10 Standout Moments of Raf Simons’s Career
The excitement over Calvin Klein’s show during New York Fashion Week on Friday has been building for, well, months. That’s because Raf Simons — the newly installed chief creative officer of Calvin Klein — skipped last season to focus on rebuilding and rebranding the multibillion dollar American megalith for a brave new era. For Simons, the Calvin debut will be the latest of a series of memorable moments in his 22-year career. Here, 10 highlights from fashion’s favorite Belgian wunderkind and — potentially — clues as to what he’ll do at Calvin Klein.
1) He Defined the Men’s Wear Look of the Early 2000s
Originally trained as an industrial designer (he sold furniture before he got into fashion), Raf Simons established his eponymous men’s wear company in 1995. He garnered rave reviews almost immediately, emerging at a pivotal moment when directional men’s wear began to attract both retail and press attention, and designers began to push its boundaries. Running counter to the dominant look at the time (the sexed-out Studio 54 lotharios that characterized Tom Ford’s spectacular Gucci revival, which was ripped off everywhere else), Simons presented a skinny-suited and relentlessly youthful vision. There was rebellion there, too: His clothes were colored with subcultural undercurrents — culled from the electronic and punk music scenes — that proved widely influential. Indeed, the skinny suit became the dominant shape of the late 1990s and early 2000s. While that silhouette owed a debt to Helmut Lang — a hero of Simons — the youth was all Simons’s. He had only just turned 30 when he presented his fall/winter 1998 “Radioactivity” collection, in which models in red shirts and black ties paid overt homage to his teenage years and his love of Kraftwerk. “It was nothing to do with fashion, only with music,” Simons told T last year, when describing the inspiration behind those outfits. Indeed, the models looked like they’d just stepped off the cover of “The Man-Machine.” They were extreme, but much imitated — and not just by designers. Simons’s styles predated the ’80s-fixated, turn-of-the-millennium “Electroclash” aesthetic by a good two years. Every hipster would be sporting the same outfit with side-slicked Human League hair come summer 2000.
2) He’s Always Understood the Importance of Breathing Space
Even before the fashion calendar was jam-packed with pre-collections and runway shows, Simons was an champion of taking it easy. Or, at least, of exploring what else was out there. “I had a love-hate relationship with fashion,” he told T. “In a way, I was completely obsessed and attracted and I loved it; on the other, I hated it.” That philosophy might explain an otherwise surprising decision after his fall/winter 2000 show to wind down his business. But he retained an office in Antwerp, as well as a creative team; he wanted to do something, but not fashion. (He explored other creative avenues for a year, including teaching at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna and guest-editing an issue of i-D — which, he says, is still the magazine’s best seller.) But of leaving fashion, he said, “That’s also when I missed it quickly.”
3) He Thought One of His Strongest Collections Had Finished His Career
The most controversial and influential show of Simons’s career was given the somewhat unwieldy title “Woe Onto Those Who Spit on the Fear Generation… The Wind Will Blow it Back.” As the name suggests, it focused on youthful rebellion. The designer looked to freedom fighters for inspiration — his models walked barefoot with their faces masked, wearing torn and shredded hooded sweatshirts printed with inflammatory slogans. Presented in June 2001, the collection was maligned — The Times called it a “terrorist-inflected collection.” “I thought my career was over after that show,” Simons once told me. “I remember editors and people that had been supporting the brand sending messages to us, to me, saying ‘Don’t worry. We understood the collection! Don’t think that we think that it’s negative!’” Simons has said his references were “The opposite of 9/11 — it’s about freedom.” Many items in the collection came to be popularly associated with Simons’s work — especially washed, torn and elongated slogan sweatshirts. (Similar styles are now offered by Kanye West’s Yeezy line.)
4) He’s Had a Long Collaboration With a Graphic Design Legend
For his fall/winter 2003 collection, Simons collaborated with the British graphic design mastermind Peter Saville of Factory records (who designed album covers for Joy Division and New Order). Simons has been a fan of the bands and their artwork — and took the jagged radio-waves graphic of Joy Division’s “Unknown Pleasures” album (which Saville had lifted from a book on astronomy) and knitted it into an intarsia sweater. That’s only one example from this collection, which saw Simons dive headfirst into Saville’s archive and, essentially, grab all he could. Simons dubbed the show “Closer,” after Joy Division’s second and final album. Incidentally, if you want to get close up with any of these archival pieces, it’ll cost you plenty — on the online men’s wear marketplace grailed.com, one of these rare Simons-Saville parkas was listed for $20,000. However, the collaboration has a more accessible ending: Earlier this month, Calvin Klein unveiled its new logo ahead of Simons’s debut. It’s been redesigned by Peter Saville.
