Raf Simons vs Sterling Ruby

In an exclusive head to head, the AW14 collaborators talk teenage obsessions and punk spirit

Our visual landscape is constantly changing. An entire generation might be playing out their lives in the virtual world – but last night, Belgian designer Raf Simons and visual artist Sterling Ruby proved that Tumblr shrines have nothing on real life iconography. What emerged from their partnership (this wasn’t simply a collaboration but a new brand for one night only) was homemade, heartfelt and verged on the cult.

Drawing on Sterling Ruby’s infatuation with aberrant psychologies (particularly schizophrenia and paranoia) the collection played out like that of an obsessive teenage fan with patches and text manipulated onto garments. After all, Ruby is best known for inviting the public to deface his own artworks as a test of vulnerability, and for his piece ‘The Masturbators’, where he projected nine videos of failed male ejaculation onto the walls of a New York gallery. The show space itself had been transformed; Ruby drawing on his soft sculpture series, turning the iconic American flag into a flaccid object from pillow cases. He claims this series is routed in taking objects of comfort (pillow cases) and turning them into objects or terror. 

For Simons, working with Sterling Ruby was another opportunity to break away from the fashion system and find his way into new interzones. Or in his own words — a form of liberation, much like his previous work with Peter Saville for AW03 and his homage to the missing Manic Street Preachers guitarist Richey Edwards for AW01. After the show we got him head to head with Ruby to talk teenage nostalgia and our "patched universe".

DD: Raf, last season we spoke about how you always end up in interzones without really knowing it. This season, once again, it feels like you’ve taken yourself out of your comfort zone…

Sterling Ruby: I mean, I think that’s why we did it, to get out of our comfort zone. You know, to keep some autonomy…

Raf Simons: I know I talk a lot of interzones, but I think back in the days when I found Sterling’s work – we’re talking nine years ago – I felt very much that I was entering the world from another kind of person. It’s so rare to be completely sucked into something. If you carry a brand or you’re an artist, I think it takes time to allow someone to connect very strongly to your work. You know, it’s a very important thing for us. This season it’s not just my brand, it’s our brand and I can’t even think about anyone else I could do this with. With Sterling it felt so natural, it just took me a long time to ask him! (laughs) I was probably a bit scared that he would say no!

“We both love the early Punk movement, we both sewed patches on our coats when we were quite young, why not do it again?” – Sterling Ruby

Sterling Ruby: You know, I think at five o’clock this morning we both realised that every single thing that we’ve done together has this kind of iconography of both of our past’s and our history’s. I mean, I think Raf’s right, if... after nine years... and so many discussions about culture, geographics, everything, we both recognise and know our work. We respect one another as people. But you know, to do something like this and really take ourselves out of our comfort zone is super important for any sort of liberation.

DD: The collection also felt like a throwback to obsessive teenage years spent sewing band patches on your clothes. Our visual landscape has changed so much and now we have an entire generation playing out that same form of self-expression online…

Sterling Ruby: Yeah, but it’s still a quilting phenomenon. You’re always layering things, whether it’s digitally or actually, you know through actual sewing or craft. But that’s something, you know, that’s our history! We both love the early Punk movement, we both sewed patches on our coats when we were quite young, why not do it again? (laughs)

DD: What were the patches that you sewed on as teenagers...

Sterling Ruby: Well...

Raf Simons: Pink Floyd, Kraftwerk, Sonic Youth...

Sterling Ruby: Yeah, I mean for me it was Black Flag!

Raf Simons: Yes, Black Flag!

Sterling Ruby: Suicidal Tendencies, D.R.I, you know, I mean...

DD: Do you have any still left at home?

Raf Simons: I do, at my Mum’s, but everything’s too small!

Sterling Ruby: I think my family’s thrown them all away! (laughs)

“I am completely obsessed with trying to get out of the fashion system. For me there was no fear.” – Raf Simons

Raf Simons: Another thing to say, is literally yes they are patches, but I also think the brain and our thought process can be very layered. The universe almost can be very patched, so to speak. I think that’s the main thing that we want to say tonight is that we feel very liberated! It took such a long time for us to build up trust and come to this point. For me there was no fear, it was very natural. I don’t have any... I wasn’t scared for a second that this would not satisfy me, you know?

Sterling Ruby: Yeah, that’s without a doubt. I think we both knew that there would be something that at its core would be absolutely significant and rewarding, but you know, we were both still nervous!

Raf Simons: You know, for us, it was important to take the chance to get out of our own systems. I am completely, completely obsessed with trying to get out of the fashion system and I think Sterling is also interested in getting out of, maybe not a system, but like the kind of....

Sterling Ruby: Well we both work within systems. There’s no doubt about that, but they’re creative systems so you’re constantly trying to come up with these catalysts that would make it more liberating experiences. We’re both very creative people so the idea of autonomy is, that’s like the most important thing that we could think of, particularly collaboratively. How do we create autonomy?

DD: But then the pace of fashion has changed so much and that must be a shock to you Sterling.

Sterling Ruby: Yeah, that’s a shock to me, yeah, yeah, yeah! No doubt about it! I mean art has a slower pace, but this is quite nice, it’s a real rush, yeah!

DD: So a sort of thrill?

Sterling Ruby: Yeah, yeah.  We’ve been texting all day today, you know, so nervous!

DD: Were there significant points during the process?

Raf Simons: Every moment.

Sterling Ruby: I have to say that every month we worked on it, it got stronger and stronger. I think we realised after, maybe the third or fourth month, that we were really meant to do this.