embrace that idea. I wanted a reinterpretation of my proposals in the moment that I proposed them, in different ways, but not by me. That was the idea. That’s why I wanted the photographers to be very different. They see women and clothes differently. That was very important to me. There were images behind the girls, and it was chaotic, but it was meant to be that way.
OLIVIER ZAHM — To give a multifaceted perception of your own collection when it’s presented?
RAF SIMONS — The moment was the most important thing — that was the intention. I don’t want to control things — to suggest that the woman should be like this or that and that they stand like this. I want her to be inspired by a look, or by a type of look, or by another woman with that look, and not by an army of 40 looks that are coherent and beautiful together. I think the biggest luxury today is freedom of choice.
OLIVIER ZAHM — An openness?
RAF SIMONS — When a woman sees one piece in one way and then sees it again in a different way, she can see different possibilities. I might show it in a way that you think is perhaps minimalist or modern — as people think most of the time — and then suddenly she’s dancing and Terry Richardson sees something entirely different and it becomes funky or Paolo Roversi turns it into something sensitive and pure. That was the idea.
OLIVIER ZAHM — For this couture show, you took the risk of doing a chaotic and media-oriented show, which clashed with the tradition of couture.
RAF SIMONS — I understand that the F/W couture show might have been choatic. It was meant to be like that, because as a designer I find fashion confusing now. This may be because of the speed and chaos in the world, even when there’s a kind of logic to the chaos that’s been created from the speed. Whether as a designer, editor, photographer, if you don’t embrace fashion, you’d better step out of it, because if you start thinking seriously about what it’s become, it seems insane. But it’s only now, I think, that we can really question how fashion can evolve.
OLIVIER ZAHM — Are you pessimistic about the future?
RAF SIMONS — No, no. I’ve always thought of the future romantically. We shouldn’t lose the romance. I think it’s a matter of how you embrace it, even though we can’t know how or if fashion will still be connected to speed and technology. I have a strong interest in the aesthetics and psychology that developed in the ’50s and ’60s, when people romanticized the future very much, with their visions of technology and space exploration, of living on the moon. Speed is the most complicated aspect for everybody I think.
OLIVIER ZAHM — It’s the same with magazines — to find ideas and people and produce everything quickly.
RAF SIMONS — But even in this momentum, its way of communicating with everything speeded up, you still see many strong, even amazing things, and a great deal of creativity. I think the couture show was very much about adapting to this momentum. I think the whole melting pot of imagery and information is already traveling and being reinterpreted. So for a designer, it’s not something to escape, because you can’t.
OLIVIER ZAHM — If your mind is oriented to the future, does that mean you don’t copy, you don’t look back?
RAF SIMONS — I also look back for Dior. It’s unavoidable. I look back out of respect for the house, and because its history provides a strong foundation for its future. But I’m always looking forward too.
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