After triumphs at Jil Sander, Christian Dior and his own eponymous label, Raf Simons has been handed the creative helm of the Calvin Klein empire. Bob Colacello discovers how Simons is reanimating the spirit of an all-American style legend. Photographed b
After triumphs at Jil Sander, Christian Dior and his own label, Raf Simons is reanimating the spirit of all-American style legend Calvin Klein.
Actually, nothing ever started with me in relation to fashion. Things started in relation to art and design and film and music. Fashion is the last thing that came in. It’s what I do now … but if somebody would ask what is it that you breathe that’s not air, but that’s what you need, it’s art. I have to see art constantly. It’s not even like: ‘Okay, I’m going to look at art in the evening’; it’s all day long.” Thus spoke fashion designer Raf Simons, in his first major interview since his triumphant debut at Calvin Klein during New York Fashion Week in February. The Belgian-born, 49-year-old Simons (pronounced as in “persimmons”; “Raf” rhymes with “gaffe”) was named chief creative officer of the sprawling but stagnant US$8.4 billion Calvin Klein empire last August, overseeing the women’s and men’s lines, jeans, underwear, home goods and fragrances, as well as all aspects of advertising, marketing and communications, a degree of control not in the hands of a single designer since Calvin himself left the company, a year after it was bought by Phillips–Van Heusen in 2002. Simons has long been the darling of the international fashion press, both for the avant-garde men’s line he has been designing under his own name out of Antwerp since 1995 and for the high-style revivals he pulled off at Jil Sander (2005–12) and Christian Dior (2012–15), so it was not surprising that his ascension at Calvin Klein was greeted like the Second Coming of the founding master himself.
The most anticipated fashion show in decades turned out to be brilliant, ran the headline over Cathy Horyn’s post-show review in New York magazine. “Calvin Klein is renewed,” proclaimed the
Washington Post’s Robin Givhan. The collection, which combined women’s and men’s fashions, played with the brand’s two most essential elements: minimalism and the American spirit, updating both with ironic decorative twists. That translated into black leather biker’s jackets embroidered with silvery roses; basic-black jersey dresses slit open along the bottom of the bosom; well-cut grey men’s suits worn without shirts; cocktail shifts made of feathers encased in plastic. A woman’s bright yellow rain slicker and a man’s glen-plaid double-breasted overcoat were overlaid in clear plastic, too, harking back to the 1950s, when newly affluent American suburbanites protected their sofas the same way.
Among those applauding from the front row were two of Calvin’s original models, Brooke Shields and Lauren Hutton, along with Julianne Moore and Gwyneth Paltrow, artists Cindy Sherman and Rachel Feinstein, rapper A$AP Rocky, and Diane von Furstenberg, who later
told me: “I loved what he did for Dior, but I think for him to do Calvin is even a better idea.”
Tommy Hilfiger, whose company is also owned by PVH, called to congratulate him. “I watched it online,” he said. “It was a great show, and what it told me was that Raf understands the consumer and fashion at the same time.”
The show was held on the ground floor of the Calvin Klein headquarters, in midtown Manhattan, which had been turned into an installation artwork by Simons’s close friend and frequent collaborator, Sterling Ruby, a Los Angeles–based painter, sculptor and ceramist. Dangling from the ceiling was an assortment of American cliches and symbols – baseball bats, pom-poms, mops, tin pails, blue denim sheets, ragged flags – some Ruby’s trademark soft sculptures, others unadorned found objects (including the artist’s own used black Calvin Klein briefs). Ruby had also painted the façade of the first three floors of the 17-storey art deco building black and redesigned the 12th-floor showroom, with shiny chrome tables and chairs and walls clad in red-white-and-blue splattered canvas that Simons refers to as “an abstraction of the American flag”.
“I brought Sterling in immediately when we were talking about the space,” Simons says. “I have an ongoing dialogue with him that goes beyond.” Two big Sterling Ruby works and a very large Cindy Sherman photograph dominate Simons’s 10th-floor office, a square white room with a high ceiling. The curvaceous red plush sofa is by the mid-century French designer Jean Royère. There are two matching armchairs and a 1950s Gio Ponti glass-and-wood coffee table, holding two vases, one filled with crimson peonies, the other blue hydrangeas. The ceramic pitchers on Simons’s desk, he says when I ask, are by Picasso.
