As Raf Triumphs At The CFDAs, A Look Back To When He Sat Down With Alexander Fury
It doesn’t take much for us here at Ten Towers to declare our unremitting love for Raf Simons. Sometimes it will just come pouring out – uncontrollably, completely unprompted, at a considerable volume. Imagine us this morning, then, when we learnt that Raf had taken home the CFDA awards for Menswear and Womenswear Designer of the Year. It was… messy. To celebrate Mr Simons’s triumphant evening, we look back to Issue 43 of 10 Men, where Alexander Fury sat down with the Belgium designer after a magnificent SS16 show…
Over the past few seasons, Raf Simons’s menswear shows have become less a formalised catwalk presentation, more a cross between art performance piece, school play and heavy-metal gig.
They’ve been taking place in venues far beyond Paris’s Boulevard Périphérique, the ring road around the city true, flinging us into the suburbs or, one memorable season, close by Orly Airport, in a Gagosian Gallery outpost ideally positioned for those eager to truck major works of art onto private planes.
To me, there was – indeed, is – something teenage about those shows. Not that they seemed unsophisticated or juvenile in execution – the opposite. But there was a rebellious attitude to them that was unmistakably aligned to teenage years – a plaintive quality, even, as though Simons’s was a lone voice raised in protest.
The raiments of protest are, of course, part of his modus operandi, too: in 2001, he staged a show titled Woe onto Those Who Spit on the Fear Generation… The Wind Will Blow It Back, with the models barefoot, their faces wrapped in scarves like anarchists. Only anarchists never looked so pretty.
I can’t help but see Simons’s recent shows as a quiet form of protest, bucking against conventions, against the establishment. Simons drags his audience far out of their way, late at night, to see his collections; he shows in darkness, destroying the fashion system’s instamatic iPhone replay of every show. The past three seasons, he has entirely eschewed the rigidly codified and hierarchical seating systems. Simons’s audiences stand, as though you’re at a school assembly, or in church, or at a rock gig. Maybe his shows are an amalgamation of all three? Or maybe Simons is just laughing at the fashion system. I doubt it, though.
Not because Simons is dour and serious – he’s not. Simons takes his work very seriously, but in person he strikes you overwhelmingly as emotional and excitable, endearingly so. He doesn’t have the self- destructive “fuck you” attitude of the class rebel, but there is something teenage about him. He has retained the sparkle of youth. He remembers what it was like to be that age.
When I talk to him about fashion, we go straight back to his teenage years, growing up in Neerpelt, in Belgium, close to the border with Holland. “I come from a village and they had no cinema and gallery,” he says. “When I was a really young child, like 12, 13, I didn’t know what a gallery was. The only world that I knew, which could eventually relate to everything we constantly have around us, that relates to culture, was a record store. Nothing else. Boutiques didn’t exist in my village.”
Recalling his first interest in fashion, he says, slowly: “I was 13 or 14, I think.” In fact, scratch that. “It was nothing to do with fashion, only with music. Dark, black… Depeche Mode, Kraftwerk. It had nothing to do with fashion, actually. But in a way, it has to do with fashion because, of course, it’s all… I didn’t get it like that. I didn’t see Depeche Mode as fashion, at that moment. It was about the music, but of course you connect with how they look, that style, which was uber fashion. So that’s how it started.
The roots of Simons are buried in those times. When he emerged onto the fashion scene in 1995, it was with a skinny black suit – one so perfectly fitted it seemed ill-fitting amid the wide-cut jackets of the era. The gawky, awkward suits, skinny sweaters, fastened-up shirts on scrubbed-clean models didn’t look grown- up. Their youth was almost painful. The Raf Simons man has never grown up: for SS16, he occupied the same territory, that narrow-shouldered silhouette still a fixation. “Youth on a pedestal” was his declaration of his AW15 show; “memory wear” was his description of last spring. There’s something introspective, rather than retrospective, about these collections. They’re not looking back at Simons’s past work, but rather inward, at what motivated him to become involved in fashion in the first place.
