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Raf Simons A to Z collages

The dA-Zed guide to Raf Simons

From his beginnings in Antwerp to his outsider mindset, this is everything you need to know about one of the most visionary designers of our time

Last year, Raf Simons’ eponymous label turned 20, and in the two decades since he launched his brand, Simons has made strides in menswear that continue to resonate with consumers and fellow creators alike. For Simons personally, much has changed since he set up shop in Antwerp in 1995, and within the past year alone, his name has made headlines. He left his position as creative director of Christian Dior, kickstarting a conversation about the pace and pressures of fashion, and announced that he would return to Florentine trade show, Pitti Uomo, to show his SS17 collection. Then, of course, he’s set the industry abuzz with rumours of his next move, which will most likely come in the form of him taking the helm of the recently united men’s and women’s collections of New York-based brand, Calvin Klein. In anticipation of his Pitti Uomo show, we talk a look back at the history of this true fashion visionary, from his coming of age in rural Belgium to his industry-altering collections through the years.


Antwerp is more or less the centre of all things Raf Simons, from the site of his personal home to that of his eponymous label. Simons began rooting himself in the relatively new fashion capital – which was only put on the map in the 1980s – during his late teens, when he began congregating in cafes such as Witzli-Poetzli, with Olivier Rizzo, Willy Vanderperre, David Vandewal and then-girlfriend Veronique Branquinho to discuss fashion. While studying at a small university in Genk, Simons simultaneously interned with Walter Van Beirendonck, a member of the Antwerp Six, the famed collective of designers that helped position the quiet city on the map as an emerging fashion capital. It was in Antwerp that he first became familiar with the work of Martin Margiela, a key influence in his decision to enter fashion (see E IS FOR: EPONYMOUS).


For SS98, Simons turned out one of his most iconic collections, entitled Black Palms. With graphic designer Franky Claeys, Simons created a palm tree print that served as the backdrop for the runway show set, which was staged in a rundown warehouse in Antwerp. A similar design was painted on the backs of shirtless models for the runway show. One of a number of collections inspired by rave culture and Belgian New Beat music, the garments – many of which came in the form of skin-tight sleeveless shirts paired with tight-fitting pants – were adorned with the anarchist “A” symbol and Anti-Youth and Sex Pistols graphics.


Simons designed womenswear for the first time during his tenure at Jil Sander, but never couture. As such, when he took the helm at Christian Dior in 2012, his debut collection for the AW12 couture season was especially anticipated and ultimately, very well received. It marked the beginning of a three-year tenure for Simons, which ended rather abruptly in October 2015. After working across ready-to-wear, pre-collections and couture, the designer announced his desire to work on personal projects and distance himself from the demands of the current fashion system, saying: “I’m not the kind of person who likes to do things so fast.”


The title of Simon’s AW99 collection, Disorder Incubation Isolation, speaks to the underlying themes which the Raf Simons brand was founded upon. They are also the words that adorned black flags that were carried by the group of teens who opened the runway show that season. The collection consisted of an array of monochrome looks – some black, others grey – and sleek overcoats layered over turtlenecks that were embroidered with an “R” at the neck and paired with baggier-than-usual trousers. Models, who walked in an order according to their hair colour (black-haired models first, followed by blondes) also appeared in roomy ponchos, leather sweatshirts, and to close, knitted tops layered under Simons’ signature jackets with chopped-off sleeves.


In 1995, with the encouragement of Linda Loppa, the head of the fashion division at Antwerp’s Royal Academy, Simons launched his eponymous label. A formally trained industrial and furniture designer, Simons says he was largely converted to fashion design after attending his first-ever runway show, Martin Margiela’s SS91 all-white show. Of the occasion, Simons has said: “Nothing else in fashion has had such a big impact on me. Only at that point did I understand what fashion could be or what it could mean to people.” He subsequently showed his first two collections – modeled by young male and female models – by way of video presentations and then began staging runway shows in 1997 with collections that served as examinations of the notion of “outsiderism” and the associated youth codes, such as Gabber, Americana, and New Wave.


Simons collaborated with Italian art curator and writer Francesco Bonami in 2003 on a book and Pitti Uomo exhibition, entitled “The Fourth Sex: Adolescent Extremes”. The project focused on the importance of social codes and tribes, such as those prevalent among the youth – a common element in most of Simons’ early work. According to the exhibition notes: “Adolescents are not boys or girls and not yet men or women. They belong to a parallel, fluid universe, in a state of becoming. They are closely connected to the present, yet symbolically contain the seeds of future.” Simons followed this up with his second book, “Redux”, in 2005, which charts the first ten years of his career and coincided with a retrospective and runway show at Pitti in Florence.


