GET PER­SONAL WITH RAF SIMONS

Since tak­ing the helm at Dior, Raf Simons has hon­oured the brand’s her­itage, while del­i­cately mov­ing it in a more mod­ern di­rec­tion. Justine Pi­cardie meets a designer who lets the la­bel have the lime­light.

Harper’s Bazaar (Malaysia) - - Front Page - Pho­to­graphs by Arthur El­gort.

In the serene dove-grey sa­lon where I am to meet Raf Simons at the Dior head­quar­ters in Paris, there is a pho­to­graph propped on the man­tel­piece, taken 60 years ago, at Chris­tian Dior’s Au­tumn/Win­ter 1954 cou­ture show. The pic­ture, by Mark Shaw, re­veals a bad-tem­pered woman in the au­di­ence, ap­par­ently un­moved by Dior’s cel­e­brated ‘Ligne H’ that sea­son; aside from the fan she clutches in her right hand, which nowa­days would be a mo­bile phone, the scene is oddly familiar. For how does a cou­turier in­spire de­vo­tion and ex­cite­ment from a jaded au­di­ence of pow­er­ful buy­ers, tough­ened ed­i­tors, and the rich­est women in the world?

Chris­tian Dior proved him­self more than able to rise to the chal­lenge, sea­son af­ter sea­son, in the decade that he ran his cou­ture house un­til his un­timely death in 1957. He was re­placed by his young as­sis­tant, the equally bril­liant Yves Saint Lau­rent; since then, there have been only four other de­sign­ers at the house of Dior: Marc Bo­han, Gian­franco Ferré, John Gal­liano, and now Raf Simons, who was ap­pointed in April 2012 af­ter months of spec­u­la­tion as to who would – or could – take on one of the most high-pro­file and de­mand­ing jobs in the multi-bil­lion­pound fash­ion world.

“The main­te­nance of the tra­di­tion of fash­ion is the na­ture of an act of faith,” ob­served Chris­tian Dior on the fi­nal page of his mem­oir, writ­ten a year be­fore he died; and there is some­thing monas­tic about Simons, a man who has kept faith in the le­gacy of the house’s founder. When he walks into the sa­lon this af­ter­noon, sev­eral days af­ter the Au­tumn/Win­ter ’14 cou­ture show, his dark hair is neatly cropped, his eyes se­ri­ous, his tone thought­ful, con­sid­ered. It’s nearly two years since I first met him, in the back­stage mêlée af­ter his first, tri­umphant ready-to-wear show; then, as now, I was struck by his quiet author­ity (the an­tithe­sis of the car­toon cliché of a fash­ion designer, which tends to in­volve hys­te­ria or melo­dra­mat­ics). The other im­age that stayed with me was see­ing him with his fam­ily; his fa­ther – a mil­i­tary night-watch­man who joined the army at 17 – had tears in his eyes; and so did his son, as the small group em­braced, turn­ing away from the clam­our and cam­eras around them.

Simons was born in Jan­uary 1968 in Neer­pelt, a vil­lage in ru­ral Bel­gium; his mother was a cleaner who also loved gar­den­ing, and cher­ished her only child, as did his fa­ther. He was ed­u­cated at a strict Catholic school, and then stud­ied industrial and fur­ni­ture de­sign at col­lege in Genk. As an in­tern for the in­flu­en­tial Bel­gian designer Wal­ter Van Beiren­donck (one of an avant-garde group who be­came known as the An­twerp Six), Simons dis­cov­ered fash­ion, go­ing on to es­tab­lish his epony­mous menswear la­bel, and then join­ing Jil San­der as cre­ative direc­tor in 2005. Through­out, his ca­reer has been in­formed by his love of mu­sic – which dates back to his teenage years as a pas­sion­ate fan of Joy Di­vi­sion, David Bowie, and Kraftwerk, among oth­ers – although his com­mit­ment to the codes of un­der­ground youth cul­ture that was so clear in his own brand has been re­placed, at Jil San­der and Dior, with an ex­plo­ration of what so­phis­ti­cated women might want to wear.

