Getting to Know: Raf Simons

Possibly the biggest news in fashion this week is that Raf Simons is exiting Dior. It is said that the designer is leaving for ‘personal reasons’ and more specifically to focus on his own label. In a statement the designer said:

“It is a decision based entirely and equally on my desire to focus on other interests in my life, including my own brand, and the passions that drive me outside of my work. Christian Dior is an extraordinary company, and it has been an immense privilege to be allowed to write a few pages of this magnificent book. I want to thank Bernard Arnault for the trust he has put in me, giving me the incredible opportunity to work at this beautiful house surrounded by the most amazing team one could ever dream of. I have also had the chance over the last few years to benefit from the leadership of Sidney Toledano. His thoughtful, heartfelt and inspired management will also remain as one of the most important experiences of my professional career.”

For those wondering what lies ahead for the Belgium designer, here is his history all on one page…


Raf Simons fantasticman7
Raf Simons for Fantastic Man by Willy Vanderperre

Who is Raf Simons?

Raf Simons began his career in furniture design. Born to an army night watchman and a house cleaner, on January 12, 1968 in Neerpult, Belgium, Raf graduated from a Genk college in 1991 after studying Industrial Design and Furniture Design. From there he interned at the design studio of Walter Van Beirendonck.

Raf Simons admits his spare time was spent with his then-girlfriend, Veronique Branquinho, and their friends, Olivier Rizzo, Willy Vanderperre and David Vandewal at Antwerp cafe, Witzli-Poetzli, where the group would discuss Helmut Lang and Martin Margiela. His career path changed when Van Beirendonck invited him to attend Paris Fashion Week. It was Margiela’s all-white show of 1991 that inspired Simons to leave the world of furniture design and take up fashion professionally.

Raf Simons Career Highlights:

By 1995, a self-trained Simons, encouraged by Linda Loppa, the then head of the fashion department at the Antwerp Royal Academy, and now director of Italy’s Polimoda fashion school, had launched his own menswear label.

Ground-breaking from the off-set, Raf Simons’ debut AW’95 runway show featured two street models in a video presentation. This set the tone for his shows until SS’97, with each collection shown either via video or presentation. Simons’ first Paris show was his AW’97 collection.

It was during these shows, that Raf revealed what has become one of his signature styles, the skinny, slim-cut suit. It wasn’t just the cut, however, that made the fashion world take notice, rather his presentation of it. Raf Simons passed on agency models, instead using boys from his homeland of Belgium, all of whom had a similar physicality to him: small build, narrow-shoulders. It was a move Cathy Horyn at The NY Times said, “introduced the idea that a young man’s physical size was not at variance with his sense of isolation, a feeling that would have been ordinary to anyone who had grown up in Antwerp – or Rotterdam, or Manchester – in isolated apartment towers built since the war, and who had spent a lot of time listening to bands like Joy Division.” The minimalist silhouette became an iconic 90s look, but remains a staple, some twenty years later.

Simons went on to design the menswear outfits for Ruffo Research’s SS’99 and AW’99, before momentarily shutting down his company after his AW’00 Confusion collection. After a deal was struck with Belgian manufacturer, Gysemans Clothing Industry, Simons relaunched his label the following year, in time for AW’01. What followed is widely regarded as one of his most influential collections to date, the SS’02 ‘Woe Onto Those Who Spit On The Fear Generation…The Wind Will Blow It Back,’ which sparked the trend for oversized layers, described by The NY Times as the “layered, hooded, sinister image of the urban guerrilla.” As early as 2005, the same title was describing Simons as “the most influential menswear designer of the last decade.” Ten years later, Kanye West cited Raf as the prime inspiration behind his own collection and is regularly papped in vintage Simons pieces.

Raf Simons fall/winter 2000 show, Confusion

Raf Simons spring summer 2002 show

When Simons showcases a collection, he does not, like so many other designers, base it around a single theme, instead, his collections are based on a generation: their thoughts, fears, interests, ideals. Youth culture was ingrained in Raf Simons early signature aesthetic. Marie-Amelie Sauve, a stylist for Balenciaga, said of Raf, ‘He did everything before anyone else, and everybody has copied him.’

Raf’s unquestionable influence spread beyond the catwalk when he was appointed head professor of the Fashion Department of the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, a position he held from October 2000, to June 2005. He ventured into the art world in 2000, when he released ‘Isolated Heroes,’ a book of portraits with photographer David Sims, which focuses on the Netherlands-based working-class youth culture known as Gabba. This was followed in 2003 by an exhibition in Florence, ‘The Fourth Sex,’ focusing on youth extremes. That same year he won the Swiss Textiles Award.

Two years later, in 2005, to celebrate ten years in fashion, he released ‘Raf Simons Redux,’ a book with Peter De Potter and launched ‘Raf by Raf Simons,’ an extension of his label, which sold at a lower price point.

The closing chapter in Raf Simons first fashion decade saw a shift in his aesthetic. Former Arena Homme Plus Editor, Jo-Ann Furniss recalls, ‘The key turning point was AW’05 (Waves), when the obsessive youth culture codes of his past were turned into clothes that were purely about shape and form.’


