Thursday, 1 April 2010

Raf Simons: 15 Years of Brilliance

RAF

It is 15 years since Raf Simons launched his men’s fashion line in Antwerp, and over that time he has proved to be the most talented menswear designer of our times; I say this confidently, with no hint of exaggeration. The thing about Raf Simons is that he not only has brilliant ideas and perfectly sums up certain moods and feelings in his collections, but he also executes his collections flawlessly: he is equally adept at producing some pair of crazy high-top shoes, with all sorts of subtle allusions to some slightly unsettling part of youth culture, as he is at making an immaculately tailored suit, or the perfect pair of black leather lace-ups. Everything that Simons designs is characterised by this incredible sense of modernity and newness, even if the ideas themselves have been seen before. It goes without saying that his designs have been enormously influential on mainstream menswear and how young men in general dress today, and have dressed over the past decade, but what is equally extraordinary is how you can look at a Raf Simons collection from ten or twelve years ago, and it scarcely looks dated at all, such is the timelessness s of Simons’ approach.

As regular readers will know, I am an enormous personal fan, yet even from a more analytical point of view, I would still place him as the most talented menswear designer of our times, because of the way in which he flawlessly combines ideas and skill, and concepts and execution, quite unlike any other designer. I have always thought that Raf Simons is about the coolest person in fashion too, because of his total refusal to parade around in the limelight, and because of his very unpretentious, very Northern European, attitude which (rare) interviews with him have revealed: when the highly esteemed critic Cathy Horyn interviewed him for the New York Times in 2005, not only did we discover that he drives a Volvo and has a simple holiday apartment in a drab Belgian seaside resort, but also that he produced Doritos and Diet Coke from a convenience store plastic bag for Horyn. Quite a far cry from the world of yachts, butlers and villas that many superstar designers occupy. Then again, Simons, who comes from an ordinary background and trained initially as an industrial designer, has always seemed like something of a fashion outsider (despite his role as head designer for both men’s and women’s collections at Jil Sander since 2005), but I think it is partly his non-conformity to the brashness and flashiness of the fashion world which has enabled him to produce such extraordinary work. As Cathy Horyn put it in her piece, “only with training, genius, intoxicating amounts of culture and possibly a discreet drug habit have a handful of designers been able to change the shape of clothes. Simons, without any of these advantages, has done it three times.”

I hesitated about doing this post, because Raf Simons is basically my ‘fashion god’ and I wasn’t sure if, with my limited writing and presentation skills, I would be able to do justice to his work in the way in which I want to, but then I thought that this blog was long overdue for a proper look at his work, so here goes.


Simons’ first collection was fall/winter 1995, and it was inspired by school uniforms:

(embedded YouTube videos may take a moment to load/appear)


Simons’ father was a soldier and he attended a strict Catholic school: uniform motifs (sometimes school, sometimes military, and sometimes religious) appear in several of his collections. Linked to uniforms is the idea of duplication and multiples, which Simons often uses in his collections too. This collection was shown on two non-professional, ‘street cast’ models (another Simons hallmark, which becomes more important later), and it showcases from the very outset Simons’ great talent for sharp tailoring; it is amazing how contemporary the collection looks even now.


The fall/winter 1996 collection was called ‘We Only Come Out At Night,’ and it was here that Simons really began subtly to explore youth culture and certain elements of angst and tension surrounding it. The accompanying video to the collection is based around the idea of young men from wealthy families retiring upstairs in a grand house, after a party held by their parents, changing into casual clothes, watching television, playing snooker and smoking. Simons often manages to take something quite mundane and make it very high fashion and modern, and he always offers interesting takes on masculinity.

The spring/summer 1997 collection was called ‘How to Talk to your Teen,’ and again in terms of inspiration was highly youth orientated: the accompanying video showed 14 teenagers (again, young men from Belgium, not professional models) living in an imaginary world, without the constraints of parents and society. Regrettably, there are hardly any pictures of this collection online.