“I’m a huge Picasso and Warhol fan,” he tells me. “I love Balthus. I have a small edition of Balthus downstairs, which I’m obsessed with, the one with the cats and the two little girls.” He explains that he started collecting with artists of his own generation, including Ruby, Mark Manders and Anne Collier. “But what activated my interest was the earlier generation, mainly the women, all of [whom] I collect now that I have prosperity: Cady Noland, Cindy Sherman, Rosemarie Trockel, Isa Genzken. I have a big obsession with them, and with the male part of that generation: Charles Ray, Richard Prince, Christopher Wool.” He hastens to add George Condo and the late Mike Kelley.
Although all this art talk might seem pretentious, it is leavened by Simons’s pleasantly earnest demeanour and unaffected Flemish accent. There is an average-guy quality about him that contrasts with his obvious intelligence and sophistication: at 49 years old, he is neither tall nor short, neither heavy nor slim, and his cropped brown hair is combed forward, classical-Roman-style. His most striking features are his large, cobalt blue eyes, and the fact that he looks straight at you when he speaks reinforces the sense of sincerity and security he projects. He is dressed simply but fashionably in black gabardine Prada pants, black Balenciaga motorcycle boots, and an oversize light-blue cotton shirt with a Robert Mapplethorpe image silkscreened at the bottom, one of several pieces from his spring 2017 men’s collection made in collaboration with the Mapplethorpe Foundation. Even the dog bed just outside his office door, for his Beauceron, named Luka, is a work of art, covered in the same Sterling Ruby splattered canvas as the showroom walls.
“You know, a lot of artists are scared of fashion,” Simons says. “Because they think it’s going to damage [their image]. I like it when an artist is not scared of fashion. The ultimate example of that is Sterling.”
Simons and Ruby, of course, are not the first designer and artist to work together. Dalí designed a “lobster dress” with Schiaparelli in the 1930s. Halston made gowns based on Warhol’s Flowers paintings in the 1970s. Most recently, Jeff Koons created, controversially, Vuitton handbags incorporating reproductions of old-master paintings.
But these have mostly been occasional experiments; the Raf-andSterling duet has been going strong for a decade now. They met more than 10 years ago, when Ruby’s then dealer, Marc Foxx, took Simons to Ruby’s Los Angeles studio. In 2008, Ruby helped design the Raf Simons boutique in Tokyo. They co-produced a small denim collection together the following year and the limited-edition Raf Simons/Sterling Ruby men’s-wear line in 2014, featuring a US$30,500 hand-painted canvas parka. Some of the most beautiful dresses in Simons’s first couture collection for Dior were made from fabric that duplicated the sensuous, blurred, green-and-pink striations of an abstract Ruby painting. (A similar painting sold for US$1.7 million at Christie’s in early 2013.)
“My old studio manager called Raf my brother from another mother,” says Ruby, who is four years younger than the designer. “I grew up on a farm in Pennsylvania; he grew up in a very small town in a rural area on the Flemish side of Belgium. We both wanted out … And now we’re both walking on tightropes, trying to figure out what we’re doing.”
Raf Simons was born on January 12, 1968, the only child of Jacques Simons, an army nightwatchman, and Alda Beckers, a housecleaner, in Neerpelt, Belgium, near the Dutch and German borders. “It was a village,” he says. “There was nothing – no boutique, no gallery, no cinema.” He attended a strict Catholic high school, where he studied Greek and Latin, and was one of a handful of boys who dressed all in black and idolised British New Wave bands such as Depeche Mode and Yazoo. “You were supposed to become doctors or lawyers. For me, it was completely alien.” His first awareness of fashion came from watching Style with Elsa
Klensch, on CNN. “I was hooked on her program because it had international fashion designers: Montana, Mugler and then the Japanese,” he recalls. “I didn’t know you could study fashion. I also did not know you could study painting or sculpture. Nobody ever told me. My mom and dad, they were completely in another world.” In 1986, almost by chance, he found his way to the Institute of Visual Communication, in the nearby city of Genk, where he studied industrial and furniture design for the next five years. During his fourth year of university, Simons interned at the studio of Walter Van Beirendonck, one of the Antwerp Six, the group of Belgian avant-garde fashion designers, including Dries Van Noten and Ann Demeulemeester, who had graduated from Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts in the early 1980s and during that decade made the city into a mini-Milan of the north. Van Beirendonck took Simons to a Martin Margiela show in Paris, which their Belgian compatriot staged in a playground with neighbourhood children running alongside the models. It was the first fashion show Simons had seen, and he was surprised by the intensity of his emotional reaction.