Raf Simons’ Collaborations:

The shift coincided with a new beginning for Simons, after he was named Creative Director at Jil Sander in July 2005. He took on the role, without ever having met the label’s infamous founder and for the first time in his career, began creating women’s clothing and accessories alongside the men’s collections. His impact at Jil Sander saw the label move from its minimalist, regimented roots to gain a more directional, feminine and colourful edge. While at the helm, he expanded the label’s commercial appeal with the diffusion line Jil Sander Navy, and in 2010 presented the first of three couture-inspired collections, which embraced haute couture silhouettes in an innovative way, mixing colour-pop peplums and spring florals with signature neutrals in pencil skirts and button-up shirts. His last collection for the label, was AW12, after the company’s stakeholders dismissed him to make way for Sander herself to return.

Looks from Jil Sander 2012, the last show designed by Raf Simons
Looks from Jil Sander autumn/winter 2012, the last show designed by Raf Simons

In April 2012, Raf Simons became Artistic Director of Christian Dior, in charge of the women’s Ready-to-Wear, Haute Couture and Accessories lines. He hit the ground running, with his first collection for the house showing in July of the same year. Simons told Business of Fashion why he was drawn to the position at Dior. “I was completely attracted to the history of Christian Dior at that time. I was looking more at different historical brands to see where to move on with women’s. I was almost expecting myself to fall more in love with Balenciaga or Givenchy, because of its kind of futurist, clinical, architectural outcome. But I did not. In the end [Dior] brought me back to my own past, which was so much related to the landscape and natural environments, simple environments and purity of things that are about beauty and femininity and nature.”

Raf Simons
Raf Simons with a dress from his debut couture Dior show 2012 for British Vogue

His tenure at Dior has been an undoubted commercial success; Business of Fashion said in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2014, that ‘Christian Dior Couture generated more than €1.5 billion, making it one of the largest luxury fashion houses in the world.’ In spite of this, Simons continues, he still feels the pressure from critics.

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‘I think I used to be so obsessed with what the press was going to say. What are a handful of intellectuals going to say? I’m still like that. I’m in that world and I’m like that, but at the end of the day, it comes to a point where women just want beautiful fashion. I want to reach out and see it succeed. Are they going to buy it? Are they going to wear it? It means a lot. I think it means probably most if they are effectively going to wear it, especially for a house on that level.’

Last year, Raf Simons celebrated his tenth season with Fred Perry, releasing a short film documenting the highlights from their iconic polo shirt collections. Simons also produced tailored trousers, and a classic Fred Perry Harrington. And, since 2013, Raf has been collaborating with adidas on seasonal limited edition collections of trainers. Producing a split range of classic Stan Smiths juxtaposed against sc-fi-inspired sneakers, to suit all personalities and occasions. AW15 is the biggest collection to date, spanning sixteen creations.

Raf Simons X Fred Perry 10th Collection from Fred Perry on Vimeo.


Raf Simons’ Influences:

Music has been a defining influence on Simons’ style from the beginning. Icons such as Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers and Joy Division’s Ian Curtis, alongside Kraftwerk and the Gabba youth subculture conspire to infuse and inspire Raf’s collections.

Raf Simons’ Signature Style:

The undisputed king of street fashion, Raf Simons collections have always been inspired by subcultures, putting shape and silhouette first. He has even been known to take inspiration from his own models backstage at shows, telling The Guardian, ‘These kids, they didn’t care. If one in 40 said (your design) is shit, you thought: he has no taste. If 20 said it, you think: maybe this isn’t what this generation is interested in.’

What Makes Raf Simons tick?

Unassuming and wary of the limelight that comes with fashion design, Simons still lives in Antwerp, Belgium. His roots have become a defining feature in his life and work. He told the NY Times, ‘People who don’t know me look at my world as something very hard-core, and I don’t feel it that way. It’s not what attracts me. We go to the sea, five or six of us, and we’re all in pyjamas with candles around and watching movies. OK, maybe we’re watching a good movie, but we also watch trash movies. We’ve never really been that kind of group that goes to the scenes where all the cool people hang out.’

Five reasons we love Raf Simons

1. He gets new job jitters just like the rest of us

‘At the beginning I thought it was very scary. But it was only scary because of not being very well informed of what the actual feeling is when you’re dealing with a house of that scale (Dior).’Business of Fashion

2. He’s an optimist

‘The past is not romantic to me. The future is romantic to me.’ 032c.

3. His roots inspired his success

‘In the end [Dior] brought me back to my own past, which was so much related to the landscape and natural environments, simple environments and purity of things that are about beauty and femininity and nature.’ Business of Fashion.

4. He still enjoys the creativity of fashion

‘Maybe it’s the sense of communicating something you care about through your clothing. It’s not just about something I liked when I was growing up, but communicating something which I feel is important as well as actually wanting to reach people.’ Dazed Digital.

5. He’s a true creative

‘I have to find ways to stop the thought process because the thought process is constant; it’s constantly everywhere. And that’s not to make me sound pretentious, because it sometimes makes me unhappy. It can keep you awake or you have it in the middle of a meeting.’ The Talks.

Read our related links:

SS16 Dior: Let’s Talk Sleeves and Scalloped Edges

How Dior’s SS16 Climbing Frame Was Covered in Flowers 

Dior’s Fusion Sneaker SS15

Raf Simons Retrospective 

Matisse Prints and Sandy Shores: Raf Simons for Dior Cruise 2016

Dior Couture AW16: Fairytale Sorcery with a Touch of Glam Rock 

SS15: Hanging Rock at Dior and the White Smock 

The Belgians: An Unexpected Story

Original Minimalism: Rewind to Jil Sander