5) He Waited Over 10 Years to Design Women’s Wear — But When He Did, It Was Memorable
Simons has said he never consciously chose to design men’s wear — originally he planned to create a line with two female friends, but when they dropped out, he concentrated on men’s, because he was fitting the clothes on himself. He also included female models alongside men in early look books and videos — and his clothes were sometimes shot in women’s wear editorials. Women also bought pieces from his men’s line (and still do). But in 2006, he took the reins at Jil Sander and debuted his first women’s-only runway show. Although he was designing under the Jil Sander label, and hence felt the challenges of another aesthetic, that fall/winter 2006 show offered a first glimpse into how Simons’s sensibility could translate to a full feminine wardrobe.
6) He’s Never Shied Away From Color
A few years after that restrained debut, Simons turned Jil Sander upside down and inside-out, amping up the color and volume. The clothing in his spring/summer 2011 collection was techno-couture, crafted from airy synthetic fabrics specially chosen to take a lurid selection of fluorescent dyes, like hazmat orange and highlighter pink. In shapes culled from the midcentury silhouettes of Cristóbal Balenciaga and Christian Dior — like billowing sack-back gowns and puffy peplum skirts — the collection had an impact so high it could be measured on the fashion Richter scale. It made designers across the world scramble to leaf through the history books, and encouraged a generation of women to ditch black and experiment with joyous color. This was only the first of four collections where Simons would refine, define and further explore similar themes of fluorescent-hued femininity. In retrospect, his fusion of historical silhouettes with modern techniques and a sense of contemporary ease were the defining statements of that fashion moment.
7) He’s Not Afraid to Show His Emotions
Simons has always aimed to elicit emotion with his work. He certainly gets emotional about it: He’s wept backstage at his shows — with happiness, perhaps, or relief, but certainly not sadness. He traces his career in fashion back to witnessing a Martin Margiela show staged in a children’s playground in Paris in 1990. Even remembering it overwhelms him with emotion, and he tears up talking about it even today. At Simons’s fall/winter 2012 show for Jil Sander, however, many in the audience were in tears. Simons was hotly rumored to be moving to the plum role of artistic director at Christian Dior, and the collection therefore had both the sadness of a farewell and the joy of a new adventure. The model Kinga Razak, who closed the show in a full-skirted cocktail dress with a distinct nod to Dior’s trademark New Look, burst into tears while walking down the runway during the finale. It was fashion’s ultimate emotional zinger: The reviews were ecstatic. Sure enough, Simons’s official appointment to Dior was announced just over a month later.
8) His Dior Debut Smelled of Roses… and Delphiniums, and Orchids…
With Frederic Tscheng’s film team in tow — recording for the documentary feature “Dior and I” — Simons produced his first Dior collection (and first haute couture outing) in an incredible eight weeks. But it wound up almost playing second fiddle to his awe-inspiring set — a sequence of salons wrapped wall to wall with flowers, including delphiniums, orchids, mimosas and roses, each room saturated in a single glorious plant, color and scent. Over a million blooms were used as the backdrop to Simons’s show. Which was, believe it or not, inspired by the very Dior idea of “la femme fleur” — the full, petal-like skirts of the 1947 New Look. Talk about flower power.
9) He Nailed the Tricky Art Collaboration Better Than Anyone
One of the key pieces in that first Dior show was a chiné silk dress woven with a recreation of a spray-painted artwork by the contemporary Californian artist Sterling Ruby. The artist and the designer are friends — Simons even texted Ruby a photo of the finished fabric before it hit the runway. Indeed, they’re so close that, over the course of 2013, they collaborated on a joint collection, labeled with both their names and entirely the product of dual creative decision-making, Simons said. The clothes were patched with graphics reminiscent of both their work; some were marked as limited editions, and featured fabrics created by Ruby. One coat retailed for over $30,000 — but considering that the record price for one of Ruby’s pieces was $1.7 million back in 2013, that’s kind of a steal.
10) His Spring Collection May Have Been a Calvin Klein Preview
In June 2016, almost two months before he would be announced as Calvin Klein’s chief creative officer, Simons opted to show his line in Florence. Alongside an exhibition of archival pieces, he unveiled a collection created in partnership with the Robert Mapplethorpe Foundation, using over 100 of the late photographer’s prints. It was a curation — like a gallery, only using the clothes instead of walls. Backstage after the show, Simons told me (I was then men’s critic for Vogue Runway) the garments were like “frames” for the paintings. But the boys themselves looked like Mapplethorpe self-portraits. Simons was tight-lipped on the pending CK news but, looking back now, there’s something terribly Calvin about those Mapplethorpean men. Maybe it’s the idea of overt male sexuality — Klein was the first to create a male pinup in snug tighty-whities, after all. There’s something all-American about Mapplethorpe too: Simons used one of his images of a torn and tattered stars and stripes on a simple tank. Male sexuality meeting all-American idols: sounds like a pretty good blueprint for tackling Calvin Klein’s legacy. Then again, if Simons’s career thus far has taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected.
Can Raf Simons Reinvent Calvin Klein?