Fall/winter 1997 was when Raf Simons gave his first full-scale fashion show, in Paris. The look was “American college students and English schoolboys with a background of New Wave and Punk” (contemporaryfashion.net). Setting aside the (youth) cultural significance, and Simons’ subtle exploration of youth subcultures (which goes on to become one of his trademarks), the minimal tailoring is just immaculate: mind-blowingly sophisticated for a designer on just his fourth collection. It is a great shame that these early videos on YouTube do not have sound, because the show soundtracks are important for any designer for setting the tone, not least for Simons.

Spring/summer 1998 was the Black Palms collection; the palm graphic was created by graphics designer Franky Claeys (and later in 2003 it appeared on a special edition ‘designer’ Coca-Cola can). Again, there are sadly very few images of the collection online, but it appears to have been inspired (in part, at least) by rave culture and also apparently by Belgian New Beat music.



Radioactivity was the name of the fall/winter 1998 collection, which was inspired by “Kraftwerk, Laurie Anderson, Vanessa Beecroft, Ceremony, the 80’s New Wave, and Punk” (contemporaryfashion.net) Members of Kraftwerk, the avant-garde German electro band, walked on the runway in matching red shirts. This collection was among those most instrumental in the contemporary (re)introduction of slim-fitting tailoring, with narrow shoulders and skinny lapels, which continues to dominate menswear today.



The tailoring is just so good, especially when seen in motion (second video). The soundtrack on the video is, I suspect, unfortunately not the original: the song is Keep Control by Sono, which was not released until 2001, and I very much doubt the same song would have been used over and over.


The ‘Kinetic Youth’ collection for spring/summer 1999 was shown on the outskirts of Paris in front of a giant mirrored globe; models appeared in the distance on concrete walkways, and gradually made their way over to where the audience was seated. I would love to see a video of this show, because it is one which left such an impression on fashion editors that a lot of them still talk about it today. The show was set to music by David Bowie (the opening song was ‘Space Oddity’), and the clothes were sleek and minimal:



How was someone without training or signs of genius able to project such a remarkably accurate portrait of urban youth? And not only that, but how was he able to give the idea by his choice of music and use of large public spaces that youth was also a monumental event?” (Cathy Horyn in the New York Times, in 2005)

Fall/winter 1999 saw the ‘Disorder Incubation Isolation’ collection:

“The global idea of this collection is to make a reference to the past, especially in the first two parts of the show. Fashion goes so quickly that people tend to forget the historical meaning of clothes, especially costumes. This is why the opening of the show was like a procession to create the right atmosphere…

The music of the show:
1 Placebo - ION
2 Suede - INTRODUCINE THE BAND
3 Ultravox - VIENNA
4 The art of noise - INSTRUMENTS OF DARKNESS
5 The art of noise – PARANOIMIA” (contemporaryfashion.net)

What I think is so clever about Simons’ collections is how we can read into them all this stuff about youth culture and society, but simultaneously they also stand up alone on the simple, totally unpretentious level of the clothing itself: the amazing modernist tailoring, with subtle twists that add a great deal of cool, works totally independently of any deeper meanings.

The spring/summer 2000 collection was called ‘Summa Cum Laude’ and in a typically idiosyncratic Simons twist it was inspired by both MENSA students and the Gabba youth subculture (a predominantly Dutch and Belgian movement associated with hardcore techno music). The show featured the dramatic presentation of the multiple white jackets:

In 1999 Simons collaborated with British photographer David Sims to produce the Isolated Heroes series of portraits (published in a book which occasionally sells on eBay now for huge sums) which provides an intimate look at the Belgian teenagers whom Simons had cast for his show. I think the whole feeling which the pictures conveys is just fantastic: it is perhaps one of the most revealing photographic projects of recent times about youth. It reminds me of a video installation I saw in the Tate Modern once (really annoyed that I can’t remember the artist*) which was endless film of awkward looking Dutch teenagers from the 90s dancing to techno music against a white background, which somehow really managed to sum up something about the condition of youth.

(*edit: thanks to reader Richard Kilroy, I now know the piece was called The Buzzclub/Mysteryworld by Rineke Dijkstra.)

