Raf Simons is departing Dior to focus on his own label and life outside the atelier – here’s why we should respect his decision
Yesterday, Raf Simons announced his departure from Dior, three years after having joined the company. "It is after careful and long consideration that I have decided to leave my position as creative director of Christian Dior’s women’s collection,” the designer said in a statement issued by the house. “Christian Dior is an extraordinary company, and it has been an immense privilege to write a few pages of this magnificent book.” Simons cited personal reasons and a desire to focus on his own brand and pursuits outside of work as the impetus for his exit, so it seems unlikely that he will be heading up another house in fashion’s game of musical chairs any time soon. Names buzzing to take his place include Phoebe Philo, who has brought a much acclaimed, much copied feminine minimalism to Céline since 2008.
The announcement comes just weeks after Dior’s SS16 show, which will now be Simons’ last. A softer, more romantic offering than the bold, colourful graphicism of last season, the show was staged in a constructed grassy knoll in the inner courtyard of the Louvre, covered with 300,000 lilac delphiniums. It was a set that gestured to his first show for the house, in which a Parisian townhouse was filled to bursting with blooms, walls lined with them from floor to ceiling. Simons left the runway with a sign: he held up his hands to make the shape of a heart – just as he did in his last show for Jil Sander, back in 2012. In his years at the maison, Simons has used prints by outsider artist Sterling Ruby on gowns, soundtracked shows with the experimental sounds of Throbbing Gristle, and zipped models into thigh high latex couture boots. He’s maintained a healthy respect for the house’s iconic history, but injected his own modernism, updating codes of the past for the wardrobes of women today.
Unsurprisingly, yesterday’s announcement was widely commented on. Kris Van Assche, fellow Belgian designer and current creative director of Dior Homme marked the announcement by posting an image of Simons on Instagram captioned simply, RESPECT. Eagle eyed followers may have noticed one comment stand out in particular – @rafsimonsofficial posted a single, waving hand emoji. While Van Assche's comment may simply have been a way to mark his appreciation for what Simons has done for Dior, it seemed to say more. Van Assche, who recently pressed pause his own label, knows firsthand the difficult decisions invovled in leading two brands, and walking away from a path that once seemed right. "Times are tough for independent labels," he told WWD. "This wonderful adventure has reached a point where I feel the need to take a break and some distance to better think about how to develop my brand in the future."
“Designers are expected to create at unfathomable rates, overseeing campaigns and other branding exercises alongside collections. Is it possible to juggle the pressures of an independent brand and a world-leading house?”
And Simons isn’t the only one seeking to take a step back from leading a big house to pour his energy into his own label. Natural comparisons are being drawn between him and Alexander Wang, who left Balenciaga last month after a similar three years, saying that he was “looking forward to taking (his) own brand to its next level of growth.” (He’s since been replaced by Demna Gvasalia, of VETEMENTS). It seems undoubtable that the added workload of a house that demands six collections a year on top of his own line, meaning Simons' was in charge of designing and showing a collection at a rate of one every six weeks, was a key factor behind his decision to leave. Designers are expected to create at unfathomable rates, overseeing campaigns and other branding exercises alongside collections. Is it possible to juggle the pressures of an independent brand and a world-leading house? Still-recent history might suggest not – John Galliano’s struggles with the pressures of doing just that were well-documented.
There will be many who will say Simons should not have walked away, or will mourn his vision for the house dearly – just look at social media, where Dior and I gifs of the designer crying are doing a good job of summing up the #mood. But for Simons to walk away from Dior at a high point (profits were up 13% this year) to do his own thing sends a powerful message – and shows that he remains to be one of fashion’s most independent spirits. What more would you expect from the outsider designer for whom music and subculture are his most natural reference points, who had “come to really question the system” of fashion he was part of. “The reason I came to Dior was because it was the biggest possible challenge,” Simons told us earlier this year. He may be stepping away from the spotlights that come with one of the world’s biggest luxury brands, but it’s a challenge he walks away from victorious.