After completing his degree in Genk, he spent a couple of years struggling to establish himself as a furniture designer in Antwerp. The Raf Simons Men’s label was launched in 1995, with a video starring two bonethin street kids. Around the same time, he met the woman he would live with for the next five years, Véronique Branquinho, who had just graduated from the Royal Academy and started her own women’s line.
“I DIDN’T KNOW YOU COULD STUDY FASHION. NOBODY EVER TOLD ME”
The following year Simons presented his first runway show, in Paris, featuring Belgian boys in slimmed-down, all-black versions of AngloAmerican collegiate looks, with post-punk and New Wave music blasting in the background. “It was an immediate and influential success,” Joan Juliet Buck, then editor-in-chief of French Vogue, later wrote. “Where he led, others followed.”
While youth culture and the dark music that was so much a part of it were the principal sources of inspiration for Simons, he was also avidly following the work of the minimalist superstars who dominated the 1990s: Helmut Lang, Miuccia Prada, Jil Sander and Calvin Klein. “For two years, I was obsessed with Helmut Lang,” Simons tells me. “And then I also embraced the three others.” Although art was not yet as important to Simons’s creative vision as it would become, there was a whiff of the 1960s Warhol Factory in the opendoor policy and family atmosphere in the scene that coalesced around Simons and Branquinho. The young French writer Christopher Niquet, now creative director of Zac Posen in New York, interviewed Branquinho for Self
Service magazine in the late 1990s and soon after began modelling for Simons at her suggestion. “There was a kind of synergy in the way Raf and Véronique were designing,” says Niquet. “They were like the little golden couple of Belgian fashion.”
The Simons- Branquinho entourage hung out at the WitzliPoetzli artists’ bar. That was where Simons first encountered Willy Vanderperre, the photographer who would go on to shoot Simons’s advertising campaigns for Jil Sander, Dior and now Calvin Klein. Vanderperre and his boyfriend, Olivier Rizzo, who would style those ads, were studying at the Royal Academy and were friends of Branquinho’s. “There was a huge crowd sitting on the terrace, Raf being the only one I didn’t really know,” Vanderperre recalls. “I remember he wore a black turtleneck, which was striking, as it was a warm summer evening.”
It all came to a halt in 2000, when Simons broke up with Branquinho, closed his company, after showing a collection he called ‘Confusion’, and went off to Vienna to teach fashion at the University of Applied Arts. But Simons soon was back in business, with new financing from the Belgian manufacturer Gysemans Clothing Group. The collection he showed in Paris in June 2001, however, almost turned his comeback into a swansong. Portentously titled ‘Woe onto Those Who Spit on the Fear Generation … The Wind Will Blow It Back’, it featured hooded and masked models carrying burning flares and wearing oversize sweatshirts printed with edgy messages. Three months later, when terrorists struck the United States on 9/11, what had been praised as innovative and poetic was
condemned as insensitive terrorist chic. The controversy died down, but Simons’s new direction – bulky, rough-knit sweaters cut off halfway down the torso, worn over long, flowing black or white shirts – continues to define his signature line.
