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Harriet Verney (Premier) wears all clothes and accessories by Dior spring 2015 couturePhotography Robi Rodriguez, styling Robbie Spencer

Raf Simons: Dior on overdrive

After kinking up couture and baring his soul on screen, fashion’s most notorious outsider reflects on the story so far

Taken from the spring/summer 2015 issue of Dazed:

“The reason I came to Dior was because it was the biggest possible challenge,” says Raf Simons. A voice for those disillusioned by the mainstream, his move to Christian Dior in 2012 was much more than just another round of fashion musical chairs – it was the moment a true punk spirit smashed through the exclusive world of haute couture. For the past three years, the designer has constantly surprised his audiences, taking them on a journey through his love of underground subcultures. His first couture collection for the house quite literally wove anarchist artist Sterling Ruby’s work into gowns. But it’s only now we’re getting a glimpse of the most daring move of his career. Dior and I, a candid new documentary directed by Frédéric Tcheng, chronicles the intensive eight-week period in the run-up to his first show.

Going far beyond the surface-level glitz of most fashion docs, the film cuts to the very core of Simons’ emotion-fuelled approach – and sees fashion’s most notorious outsider finally reveal himself on the big screen. It’s a brave move for anyone, especially Simons. Today, the designer is sitting inside the Dior Paris headquarters looking calm and rested in a paint-splattered shirt from his AW14 collaboration with Sterling Ruby. Sipping on a Coke Zero, he elaborates on what drew him to Dior: “I wanted to see how my world could connect to that house, and the women that surround it. For me, it’s a big challenge to go from Jil Sander, a brand seen as being intellectual or conceptual. But there was something liberating about the idea that you could focus on women and beauty.”

Ever since founding his menswear label, Simons has agitated and subverted the industry, revolutionising the way young men dress. Growing up in the Belgian suburb of Neerpelt, he immersed himself in the sounds of Kraftwerk, Joy Division, David Bowie and Manic Street Preachers, figures he would later pay tribute to in his collections. “I didn’t have anything else around me so it was the first possible link to a form of culture,” he recalls. “We were just kids. Music was everything.” Revering the original Antwerp Six group of designers, Simons did a degree in industrial and furniture design in Genk and an internship at Walter Van Beirendonck before experiencing a Damascene conversion at the all-white 1991 Maison Martin Margiela show, which led him to launch his own label in 1995. A lot has happened in the 20 years since then. He has defined a slim new silhouette and, most importantly, a new attitude in menswear. He explored purity for seven years at Jil Sander. And now, as artistic director of Dior, he’s brought a much-needed jolt of visceral energy and experimental edge to one of the grandest names in the fashion firmament.

That spark of imagination revealed itself in Simons’ spring 2015 couture show as an open love letter to that ageless British androgyne, David Bowie. Of course, the chameleonic quality of the Thin White Duke would appeal to a kid from Neerpelt, dreaming of other worlds. “Bowie is very haute couture, but at the same time he’s the opposite,” says Simons. “He has been able to constantly reinvent himself, but also to materialise – because I speak about him not just as a person, but as a kind of phenomenon.” Naming the show Moonage Daydream in homage to Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust guise, Simons turned the octagonal space of Paris’s Musée Rodin into a maze of fractured reflections made out of mirrors, scaffolding tubes and a dusky pink carpet. “It sounds like a bad trip but in the end it was quite light,” laughs Alexandre de Betak, Dior’s long-time set designer. “Raf and I had been talking about the opening sequence of (William Klein’s cult fashion industry satire) Who Are You, Polly Maggoo?, where the audience are sitting on top of each other. We wanted something grand but also soft and feminine.” The delirious disorientation of the set added to Simons’ stated desire for “sensory overload” in the show. And that was before Bowie came blasting on the soundtrack, singing in his captivatingly alien croon about space invaders and rock’n’roll suicides.

“Upon our first meeting this season, Raf just said to me, ‘It’s Bowie’,” says renowned sound illustrator Michel Gaubert, who works with Simons on both labels. “He lives with music and associates it with images in a very natural way. What he likes for his shows, whether at Dior or his own label, often relates to the feeling he has in creating the collection. Music, just like any other artform, is part of his daily life.” Models at the show made their way through the labyrinthine set in looks that married the romance of the 50s with the revolutionary vibes of the 60s and 70s, translated on the runway into lace dresses teamed with plastic opera coats and accessorised with kinky thigh-high latex boots.

The collection could all have been a glorious mess, but instead was bursting with unexpected ideas. “I was always thinking of the future for so many years and I was always anti-romanticising the past – but the past can be beautiful too,” says Simons. “I was interested in what Christian Dior would have become if he had gone through the 60s and 70s with all the crazy revolution and complete experimentation. I think that’s why I found it interesting to see how I could deal with three decades at the same time, not even connected to what he would’ve done.” More than anything, the plastic-fantastic exuberance of the show was a testament to how confident Simons has become at the house of Dior in a few years. Gone was ‘The New Look’ – the classic Bar silhouette and ultra-feminine Corolle lines that defined the codes of Christian Dior in his earlier couture outings – replaced with an exhilarating vision dreamed up by a modernist in love with the future and all the possibilities it holds.

All it took was a visit to the archives for his preconceptions of Dior to be instantly dispelled. “I was totally impressed, because I always had this perception of him as uber-romantic and uber-lady – the pink and all that – but when we opened the original files from 1947 with these pieces of fabric pinned on them, page after page it was all black. It was so beautiful. So we went to the next collection and almost everything was black, or even grey – just very, very dark. It was completely different, with very heavy fabrics. I think it was the architectural aspect that impressed me the most. So it’s an interesting house, because I really know how these garments are built and it’s totally impressive.”

