The visionary Belgian designer on fear, isolation and how Sterling Ruby inspired him to rip it up and start again
Taken from the spring / summer '14 issue of Dazed:
Like most teenagers, Raf Simons spent his youth obsessively sewing band patches (“Pink Floyd, Kraftwerk, Sonic Youth, Black Flag”) on to his clothes. Fast-forward decades later and Simons, whose namesake label has singlehandedly changed the face of contemporary menswear over the last 19 years, is still taking his cues from the early moments of adolescent angst and expressive rebellion. He embraces clothing as tool for self-expression and a vehicle for big ideas, rather than just its literal qualities.
This season, he pushed his love of “finding himself in new interzones” to new extremes by inviting LA-based artist Sterling Ruby to work with him. But this wasn’t just another fashion collaboration; it was a whole new brand, for one night only. With no rules and lots of attitude, it was a throwback to Simons and Ruby’s love of early punk, featuring collaged garments and lots of patches. In a world where entire generations of youth live online, Simons and Ruby proved that Tumblr shrines have nothing on real-life ideologies.
Today, Raf Simons is travelling from Antwerp to Paris as he prepares to start work on his fifth ready-to-wear collection for Dior as creative director. The poster boy for rebel fashion is taking life at the heights of the system in his stride, but he hasn’t stopped testing its limitations. The question remains: can Simons stay an outsider in his rarefied position?
I don’t overthink the idea that I might be an outsider. I guess it’s just how people see me sometimes. When I was younger, I took more of an attacking attitude. I always felt like I was in the wrong place at the wrong time, but I guess a lot of teenagers feel like that.
In a way, this season was about applying an outsider theory to fashion. It was emotional from the very moment I thought about doing it, because I didn’t really know if Sterling would say yes. I mean, if he asked me to do a show with him at Hauser & Wirth – and don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that’s something he would ever do – I’m not sure that I would dare to step into another field the way he has with this. I like to take control with things and I’m very specific in how I work. In my opinion, this was something that hasn’t really been done before. It wasn’t just my brand, it was our brand, and literally everything would be decided by us. For both of us, it was important to take the chance to get out of our own systems.
I reached out to Sterling because he is so strong and has such specific ideas about things. We’ve known each other for nine years and have a fantastic dialogue. I had no fear that it wouldn’t work out, but at the same time there was a step that needed to be made. I said: ‘Listen, the most important thing is that we’re completely convinced by anything we make together, because otherwise as a project it doesn’t make sense to me.’ It was scary, but at the same time it was very freeing.
Then we had to think about what we wanted to do, what we felt was relevant to say right now. In a way, it felt like it was a first collection again, something far away from the aesthetic, the thinking process and the attitude of the fashion system. I loved the fact that it felt like the first time, because it was, and I wanted us to take on that attitude. I think it was about coming back to a certain form of language that relates to the early practice and DNA of the brand.
In the early days, it was just like, ‘This is what I want to do and I’m just going to do it.’ A decade later, you become connected to a system and naturally that influences your creative process. I’m going to be honest about it, because there have been times in the last six or seven years when I’ve thought, ‘We can’t do it like that any more because it’s not the way fashion is supposed to be.’ So this season, Sterling and myself took on the attitude that we don’t care, that we’re just going to do it the way it should be done. If that means there are 75 pieces of fabric collaged on to a coat – let’s just do it!
It would be false to say that I haven’t come to embrace the system, but in my own way I like to see what I can do within it. There’s this duality in me. Dior is a historic brand that’s been around since the late 40s and Raf Simons is something I established myself in the mid-90s. One is a man, the other is a woman; one is small, the other is big; one is conceptual, the other is not so conceptual. I’ve always needed to have these contrasts. It makes you think and question the other. It can be challenging, but it also makes it very fresh on a psychological level. Let’s say I’ve been in Paris for a week at Dior; then I come back to Antwerp to work on my own brand. Sometimes it can really bring things together in terms of what you want to say at that very moment.