“I don’t know why, but I always need to do two things,” Simons told me about the art, photography and publishing projects he undertook during this period, all of which enhanced his reputation as an artistic, socially aware observer of his time and culture. He published his first book,
Isolated Heroes, with British fashion photographer David Sims, in 1999, a series of stark close-ups of working-class young men that Simons had cast from the streets of Antwerp. Not long after, Simons recalls, Francesco Bonami, the Italian curator and art writer, “reached out to me to help create this huge exhibition in Florence, which would be not only about art but also about fashion”. The 2003 exhibition at the Pitti Palace museum, and accompanying book from Charta, both titled The Fourth Sex:
Adolescent Extremes, included works by Jake and Dinos Chapman, Tracey Emin and Gillian Wearing.
All through this time he continued as a guest lecturer in Vienna; he loved teaching. “I only stopped,” he says, “because I got the position at Jil and that was not so viable anymore.” The announcement, in May 2005, that 37-year- old Raf Simons from Antwerp had been hired to design the Jil Sander men’s and women’s collections came as a surprise to most of the fashion industry. Sander had sold a controlling interest in her highly successful Hamburg-based company to Prada, in 1999, while staying on as designer and chairwoman. She quit six months later, after clashing with Prada CEO Patrizio Bertelli; she returned in 2003 and quit again in 2004. Simons’s first women’s collection, presented in Milan in early 2006, hewed to Sander’s preference for black and neutrals while softening the Saxon severity of her cut. By the time of his last collection, in early 2012, he had completely romanticised Sander’s minimalism with an emphasis on dresses, as opposed to pants-suits, many in luscious shades of pink. He was let go shortly after by the label’s new Japanese owners, to make way for the second return of the founder.
Meanwhile, rumours that Simons was among the designers being considered to replace the disgraced John Galliano at the venerable house of Dior had been circulating for months. His appointment was finally announced in April 2012, and Simons made his anxiously awaited haute couture debut before an audience that included Pierre Cardin, Azzedine Alaïa, Donatella Versace and Marc Jacobs, as well as Charlotte Rampling,
Jennifer Lawrence, Princess Charlene of Monaco and the owner of Dior, LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault. Simons had transformed Dior’s Avenue Montaigne headquarters into his high-fashion idea of installation art, covering the walls of the salons through which the models walked with more than a million orchids, roses, delphiniums and mimosas. Aside from the wow factor, Simons also intended this grandiose display as a bow to Christian Dior’s passion for gardens and flowers. The collection itself was almost universally acclaimed for its intelligent re-invention of Dior’s fabled 1947 New Look for the 21st century. “Bravo, Raf,” wrote Bridget Foley in Women’s Wear Daily. “Congratulations, Dior.”
Simons says: “Was Dior my favourite mid-century couturier? No, that was Balenciaga. But his body of work was incredible. And maybe because he’s not my ultimate hero, I thought I can go and add something.” He lasted three years on Avenue Montaigne, parting ways amicably in October 2015. Ten months later, he moved on to New York, to take over the design helm of another company that was floundering without its founder.
There is always a legacy,” Simons says of his progress over the last 12 years from Jil Sander to Christian Dior to Calvin Klein. “I could not go to a house that did not have a major legacy. Why would I?” He is aware that Calvin Klein founded his company in the same year that he, Raf, was born: 1968. But he is not overly intimidated by that fact, or by the problems he has inherited with a blue-chip fashion brand that earns most of its revenues from underwear and jeans.
After Klein and his business partner, Barry Schwartz, sold their company to Phillips–Van Heusen, in 2002 (for a reported $430 million in cash and stock, plus royalties over the next 15 years), PVH divided his design responsibilities for the company’s various lines among separate designers and transferred advertising and marketing decision-making to corporate executives. So, upon assuming the newly created position of chief creative officer, Simons replaced four designers: Francisco Costa for women’s wear, Italo Zucchelli for men’s wear, Kevin Corrigan for jeans and underwear, and Amy Mellen for home-products design. Like Klein, Simons is in charge of everything, and he’s approaching the challenge in his usual methodical, almost philosophical way.
“What I want to say about Calvin’s heritage and its marketing power is that I need to abstract it in my head and then see how I’m going to deal with it,” he tells me. “If you ask me about Calvin’s clothes, I’m not actually looking into that much right now. It’s not because I don’t want to be respectful. It’s more to protect myself, because I think I have a clear point of view of where I want to go with it. What I feel more important for myself is to take his guts. I think he was a man with a lot of guts. I’m fascinated by a man who takes something like underwear, that was always photographed and advertised in a small format, and decides it’s going to be on a billboard five meters high in the middle of the city. That is what I like – somebody who dares.
