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.
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