A niche genre of 1990s hardcore Dutch techno, the Gabber movement, complete with its own sect of youth subculture, served as a point of reference for Simons in his early years. Known for its old-school hip-hop and British skinhead culture influences, and more concretely, its wardrobe of loose fitting track suits and Air Max 90s, Gabber ran throughout Simons’s collections. It took the form of prints adorned on garments – as so many of Simons’ inspirations do – including those from his SS00 collection, Summa Cum Laude. Even some of the models’ hair (shaved on the sides, longer on the top) was reminiscent of Gabber style. Interestingly, MENSA, a non-profit organization and the largest and oldest high-IQ society in the world, served as a reference point for Simons that season, as well.


Hailing from Neerpelt, a rural town near the Dutch and German borders, Simons is the only child of Jacques, a military night watchman, and Alda, a cleaning lady. Growing up, he says art and music were the only mechanisms for him to keep up with the world at large. He followed the work of Belgian art curator Jan Hoet and listened to bands like Kraftwerk, The Virgin Prunes, The Cramps, New Order, Joy Division, and Sonic Youth, among others, and studied album cover art. Still some forty years later, his youth and family play a large role in informing his work; recall his SS15 collection with its garments adorned by photos of his parents’ courtship, as well as a passport-style photo from his own youth.


Simons’ first book, “Isolated Heroes”, which was published in 1999, is particularly fitting for a man so inspired by the notion of isolation and the faces (and wardrobes) of those who are a part of it. The result of a collaboration with photographer David Sims, the book highlights a handful of models that Simons had street-cast for his SS00 collection, something for which the designer had become known. Instead of casting traditional agency-represented models for his runway shows, as most brands were doing at the time, Simons, opted for younger (and often paler) locals, who he and his team cast on the streets in Antwerp. One of whom was Robbie Snelders, who would become Simons’ longtime muse and assistant (see S IS FOR: SNELDERS).


From 2005 until 2012, Simons served as the creative director of Jil Sander, with some of his most noteworthy collections coming from this German luxury brand. His use of technical materials, his iterations of the classic t-shirt, and of course, his consistent reworking of the menswear silhouette put Jil Sander menswear on the map. As for womenswear, Simons’ first foray into formally designing for the other sex, his minimalist aesthetic (something for which the Sander brand is known) and use of vibrant color (remember the contrasting use of long brightly colored voluminous skirts with simple white t-shirts for SS11?) made him and his collections a highlight during the Milan shows each season.


The title of the first official LP by German industrial band Einstürzende Neubauten, Kollaps served as a focus point in Simons’s SS02 collection. Entitled, Woe Onto Those Who Spit On The Fear Generation...The Wind Will Blow It Back, the collection, complete with its army of barefoot models, whose faces were wrapped in scarves and head covered in hoods, is one of the most influential men’s shows in recent history. Garments had elongated hemlines, some featured chopped off sleeves and others came in the form of heavily distressed knits. Sweatshirts bore Kollaps graphics and slogans that read “Be Pure Be Vigilant Behave” in what was Simons’ comment on the somber state of world affairs.  


Few designers have such easily identifiable muses as Raf Simons and so, when he welcomes a new one, as he has only done three times over a span of twenty years or so, it is noteworthy. On the heels of Yannick Abrath’s tenure as house muse, Simons introduced Belgian industrial design student (sound familiar?) Luca Lemaire as the face of his label for AW13. Lemaire has fronted every one of Simons’ ad campaigns since, in addition to opening and closing his runway shows, and appearing in an array of Simons-related editorials, as well.


While Simons’ eponymous label is relatively modest in size (in terms of its team and also in terms of revenue), its influence has been vast. Depending on who you ask, he was the originator of the skinny black suit, with its slim-fitting tailoring, with narrow shoulders and skinny lapels. It was so narrowly tailored that Linda Loppa, upon seeing Simons’ collection, remarked: “Wow, beautiful, but Raf, aren’t they too small?” Most importantly, however, was the fact that the silhouette contrasted so markedly with the ones that were being shown on the runways in all of the major fashion capitals, subsequently sweeping the fashion industry and ultimately transforming the way men dressed – remnants of which we still see today.