The fall/winter 2000 collection was called Confusion, and after this collection was shown Simons announced that he was leaving fashion because of personal conflicts (thankfully, he was back within about a year). It was this collection, and the following one, which was absolutely instrumental in launching the trend for heavy layers and layering which still dominates (young) menswear today:

Really cool sweater from the collection:


The fall/winter 2001 collection was called ‘Riot Riot Riot’, and it was shown in a vast disused factory, with smoke machines and a set built from scaffolding. Simons continued to push his alternative to skinny tailoring: the oversized, baggy layers.

A more sinister element began to appear in Simons’ work this season, which would persist for a few seasons, particularly in the next season. Much has been made of this, because of the timing of the collection, just before 9/11, but it seems Simons was more concerned with ideas like the threats posed by globalisation and racial tensions in Northern Europe.

Spring/summer 2002:

Simons’ spring/summer 2002 collection is really worth its own blog post some time, because it has been one of the single most influential men’s collections. The collection was called ‘'Woe Onto Those Who Spit On The Fear Generation...The Wind Will Blow It Back' and it was shown in Paris, on models who walked barefoot, their faces obscured by cloths (with obviously chilling connotations, at a time of great global unrest). Interviews have suggested that Simons was preoccupied not with Islamic terrorism, but rather with youth issues. Either way, this collection provides an incredibly powerful statement, and regardless of whether or not (or to what extent) we buy into the idea that fashion mirrors society (Anna Wintour has said that by looking at designers’ collections you can gage the state of the world at that time), it really is a very stylish, modern statement, shown in an incredibly atmospheric way: there is a certain audacity to taking the style codes of youth protest and anarchy, skilfully reworking them in high quality materials, and then presenting them as high fashion to an assembled audience of editors and store buyers in Paris.

SS02 video:


“Virginia Creeper (Parthenocissus Quinquefolia)” was the name of the fall/winter 2002 collection, which focused on the unpredictability and duality of nature. The implication was clear: at a time of global crisis, mankind cannot even find safety in nature, which remains as powerful a force as ever, despite the spread of industrialisation and capitalism. The collection also featured elements of American college clothing, another of Simons’ fascinations (some of the ‘Virginia Creeper’ sweaters and t-shirts resemble the logo-ed gear of US high-schools and colleges), as well as ‘bondage’ straps and buckles, perversely used here loosely, and not as a constraint on the body. The red lighting added a subversive edge, suggestive almost of some sort of bloody massacre in the woods.


For spring/summer 2003, Simons turned his attention to consumerism, with a collection entitled ‘Consumed’. Fashion collections which tackle quite political, controversial themes often tend to descend into a sort of hyperactive farce (with inevitable comparisons to the ‘Derelicte’ collection in the film Zoolander), but Simons manages the matter masterfully, first because the collection is underpinned by sharp tailoring, and second because he merely observes the matter of consumerism and does not take sides. Simons was interested in exploring how brand codes, logos, and corporate language have permeated mainstream culture and society, and how today’s youth have adapted; he also considers the risks of being consumed as we consume. It was also around this time that Simons designed the special edition packaging for Coca-Cola (pictured earlier).


Raf Simons was granted access to the archives of Peter Saville (the graphics designer for bands like Joy Division and New Order) for his fall/winter 2003 collection, entitled ‘Closer’. There are few pictures of this collection online, but it included sweaters with Saville designs (like the iconic Joy Division Unknown Pleasures cover), as well as including tailoring as Simons “reflects on the process of growing up and (re)considering adulthood, citing references to childhood dress codes, formal business looks and ghetto rebellion” (contemporaryfashion.net):


The spring/summer 2004 collection was called ‘May The Circle Be Unbroken,’ and this season the collection was shown outdoors, and Simons went for quite an earthy, quite hippy-ish vibe.