It’s a process that he de­scribes as “a dia­logue, even though I don’t nec­es­sar­ily talk to the cus­tomer. I think about the clothes that she will en­joy wear­ing, rather than the spec­ta­cle of the show.” Which is not to say that his shows at Dior have been un­spec­tac­u­lar; his first cou­ture pre­sen­ta­tion took place in rooms lined with more than a mil­lion flow­ers, while this year’s Cruise col­lec­tion trans­ported the world of Dior to a Brook­lyn naval yard, com­plete with branded ferry boots and sailors. Yet for all the splen­did trap­pings, what re­mains no­table about his shows is the sense of in­ti­macy; in­deed, in his most re­cent cou­ture col­lec­tion, he en­cour­aged the mod­els to come closer to the au­di­ence; close enough for us to see the ex­quis­ite em­broi­dery and un­ri­valled craft of the Dior seam­stresses that he val­ues so highly. In one sense, this is a re­turn to the orig­i­nal days of cou­ture, when it took place within a sa­lon such as the one we are in to­day; but it is also be­cause of Simons’s own pref­er­ence for “a more in­ti­mate at­mos­phere” and hu­man in­ter­ac­tion in real terms, rather than the dig­i­tal world, which ap­pears to be of far less in­ter­est to him. “I never had an at­trac­tion to the dig­i­tal world,” he says with a shrug. And while he is pas­sion­ate about the over­lap­ping land­scapes of fash­ion, art, and mu­sic, it is within the con­text of col­lab­o­ra­tive per­sonal projects – for ex­am­ple, with the artist Ster­ling Ruby – and the on­go­ing process of work­ing along­side the Dior team.

“A lot of peo­ple saw me as be­ing part of an un­der­ground, avant-garde or punk aes­thetic,” he says, “so that Dior couldn’t be a big­ger chal­lenge to me.” But it’s a chal­lenge that he has met in a way that turns it from be­ing a con­flict into a con­ver­sa­tion (in his words) “about how women live their lives to­day.” He makes it sound sim­ple: for ex­am­ple, the jump­suits and trousers shown in this sea­son’s cou­ture col­lec­tion arose from his ob­ser­va­tion that women might en­joy slip­ping into some­thing “easy” in the evening, and then “dance the whole night af­ter din­ner.” But this ef­fort­lessly con­tem­po­rary

His col­lec­tions are de­signed to be worn in the real world, rather than pre­served as mu­seum pieces.

evening wear was also part of a show that in­cluded elab­o­rate, sculp­tural gowns in­spired by the 18th Cen­tury, yet trans­formed into less con­stric­tive gar­ments. “My back­ground is that I’m a con­struc­tor – I was trained as an industrial designer, so I’m re­ally in­ter­ested in the con­struc­tion of clothes. In the be­gin­ning of my ca­reer, that was maybe more of a strug­gle, but I’ve been work­ing at mak­ing clothes that have an ease about them. I think it’s im­por­tant that they re­late to women’s lives to­day – jump­ing in the car, go­ing to work, what­ever. Marie An­toinette didn’t have to worry about those things – she had 20 peo­ple to dress her.”

His ap­proach is sug­ges­tive, rather than dic­ta­to­rial; and it’s one of the rea­sons that his col­lec­tions for Dior have been so ap­peal­ing. As such, he avoids the worst stereo­types of the fash­ion in­dus­try; not least in his dis­avowal of an au­to­cratic line on what should, or should not, be worn in any given sea­son. Per­son­ally I think his way is more rel­e­vant to con­tem­po­rary cul­ture than the tra­di­tional dik­tats or rules, es­pe­cially given the fact that the cus­tomers who have the means to buy luxury-brand items are in­creas­ingly in­de­pen­dent-minded, work­ing women. “I like the at­ti­tude of a woman who makes her own de­ci­sions,” says Simons, “and some­times that doesn’t re­late to what we might know as high fash­ion. She might find her­self a sub­lime court coat from the 18th Cen­tury, but she wears it with jeans and a T-shirt. I re­ally like that – and if I saw a woman walk­ing in the street, dressed like that, I think I’d be more im­pressed than when I see high fash­ion.”