“I need art,” Simons said in 2013. “I cannot live without it. Ce n’est pas possible. It’s like air” – Raf Simons

He also had a hand in developing the Americana fetishism for which he was known throughout much of his early career, and the oversized, maxi aesthetic complete with iterations of baggy layering that followed thereafter. Far from merely archival collections, Simons’ work has served to push the boundaries of both youth culture and of silhouette on a grander scale, the influence of (or maybe better yet, imitation of) which is commonly seen in the works of streetwear figures today, like Kanye West and Virgil Abloh – both of which have not been shy to profess their love of Simons’ work. Abloh, who took no small dose of “inspiration” from Simons for his own Americana-inspired SS15 collection, has said: “Raf put the top layer to streetwear. And I don’t mean streetwear as in like a graphic t-shirt with a logo on it, I mean like the concept of youth-driven, forward-thinking silhouettes."


Growing up in a town as small and as rural as Neerpelt, Simons relied on music and the imagery from album covers as a source of early inspiration. He was particularly entranced by New Order, Joy Division, and the graphic design work of Peter Saville. This is clearly demonstrated in his SS03 collection, Closer, which it was infused with works from Saville’s archives, namely by way of graphics emblazoned on sweaters and trench coats. These items are some of his most recognisable, and have since sold for small fortunes on menswear resale sites. More recently, his SS15 collection, which consists of uniform-inspired garments adorned by collages that are deeply personal to Simons, included illustrations that read “NO” – seemingly a New Order reference.


One of Simons’ friends from his early days interning in Antwerp, Olivier Rizzo remains a confidant and consistent collaborator of Simons’, styling almost all of his ad campaigns and various other projects dating back to the 1990s. Something of a Belgian dream team, the two are responsible for some of the most boundary-pushing looks coming out of the country. A testament to their longstanding friendship and working relationship, Simons paid homage to Rizzo in his deeply personal SS15 collection. Alongside photos of his parents, which appeared on garments, Simons included a photo of himself, in which he is wearing a “Superman t-shirt from the graduate collection of Oliver Rizzo.” Of that shirt, Simons said after the show: “It was a very emotional moment for me. I still remember when (Rizzo) gave it to me and I kept it for all of these years! Tonight I finally gave it back to him.”


Raf has long been adamant that fashion is not the centre of his universe, and his other passions certainly support this. Take his extensive art collection and practice of art directing/consulting, for instance, which bleeds onto nearly any runway upon which his garments appear – from the Andy Warhol drawing-emblazoned Dior AW13 collection to the Yves Klein blue and elements from the work of ceramicist Pol Chambost during his tenure at Jil Sander. He’s also maintained a longterm friendship with American artist Sterling Ruby, with whom he’s created a collaborative collection for his eponymous label. In fact, Simons arguably even speaks more passionately about art than fashion: “I need art,” Simons said in 2013. “I cannot live without it. Ce n’est pas possible. It’s like air.” And even when he is putting forth garments and accessories, there is much more to it than that. Simons has said so himself: “I don’t want to show clothes, I want to show my attitude, my past, present and future.”


Unlike many a modern day creative director, with their personal social media accounts and various other self-promotion efforts, Simons is not hungry for the spotlight. In fact, until his SS05 show, he took a page from Martin Margiela’s book and stayed backstage following his runway shows in lieu of taking a bow or walking the runway as some designers are prone to do. And even then, Simons says his appearance was only the result of an escalator malfunction (models appeared descended upon the runway by way of an escalator that season). And even now, after taking on one what was deemed to be one of the most coveted jobs in fashion – the helm of Christian Dior – Simons still seems to see himself as an outsider, calling the recent push towards ‘See Now, Buy Now’ and the overwhelming adoption of social media “bullshit” and admitting a nostalgia for the days when fashion was “not for everybody.”


For AW01, Raf Simons showed a collection entitled Riot, Riot, Riot, noted for its introduction to the oversized silhouette, complete with baggy layers, as Simons had grown tired of skinny tailoring. The collection was predicated in large part on the mysterious disappearance of the Manic Street Preachers’ Richey Edwards, whom Simons viewed as a fellow outsider. Edwards’ image, corresponding police reports and set lists from before his disappearance appeared on oversized camo bomber jackets and striped t-shirts. Staged against an industrial set filled with smoke machines and scaffolding, the show was yet another highly thematic and touching experience – all without being terribly showy or theatrical.