Show video:



The fall/winter 2004 collection was called ‘Waves’ and it explores the idea of “conscious confinement and wilful enclosure... [and] the feeling of enlightenment and personal enrichment one can find in extreme but self-chosen isolation” (contemporaryfashion.net). This collection saw a return to the close-fitting, skinny silhouette, which was taken to the extreme with fetish bodysuits.

Show video:


The spring/summer 2005 collection was boldly entitled ‘History of The World,’ and it explored a sort of futuristic modernity in tailoring: the modernism of this collection is, in fact, incredible. The collection was shown in a dramatic space with models descending huge escalators:


2005 also saw the release of the book Raf Simons Redux (a copy of which I must get my hands on) which charts the first 10 years of Simons’ career; in 2005 there was also an exhibition of his work and an outdoor fashion show at the Pitti Immagine Uomo tradeshow in Florence:



Following on from SS05, the fall/winter 2005 collection was called ‘History of My World’; the colour pallet was darker than before, the slim tailoring is just flawless, and the collection included the impressive 'double-collar' shearling jacket which seems to have heavily influenced Christopher Bailey for Burberry Prorsum FW10…

FW05 video:


The spring/summer 2006 collection was called ‘Icarus Surgit’ in reference to the myth of Icarus; the collection had a real lightness to it, thanks to the thin almost-sheer fabrics and the laser-cut-out perforated pieces; sharp-tailoring was paired with high-topped sandals, while Simons also showed more generously cut trousers:


For fall/winter 2006, Simons showed another futuristic-modernist collection, with stunning tailoring, knitwear, and puffer jackets, finished off with the covetable zipper boots. The double-zip jackets with the blanket collars are ingenious feats of construction, and I love the ‘space’ inserts of metallic techno fabrics:


The first Raf Simons item I bought was the white and blue ‘half shirt, half t-shirt’ from the spring/summer 2007 collection, a piece which I still absolutely love. I always think this collection is one of Simons’ most underrated ones: I really like the minimalism, the geometry, the bold colour blocks… it’s incredibly crisp and modern. I don’t know what the story is behind the video graphics (sadly, no video of this show online):

Raf by Raf Simons imagery (Simons’ lower-priced diffusion line) for SS07:


The fall/winter 2007 collection was yet another lesson in masterful tailoring: the cut and proportion of everything is just beautiful, and it is ever impressive how Simons achieves this classicism alongside a very cool, youthful vibe. Leather gloves that come up above the elbow added a sinister edge. This season Simons also released his signature high-tops in an amazing holographic finish (in red, blue and grey); recently I managed to buy a pair, after eight months of searching online!

Show video:


For FW07, Raf by Raf Simons had metallic coated jeans:


Raf Simons’ spring/summer 2008 collection is my favourite menswear collection to date. Aside from the fact that the collection is a very humorous take on the German backpacker (beautifully executed in amazing fabrics, of course), what really struck me at the time was just how right it seemed for my demographic then: it really struck a chord with the whole feeling, and the ‘nu rave’ revival, and I remember being surprised that a middle aged designer somewhere in Belgium had so successfully channelled my whole sort of cultural mindset of the moment through clothing. As absurd as this may sound, it was the perfect manifestation of how I wanted to look at the time: first hand evidence, as it were, of Simons’ incredible way with (youth) cultural subtleties.

This season, Simons also collaborated with Eastpak for the first time to produce bags (the collaboration continued for a further three seasons), and with Linda Farrow to produce sunglasses (the collaboration is still ongoing):

I went absolutely crazy for the season’s insane shoes and sandals (my parents will NEVER understand the ‘Lego’ ‘De Stijl’ hiking boots which I wear from time to time), which were only put into (limited) production after other fans and I bombarded the distributor with emails asking where they could be purchased!