With this distinguished legacy, it’s unsurprising that Simons was wary of revealing the secrets of his first collection for Dior and I. According to Tcheng, LVMH CEO Bernard Arnault and Dior worldwide communications director Olivier Bialobos were happy to get on board with the project, but Simons himself took a great deal of convincing: “Raf didn’t want to be part of the ‘celebrity culture’. I tried to explain I wasn’t interested in building him up that way; that the seamstresses would be just as important.” Finally, after the pair broke the ice discussing favourite film directors such as Todd Haynes, Simons relented, offering Tcheng unprecedented access.

And what access it was: Simons oscillates through a range of emotions in the film, culminating in a touching rooftop scene where the designer confesses his fears before the couture show. For the very private Simons, it must have been a discomfiting experience. He shudders: “It was very complicated. I’ve seen the film about five times in the past two years. But I’ll never watch it in the cinema – it’s too confronting.” What finally won Simons over was Tcheng’s insistence on going deep into the creative process of making the collection: “What I find beautiful about the movie is that it doesn’t really try to be systematic. I try not to see it as something about me, and that makes me happy. Fréd made a beautiful film about the atelier – and the women in the atelier.”

“Dior is a brand that defined its aesthetic a long time ago. Whatever the designer that comes in is doing, it’s never going to kill the original identity – it’s simply too strong” – Raf Simons

True to Tcheng’s word, the film shines a spotlight on the petites mains of the ateliers, and in particular Florence Chehet, the première for the Atelier Flou, and Monique Bailly, the première of the Atelier Tailleur. For writer and editor Jo-Ann Furniss, who has worked closely with Simons since her time working as editor-in-chief of Arena Homme + this was a key part of his attraction to working at Dior: “That’s what really appeals to Raf – those incredible people, their honesty and what they can do. It’s really special.” Even at a mammoth house like Dior, the designer has been able to capture the sense of homeliness that’s so vital to his work. “There was an immediate sense of family in the ateliers,” says Simons, “and it felt like I was being welcomed into that family. These people, they are not scared. They want a challenge, and they rise to it.”

For Simons to stay so grounded after such a dizzying rise is something he credits to his unusual living arrangement, flitting between Paris and Antwerp. What’s more, it’s the team around him who have played a big part in his journey. It’s made up of right-hand man Pieter Mulier (who has worked with Simons for 13 years now) and a tight-knit cohort of friends he met at the Witzli-Poetzli bar in Antwerp 20 years ago, including make-up artist Peter Philips, artist Peter De Potter, photographer Willy Vanderperre and stylist Olivier Rizzo, all of whom he collaborates with to this day. “Raf is the same person he was 20 years ago, but with an extra load of experience,” says Philips, now head of beauty at Dior. “It’s important not to lose the kid in you, and I think Raf was able to hold on to that part of himself.” While Simons’ own collections have become increasingly autobiographical (he even printed personal photos on garments in his recent SS15 menswear show), his collections for Dior reveal a desire to tap into emotions that will resonate with women. “Maybe it’s the sense of communicating something you care about through your clothing,” says Simons. “It’s not just about something I liked when I was growing up, but communicating something which I feel is important as well as actually wanting to reach people.”

Simons talks constantly about addressing the needs of women today, and redefining Dior as a contemporary concern that can feature luxe sneakers and zippered jumpsuits. “Women have to feel free in what they choose to wear and how they wear it,” he says. “I’m interested in seeing how women wear their clothes every day, 365 days a year.” In doing so, Simons is connecting with Monsieur Dior’s original intentions to liberate women with clothes that moved with their bodies. In taking on the mantle of artistic director, he sees himself as a link in the chain: “Dior is a brand that defined its aesthetic a long time ago. Whatever the designer that comes in is doing, it’s never going to kill the original identity – it’s simply too strong, it’s already sealed in history in a way. I see myself as someone who goes in and then goes out and someone else will do it after me – but there’s also a responsibility to define and redefine, always.”

What Simons has achieved is that rare feat of scaling up his vision while retaining the anarchic spirit that makes him a great designer in the first place – something he attributes to the freedom he’s experienced since taking over the reins at Dior: “I have found a lot of freedom in what I do here, and I think the foundations of the house are built on freedom, as a reaction to the restrictions of the war.” For Simons, the razor-sharp urgency of his eponymous label and Dior’s feminine boundary-pushing agenda are really not so dissimilar. “I think it’s romance that links them,” he says. “A sense of romance in different ways.” Whether crushing on counterculture icons or wearing his heart on his sleeve in Dior and I, Simons has seduced a whole new audience at the fabled fashion house. Most excitingly, he’s done it with the shock of the new.

Lead image: Harriet Verney (Premier) wears all clothes and accessories by Dior spring 2015 couture. Photography Robi Rodriguez; styling Robbie Spencer; hair Martin Cullen at Streeters; make–up Thomas De Kluyver at D+V Management using Chanel S2015 and Body Excellence; nails Jenni Draper at Premier; models Harriet Verney at Premier, Lucan Gillespie and Charlie Barker at Select, Cora Corré at Next, Maisie at Elite, Georgia Chambers at Storm, Reba Maybury, Tallulah Haddon, Ariel Finch, Daisy Davidson; photographic assistants Will Corry, Meshach Falconer–Roberts; styling assistant Louise Ford; hair assistant Miho Emori; make–up assistant Akari Sugino; casting Noah Shelley

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