For­tu­nately for his em­ploy­ers at Dior, the suc­cess­ful mod­ern woman is more likely to find a sub­lime floor-length coat de­signed by Raf Simons than an orig­i­nal 18th-Cen­tury piece. And de­spite Simons’s un­de­ni­ably artis­tic sen­si­bil­ity, his col­lec­tions – whether cou­ture or cruise – are de­signed to be worn in the real world, rather than pre­served as mu­seum pieces. “It makes no sense if no­body is go­ing to wear them,” he says. “If you are only do­ing things for peo­ple to look at, I don’t think that’s a task for a designer – why not make an art­work in­stead?”

In­deed, this is one of the many ways in which he clev­erly sep­a­rates his method as a designer from those of his friends and con­tem­po­raries who are artists – while also em­pha­sis­ing, again, the im­por­tance of team­work at Dior. “It’s a col­lab­o­ra­tive ex­pe­ri­ence,” he shares. “If it wasn’t a col­lab­o­ra­tion, I would be a painter or a sculp­tor. What we do is a cre­ative out­ing to­gether. And Dior as a struc­ture, as a fam­ily, is very com­mu­nica­tive.”

His sense of Dior’s re­mark­able iden­tity is im­plicit; and he clearly has the con­fi­dence as a designer to be true to the brand’s le­gacy, while also in­ter­pret­ing it in a con­tem­po­rary lan­guage rather than con­stantly as­sert­ing his own agenda. This, af­ter the icon­o­clasm and provo­ca­tions of John Gal­liano’s last years at Dior (a time when straight­for­ward com­mu­ni­ca­tion was also in short sup­ply at the com­pany), goes some way to ex­plain the new con­fi­dence and fo­cus here. “I am ob­sessed with defin­ing what is mod­ern,” says Simons, “but with a his­tor­i­cal un­der­stand­ing as well.” Hence his abil­ity to find in­spi­ra­tion in the house ar­chives – for ex­am­ple, the artis­tic prints from Chris­tian Dior’s orig­i­nal scarves that Simons rein­vented in fresh-look­ing pieces for this year’s Cruise col­lec­tion in Brook­lyn (the fresh-look­ing New Look re­made for the New World). “Chris­tian Dior was very bold, very dar­ing, and yet so com­mer­cially suc­cess­ful,” ob­serves Simons. “And he had a strong con­nec­tion with women, while also work­ing as the most ex­treme and in­no­va­tive cou­turier. When you de­con­struct the orig­i­nal gar­ments, they are ar­chi­tec­tural mas­ter­pieces – and yet he also re­mained sen­si­tive to the fe­male body.”

All of which re­minds me of the con­ver­sa­tion I had with Sid­ney Toledano, Dior’s CEO, to­wards the end of 2011, when he was still search­ing for the right per­son to take on the all-im­por­tant role of cre­ative direc­tor. We hap­pened to be stand­ing in a small yet pow­er­fully em­blem­atic in­ner sanc­tum at Dior’s head­quar­ters on Av­enue Mon­taigne: the cabine, a dress­ing room where mod­els used to change for the cou­ture shows in the grand sa­lon across the cor­ri­dor, dur­ing the decade that Mon­sieur Dior him­self was still in charge. “I come in here some­times by my­self, and ask him, ‘Who should we choose?’” said Toledano; and in this place im­bued with the spirit of Chris­tian Dior, it was clear that his ques­tion was ad­dressed to the founder of the house, rather than any­one else in charge to­day.

Three years later, the an­swer to Toledano’s prayers seems at home here, yet with­out a trace of ar­ro­gant en­ti­tle­ment. “Dior isn’t my brand,” says Simons, “You come and go – that’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween be­ing the founder of a brand, and a cre­ative direc­tor. So it’s my re­spon­si­bil­ity to take the brand through this pe­riod – to keep it rel­e­vant for this mo­ment in time. But I al­ways try to un­der­stand the ideas of the orig­i­nal founder, and maybe that’s why I find it a calm­ing sit­u­a­tion.” He smiles; a rare smile, which makes it all the more sin­cere. Calm, re­spon­si­ble, mea­sured; th­ese are not the qual­i­ties most of­ten as­so­ci­ated with fash­ion, but it is a true plea­sure to find them all here.

“I am ob­sessed with defin­ing what is mod­ern, but with a his­tor­i­cal un­der­stand­ing as well.” – Raf Simons

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