The fall/winter 2008 collection had a Rothko influence, and lots of interesting fabrics (some jackets were made of hessian blend, if I remember correctly), and quite a Modish vibe:

Raf by Raf Simons was very stylish this season too:

FW08 Eastpak collection:

Around this time, Simons opened his first two standalone stores, in Tokyo (top) and Osaka (bottom):

The spring/summer 2009 collection was cut and tailored to a level of micro-precision, and the colour pallet was entirely monochromatic; there was an element of subversion as suits, fairly conservative on top, had cycling shorts of the same material in the place of trousers:

Show video:


The seasonal variation of Simons’ trademark ‘astro sneakers’:


In fall/winter 2009 (and again in spring/summer 2010) Simons shocked us all by doing what seemed to be his most conservative collections to date (albeit subverted with Neoprene parts in f/w09). Both of these collections received a lukewarm reception online (including on this blog): it seemed at first as if Simons had abandoned his youth cultural touch, and was perhaps being ‘recession friendly’ by designing more accessible, conservative clothes. Since then I have revised my views on both collections, and I no longer see them as some alarming, negative development for Simons, largely because of the explanation he gave in an interview with Arena Homme Plus magazine recently:

I don’t like the way they [the collections] are being dismissed as “commercial” or that I am consciously designing for “old men.” What’s wrong with including older people as well?... I don’t like to think that an audience feels as if I am abandoning them. I am not: these formal elements have always been in my work, always. I wish people would really look into the history. Also to dress like this when you are young – and I am showing these clothes on young guys – for me feels more subversive now.”

The irony, of course, is that we all got in a fuss about Simons apparently abandoning his ‘edgy’ ‘alternative’ look, but that look is now so heavily ingrained in the mainstream thanks to his great influence on menswear (look no further than Topman for evidence), that putting his young men in something traditional and conservative (especially, we might note, at the height of the banking crisis), that goes right against what we currently accept as being ‘cool’, was really just another clever way of breaking away from the mainstream and doing something subversive, albeit in a way that was harder to recognise than before. So apologies if I was one of the “teenage bloggers” who propagated myopic criticism of these collections (although I suspect that quote, from the interviewer, not from Simons himself, was just another irresistible swipe at those evil people called bloggers by the journalist).

Show video:


FW09 Neoprene gloves:

The first ever Raf Simons print advertisements appeared this season, and he collaborated with Asics, the manufacturer of running shoes:

The formal tailoring for spring/summer 2010 had subtle military details, like the jackets clinched in by belts, while the sheer snake-print shirts added subversion. I will admit that I do find this new silhouette and new formality a little hard to accept, but fashion after all is always about pushing forwards something new, and in this age of globalised fashion homogeneity, and rabid mass-(re)production, we should always encourage newness, or at least new directions.

There has been something of a shift at Raf Simons lately (he now uses professional models, not just local teens from Antwerp, and he collaborates more frequently with other manufacturers, and now even produces branded items like underwear and t-shirts which bear his name), but in these times everyone has to do what they must do to stay afloat, and in a way it is a natural progression for any high fashion brand.

SS10 show video and casting video:



One of the gripes about this collection and the last one that I read online went something along the lines of ‘Raf used to be so political, what happened...’ While it is admittedly perhaps easier to read some sort of political statement into his earlier collections like SS02, don’t tell me that now – as we continue to battle the recession, largely brought onto us by (pinstripe suit wearing) bankers – that this Raf Simons ad imagery for this season doesn’t have at least some political significance:

Simons has also collaborated with Dr Martens and Fred Perry. The top picure is the FW09 Raf Simons x Dr Martens collection, and the bottom picture shows two polo shirts from the SS10 Raf Simons x Fred Perry collection:

The Linda Farrow collaboration is also ongoing, with new styles:

Raf by Raf Simons for FW10:


Simons’ most recent collection, for fall/winter 2010, adopted a less formal look, by mixing tailoring with strong geometric designs and ‘techno’ fabrics; it was reassuring to see Simons’ ultra-sharp modernity back again, which was slightly less obvious in the previous two seasons:

Show video and casting video:




I will end with a few pictures of Raf Simons clothes and accessories in magazine editorials:

The model in the following pictures is Robbie Snelders, who is also Simons' first assistant and office manager:



#tags: Raf Simons archive vintage autumn/winter aw fw fall/winter f/w a/w ss s/s spring/summer