Raf Simons makes street clothes for his contemporaries, Divia Harilela reports
Belgian designer Raf Simons has a simple view on how fashion works in the 21st century. 'I always think of contemporary fashion as a circle,' he says. 'In the middle you have people like Nicholas Ghesquiere [from Balenciaga] who are defining it and everything flows around them. Once you begin to move around the edges, what you are creating is no longer contemporary.
'Many designers have stayed there while others such as Miuccia Prada have moved on. She understands 21st century fashion and what her clients want and need, and I think I also see that. You can work against the path or follow it, while defining your own type of aesthetic.'
While Simons remains modest about his role in fashion, there is no denying the influence he has had, both with his namesake label and as creative director for minimalist label Jil Sander.
When he launched Raf Simons in 1995, he created a new type of tailoring for men, putting them in skinny suits that were small at the shoulders, defining a new shape for the 90s. Collection after collection, he drew from the street, creating clothes inspired by the attitudes and needs of today's men, while also looking to the future.
Later, when he joined Jil Sander in 2005, Simons made a strong statement by focusing on clean yet structural lines that respected a woman's form while showing off its beauty. The press took notice and he has since been lauded as one of the most influential names in womenswear.
'What I wanted to do was to take my time,' he says. 'I didn't want to make a revolution in the first season and shock everybody. I wanted my first collection to fulfil the needs of the clients but also activate the interest of the press and the audience who weren't watching any more.'
While Simons' work is very much based on the needs of his clients, it's interesting to learn he has little desire to know them and rarely meets them in person. This is all part of a persona he - and the press - have created over the years, making him somewhat of a fashion mystery.
In person, he lives up to the preconceptions. He is a quiet, unassuming man who once refused to have his portrait taken and shies away from the bright lights of fashion. Instead, he prefers to surround himself with a small circle of trusted friends who have worked with him since the beginning. He rarely takes holiday ('I have no time,' he says) and has simple passions, including a love for collecting contemporary art.
That aside, he does admit some things have changed since he started his business at the age of 27.
'Now I have to take my portrait,' he laughs. 'It is part of the contract with Jil. I have it taken every 18 months by the same person. So I am getting more flexible.'
Simons was born in Belgium in 1968 and is still based in the fashion capital of Antwerp, although he shows his collections in Milan and Paris. He describes Antwerp as a 'little village', which he says isn't dissimilar from Neerpelt, where he was born and raised.
'I had no dreams about being a fashion designer when I was young, and I didn't run around with my mum's dresses or scissors when I was 12 or 13,' he says.
'Near my town there were so many farms, and I grew up surrounded by cows and sheep, which is hardly a fashion environment. When I was 18 I felt I had to run away as soon as possible so I could explore the rest of the world.'
After graduating with a degree in industrial and furniture design in 1991, Simons landed a job at the design studios of famed designer Walter Van Beirendonck. During this time he says a creative energy was sweeping the Belgian city, with the Antwerp Five making waves on the international fashion scene.
'It was the first time something so creative was coming from Belgium. Before, what were we famous for? Diamonds, chocolate, and that's it basically. For the first time, so many young people were intrigued and interested, as was I.'
He moved to Antwerp where he became friends with the highly respected head of the fashion department at the Antwerp Royal Academy, Linda Loppa, who would later change his destiny.
'I wanted to start fashion school but [Linda] didn't want me to go. Her father was a tailor, an old-school tailor, and I always spoke to him about the construction of clothes, and how it related to the people, to an attitude. Linda encouraged me to try fashion on my own so I did.'
Simons says he took his work very seriously and locked himself away in his apartment for several months to create what would be his first collection of 40 to 45 men's pieces.
'In the beginning I was very naive, I was very green. I wasn't thinking about structure or the business plan, making money or going to Paris. It was just about trying to find a language I felt comfortable with and that people in the environment around me would also be attracted to.'
After Loppa saw the completed line, she sent Simons to Milan, where he displayed his clothes at a showroom owned by a man who was then the European distributor of Helmut Lang, one of Simons' idols.
Soon the orders started pouring in and Simons went about building a new aesthetic for men that was bold yet wearable.
To drive the point home, his fashion presentations were supplemented with videos and photographs of people on the street that he knew or met, who he also used as models for his shows.
'I basically wanted to make clothes for a very young generation that I was connected to,' he says.
'It was very much about my own little environment, the people I was spending my time with. There was a need for something else - we had a different attitude and interest in the construction and aesthetic of the clothes. If you look at the 80s or 90s, it was very big - about big guys and glamorous girls. I turned it completely around.'
Today although both his labels, including the younger diffusion line Raf by Raf Simons, are still very much connected to the street, Simons does admit his design aesthetic has evolved.
'For years I wanted to be avant-garde, but I now know I have the desire to please the audience in terms of products. I wanted to create a new type of tailoring for a young generation because I was young. Now I don't need to create clothes to please younger audiences, I have grown up and I have evolved.'
While Jil Sander still takes up much of his time, Simons has aspirations to continue building his own labels, both of which are available at high-end stores including Lane Crawford. This may also include the possibility of adding womenswear to his label.
'In the past I always said never to womenswear but now since Jil it may become interesting. On the other hand, I am in such a professional structure at Jil that if I ever did my own brand I would want it to be organised like that. I want the right producers.
'At Raf Simons, we don't want to move too fast. We are an independent company which we are proud of. I know it's faster if you marry a huge corporate institution, but I see the other side, the problematic aspects of that. At this moment I am very comfortable. Communication is easy when you have people at the same level,' he says.