Given Simons’ penchant for avoiding the spotlight, Robbie Snelders, Simons’ earliest muse, arguably represents the brand in a way that Raf never could. In fact, it is his face that appears on many a Raf Simons retrospective in lieu of Simons’ own. Street cast by the his team in Antwerp in 1998, Snelders went on to be not just the face of the Raf Simons brand but an integral part of the team on the backend, serving as the designer’s right hand for roughly ten years before branching out to other fashion opportunities.


Prior to a noticeable shift in his inspiration in 2004 or so when, he shed his obsessive exploration of the youth for a more restrained, future-oriented aesthetic, Simons’ work was largely based on the social codes and subcultures of teens, with – at times – very literal references. His early collections, for instance, were inspired by school-age children, with graphics that literally read “teenager” adorning t-shirts, and parochial school-like shirt and tie combinations. For SS97, he unveiled How to Talk to Your Teen, complete with a list of points of exactly how to do just that (think: “5. Respect your teenager’s privacy. But if a behavior is worrying you, speak up.”).


Raf Simons’ father was a military man and his youth was spent at a strict Catholic school, and so, it comes as little surprise that some of his early collections came with uniforms as a focal point. His very first collection, AW95, saw his using uniforms – whether it be school-inspired or military in nature. Further iterations on school uniforms and the addition summer camp attire came for AW97, in which Simons showed garments with sharp tailoring, uniform motif-emblazoned blazers, and sweatshirts that read “Youngsville University.” Military uniform-inspired details came again years later in the form of his SS10 collection with its matching trousers and belted jackets.


For yet another one of his most widely recognized collections, Virginia Creeper, Simons went to the woods. The AW02 collection saw a return of Simons’ penchant for Americana, this time taking the form of university-branded sweatshirts and varsity jackets, some of which were worn under oversized plastic ponchos. In other cases, the ponchos were layered under oversized, high-shine parkas and baggy leather trousers. Red lighting (not terribly unlike that of AW15) set an eerie scene, and further drove home the point of Simons’ commentary: the unpredictability and power of nature.


Photographer Willy Vanderperre joins the sibling-like trifecta that is him, Raf Simons and Olivier Rizzo. Much like in the case of Rizzo, Vanderperre and Simons met as young men in Antwerp and have worked together on a consistent basis ever since. Together, the three men are some of the most iconic outsider fashion imagery of the last two decades – from directing and lensing Simons’ ad campaigns to his own recent photo box, 10 works for Raf Simons, an ode to their longstanding partnership.


Prior to taking the creative director position at Christian Dior in 2012, and despite his tenure at Jil Sander, Simons was largely an unknown name for those outside of the European fashion industry. However, an array of collaborations has helped him make his name on a wider scale. Consider the longstanding partnership between Simons and Fred Perry, which began in 2008 and marries Simons’ youth-oriented and graphic design sensibilities with Fred Perry’s timeless style. And likely even more significant: Simons’ ongoing collaboration with Adidas, Raf Simons X Adidas, which has seen the introduction of a number of “it” shoes, including the “R” adorned Stan Smiths, as well as a handful of futuristic runway show sneakers. It is this collab that put Simons on the radar of a huge slew of individuals outside of the fashion industry. Additional collaborations include ones with Asics, Dr. Martens, and American accessories brand, Eastpak, which is responsible for the standout backpacks from Simons’ collections.


Model Yannick Abrath followed in Robbie Snelders’ footsteps to become one of Simons’ most longstanding muses. Like Snelders, Abrath was scouted by Simons’ team in Antwerp, made his debut on Simons’ runway shortly thereafter, and went on to walk for Simons’ eponymous label and Jil Sander, and appear in ad campaigns for both brands, as well as Simons’ Fred Perry collection, for years. He appeared in a Simons’ show as recently as SS16.


Simons has a truly special skill – aside from his design capabilities. He is able to capture the zeitgeist of any given time and create garments so fitting and desirable that draw in consumers, critics and fashion fans, alike. More interestingly, however, is how those same clothes fit into the fashion landscape years later. They blend seamlessly, as indicated by the Simons AW01 bomber jackets, for instance, that are just as in demand – if not more so – now than they were when he first showed them over ten years ago. This is certainly a testament to Simons’ ability to innovate and create garments that straddle the zeitgeist of the moment and also speak to the desires of consumers in the future, and this is largely what sets him apart from many of his peers or nearly all of his younger counterparts.