If I have one fear, and if there’s one thing I attack the hardest in my position at Dior, it’s that I don’t want to become isolated as a designer. It’s so dangerous. You can’t become the authority, the one who says, ‘This is what it should be.’ For me, that’s not the definition of fashion. For me, fashion only makes sense if there’s an action and a reaction. I guess, in that sense, my position is very different from an artist who can have a perfect existence in simply creating. It makes no sense for me if you make clothes that are not worn.
I’ve come to really question the system. As much as I am part of it, I have to question it for the simple reason that I wonder how far it can go. How far can it go until the moment that it might not work any more? You know, it needs a very in-depth talk to analyse it and it’s something that I don’t have all the answers to, but I do have a lot of questions. And I don’t think I’m the only one. It’s not just about fashion either, it’s the way we consume, the way we communicate and the way the younger generation look at things.
Raf Simons has always been about generation communication and how generations can link with each other. The state of youth today is something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. My own generation – maybe not myself, but the people around me – all had very very specific opinions. They might have been negative, positive or reactive, but they were always very specific, despite there being a lack of information. For me, it was all about mystery, the things that were underexposed and that were difficult to find… You know, all the things we were interested in were bubbling in our minds and it made it the whole thing quite romantic.
When I ask young kids today, ‘What’s your favourite music? What are you listening to?’ – I’m not kidding you – eight out of ten will say: ‘Everything. I like everything. All genres.’ I’m not even sure if I should say this because I don’t want them to think that it’s strange. I mean, it’s not that I even find it strange, but I just wonder and question why it is. Maybe it’s because people don’t want to be specific any more -– we really wanted to be specific. It’s funny because it’s something Willy (Vanderperre) and I have been talking about recently. When we were young and we went to clubs, there was one genre of music, one dress code and one style of dancing for the whole night. For example, (underground 80s Belgian electronic scene) new beat. You didn’t like that? You didn’t go. You didn’t belong. You would go to a jazz club. These days, if people go to a festival there’s everything. Now, we might miss that because we grew up in a different way, but that is my whole questioning. The younger generation aren’t going to miss something they never had. That’s just not what they’re about and that’s why I get mad when an older generation criticises them. I find it almost painful, because they’re not going to be like we were. We have to realise that.
When you are a fashion designer you have to question why people buy clothes, because I know why I was buying clothes. I knew what I wanted to express. There is this big fascination for me surrounding why people are buying high fashion. Because obviously when you’re talking about high fashion, you’re not talking about practicality. When I was 18, let’s say I had an interest in Helmut Lang or Martin Margiela. You really had to find things out for yourself, and think, ‘Where can I see it?’ Maybe I would get a glimpse of a fragment of a show on TV, or see a tiny picture in The Face or even travel to another city to discover somewhere where they would sell it. The rest was all in your mind. These days, if you have the slightest interest in something, you don’t even have to look for it. It’s already been thrown all over you anyway – you’ve seen the A–Z of the whole thing, and I wonder if that takes away your imagination.
"As much as I am part of it, I’ve come to really question the system. How far can it go until the moment it might not work any more?"
It’s almost a social phenomenon. Everything has become so exposed because of the way we communicate these days. Society is also very money-obsessed and that doesn’t do a lot to promote depth, uniqueness or for someone to be analytical. You want a garment? These days you don’t even need to go to a boutique. You check online, they send it to you and if it doesn’t fit you send it back. No problem! (laughs) So that can go very deep into all of the aspects someone might be interested in, whether that’s porn or clothes or music. I feel like the whole theory behind (his 2003 book and exhibition with Francesco Bonami) The Fourth Sex: Adolescent Extremes is still relevant, and it would be interesting to think about how that could relate to this moment in time. Let’s just say that I see similarities and I see differences.
All clothing by Raf Simons / Sterling Ruby AW14
Hair Vi at Management Artists using Bumble and Bumble; set design Janina Pedan at Magnet Agency; models Matthieu Gregoire, Ryan Hassaine, Fando Alaguerateguy at Success, Charlie Adshead at Major Model Management; photographic assistant Chris Rhodes; styling assistant Gabriel Lahanque; casting director Noah Shelley at AM Casting; production Julia Hackel at Intrepid; post-production Studio Private