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Raf Simons AW17 Menswear New York Dazed
Backstage at Raf Simons AW17Photography Joshua Woods

Raf Simons faces down an American nightmare

As the US is divided by a political maelstrom, the Belgian designer stages his first show in NYC

There’s an American Nightmare on the loose. Raf Simons’s arrival on U.S. soil coincides with an inauspicious time: just as he uprooted his life to New York and commenced work on his first collection for Calvin Klein last fall, a madman demagogue seized the reins of power. The months that followed became an anomalous and terrifying spiral toward fascism that continues on a minute-to-minute basis, grabbing us all by the throats and holding us in suspense. To say the future is uncertain is a joke at this point, because there is a certainty in plain view. It involves staring down the tunnel of a very dark, and likely violent, future.

But Raf has always had a thing for violence – in all of its celluloid potential, anyway. His AW16 collection, “Nightmares and Dreams”, cited Wes Craven’s Scream and Nightmare on Elm Street as inspirations, alongside his AW02 “Virginia Creeper” collection, which ennobled nature’s furtive tendency to serve as an ominous backdrop to our most primitive impulses. Brutality is often made romantic in Simons’ greatest collections, and that thread continued at his show last night, held at the Gagosian Gallery’s 21st Street space. As the models made their march down the runway to the haunting strands of Roxy Music’s “In Every Dream Home A Heartache,” the oversized knitwear sleeves of AW16 appeared in sequel form. They recalled Freddy Krueger crawling out of the darkness, reaching into reality to pull us back into the realm of perilous sleep.

“By invoking naïve signifiers of New York City and cloaking them in clothes that felt strong and specific to his personal myth, Raf Simons heralded an arrival: a new chapter beginning for the brand”

Hugged by packing tape which made coy references to our current political reality, in addition to adages like “I ♡ NY,” the contents seemed to be marked as fragile, a feeling many can relate to, but they also evoked a certain fearlessness. Part of their resolve came from styling cues that were slightly feminised: the corseted shape that came from the duct tape, the jewellery that resembled punk rock pearl necklaces. Sure, Raf seemed to say, there are monsters among us. Strap yourself in, button yourself up, embrace your inner woman, and face it head on.

“You can only speak up,” Simons said to a group of journalists backstage. “You have to bring things that stand against it. I think we all have to activate.” There were elements of power dressing that added fortitude to that message: shiny topcoats with wide shoulders over oversized pants and hush puppies trimmed with rope. T-shirts bore hints of phrases that included the words “horror,” “Thank You,” and “Summercamp,” slogans and keywords cloud-sourced from past collections. Strappy rucksacks complemented the satin finish of the coats, and oversize knits paid touristy homage to the city that never sleeps. By invoking naïve signifiers of New York City and cloaking them in clothes that felt strong and specific to his personal myth, Raf Simons heralded an arrival: a new chapter beginning for the brand that has defined more than a decade of menswear.

“I don’t want to sleep, I just want to keep on loving you.” So go the lyrics of R.E.O. Speedwagon’s 1980 soft rock standard. On the runway, Michel Gaubert and Ryan Aguilar opted for a reimagining by the gauzy dreampop band Cigarettes After Sex. It added to the abstracted, nightmarish, and lovely quality of the collection. It also conjured emotion. “WALK WITH ME,” shouted the duct tape that sealed our monolithic invitations to the show, a message that encouraged togetherness, while summoning a certain Twin Peaks mystique. What it foreshadowed was an embrace of a city both frightened and ferocious, the outspoken capital of anti-authoritarian revolt. It was a sincere “Hello,” and a signal of solidarity in a nightmare with no end.