Simons has been a very busy man since moving to New York last summer with his French boyfriend, Jean-Georges d’Orazio, who has been named senior director of brand experience at Calvin Klein. He has also brought his longtime design associate, Peter Mulier, into the company as creative director. Willy Vanderperre and Olivier Rizzo collaborated on the new underwear advertising campaign, featuring scrawny boys of assorted races in not-so-tighty-whities standing in front of works by Warhol, Dan Flavin, Richard Prince and Sterling Ruby. (The Times couldn’t resist noting: “Mr Klein’s models were barely contained by their Calvins … Mr Simons’s … barely fill theirs out.”) For his part, Ruby was enlisted to redesign the flagship Calvin Klein store, on Madison Avenue, to be unveiled this summer. Nine days before showing his rapturously received first Calvin Klein Collection, in February, Simons presented his eponymous men’s line at the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea, to rave reviews hailing him as the saviour of an uninspired Men’s Fashion Week in New York.
In April, Simons introduced Calvin Klein by Appointment, a made-toorder service for private clients. “It’s couture,” he says. “I just didn’t like to use an old French word.” In May he took Paris Jackson to the Met Gala. A few days later, Page Six broke the news that she had signed a “massive seven-figure deal to be the new face of Calvin Klein”. Simons observes: “I am fascinated to see how somebody with that kind of background is going to take an independent position, as a kind of persona. There is a beautiful kind of yin and yang in her; something that’s very shy, like: ‘I want to stay away from too much hype’; the other is already embracing it.”
In June, it was announced that Brooke Shields was being brought back to the brand, 37 years after the notorious TV ads in which she looks into the camera and asks: “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” To cap it all off, that same month the Council of Fashion Designers of America named Raf Simons best women’s and best men’s designer, an honour bestowed only once before, to Calvin Klein, in 1993. “It’s so crazy,” says Simons.
“I met Calvin for the first time this morning,” Simons tells me. “We had breakfast at Sant Ambroeus, in the West Village. It was very nice, very easy.” Simons says they should have gotten together sooner, “but I started working day and night, and he was travelling a lot. Now we met, and everything was fine.” (Klein declined to comment for this article.)
Simons believes that his primary mission is to restore the kind of customer loyalty that the brand enjoyed in Klein’s heyday. “Back when I started to look at fashion, women and men would embrace a house or houses, but usually very few,” he notes. “And they would be very connected [to that brand]. When I started to go to some shows in Paris, I would see Comme des Garçons women, Martin Margiela women, Gaultier women. Now women might have a bag from one brand, shoes from another, and a skirt from a third. But all these brands stand for completely different things … I’m very dedicated to Coca-Cola Zero, you know what I mean? I don’t want something else. I think when somebody connects to a fashion brand, it’s not only for the clothes. It’s two different things, clothes and fashion.
“The biggest satisfaction for any designer should be,” he continues, “is if I see somebody in my clothes – whoever it is. It could be some kid in the street. It’s very inspiring, because it’s often not the way you saw it yourself. It re-activates your own process of thinking about how to dress people. For me, it’s extremely relevant that fashion work in its moment in time. I’m not romantic about the past. Once it’s done it’s done. I’m romantic about the future.” Does he dream of having a retrospective of his work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as Rei Kawakubo has this year? “No.” Does he think fashion should be in a museum? “No.” Does he consider himself an artist? “No. But maybe I would want to do art. I know people would criticise it once you’ve been defined as a fashion designer. But it would be a whole different thing. It would be purely a comment that I needed to make and it would be out there. If I ever would want to do it, it would probably be just because I need to do things … I would go crazy if I didn’t do my things. The ideas, they have to go out, one way or another.”
“I COULD NOT GO TO A HOUSE THAT DID NOT HAVE A MAJOR LEGACY. WHY WOULD I?”
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