“I wanted to make clothes for kids in the beginning,” he says. “But there was no financial possibility. Clothes for me and the kids around me. We were young, we were going out. It was very much about that.” It perhaps still is.
Nevertheless, Simons didn’t see his future as fashion. “Until I was already quite far into my industrial-design education, I could never think about fashion as something that could interest me to practice, to do. Actually the opposite.” He laughs – and you think of the late 1980s, of Christian Lacroix and Chanel and, indeed, even Christian Dior under the pomp and circumstance of designer Gianfranco Ferré, an establishment about to be rapidly deflated by the work of Martin Margiela (not yet a Maison).
It was a Margiela show, Simons says, that changed everything – Margiela’s third, SS90, a show glimpsed while Simons was working for Walter Van Beirendonck as an intern in 1989. “They were all very connected,” Simons says of the Belgian designers then migrating, slowly, to show in Paris. “They all knew each other. Martin was not part of the Antwerp Six, but they were all in school, so they were connected, so obviously they were going to invite each other to each other’s shows. That’s how I ended up seeing that Margiela show… It was a split second, I never told anybody… For a long time I didn’t tell anybody because it took still some time, but it was a split second, it was the moment the girls came out, that’s the moment. I had a kind of ash of, ‘Ah! It’s not so on the surface, it’s not so glamour and parties.’ It was so different. Then it started to make sense to me. I don’t know why, it just started to make sense.”
Simons sighs heavily. “I get very emotional if I think about that show. There was a whole weird, unexpected thing going on that I think wasn’t planned at all. It was in the courtyard of a very, kind of, dirty neighbourhood in Paris, but there were children everywhere. ‘What are they doing here?’ Then you get it – it’s their environment. I heard that story afterwards that Margiela had no money for the space, so they asked [the community] ‘Can we use the play area of your children?’ and they said yes, if the children could come and see the show. The invitation was a little cardboard thing and every invitation used a drawing from one of those children.”
He smiles. “I never got an invitation – otherwise I’d have kept it forever. This was the only reason that I think that I could decide for myself that I wanted to do that. Not the way it looked – although I loved the way it looked – it was more about how I felt. Something so meaningful, so totally from the heart, that show, that collection. And I think that was needed for me, because before that I was very much looking only into music and art. Reading about art, following art. I always liked very much how in art there was automatic dialogue, exploring the vision or the thought processes of the artist. I think just because I was used to that, I didn’t see that in fashion. I didn’t feel, I didn’t hear about that in fashion.” He pauses again. “The weird thing about Martin’s show,” Simons says, “was that it didn’t look like a fashion show.” It didn’t feel like one, either.
I often think the same about Raf Simons shows – those shows where we stand in the darkness, waiting; those shows where we huddle in gloom and watch the models striding atop a jacked-up stage. That stage, for sure, places fashion back onto its stereotypical pedestal, but seems less about distancing the audience from an imagined, idealised reality, and more about raising up the alternative on an altar, exalting the different and the imperfect. It also reminds you of a concert, as opposed to a catwalk.
Raf Simons’s SS16 show will go down in history, regardless of the clothing shown: it was the final menswear collection created during his tenure as the creative director of Dior’s womenswear. I talked to Simons well before the announcement of that departure. A certain unspoken tension hung over his conversation. Simons had somewhere else to be, something else to talk about. More clothes to make. “When you’ve your own brand and when you’re creative director, it’s two different worlds,” he commented. “Two different mind-sets as well. Does it mean one is more or less important? No. I treat them in the same way.”
And yet, it’s impossible not to see Simons’s intensely personal menswear collections of the past 18 months as an expression of that divided personality: a return to the self, when so many of the clothes you have created bore someone else’s name. These clothes, by contrast, are Raf Simons. Unmistakably so. They’re the best menswear in the world.
Photographs (a selection) taken from Issue 43 of 10 Men…
Photographer: Dominick Sheldon
Fashion Editor: Hector Castro
Hair: Ramona Eschbach
Make-up: Hugo Villard
Models: Kari at Ulla and Aled at Tomorrow Is Another Day