In a room high in Christian Dior's couture house on Avenue Montaigne in Paris, sits Raf Simons. The signature grey interior is brightened by a large bowl of flowers that only 48 hours earlier had carpeted the walls of a grand townhouse for his debut show.
Dior's newly appointed creative director looks quite serious in his neat black shirt and tailored shorts. Calm and unassuming, Simons sips on a drink and expresses relief at having delivered his first haute couture collection. "So much has been going on, it's been crazy," the 44-year-old says, but adds with a twinkle, "actually, I am already thinking about the next one." He is referring to the ready-to-wear collection that he will unveil this month.
"That's often the case with me, it is a permanent flow," he explains. "I have learned to shut up as my assistants get very nervous if I speak to them about the next collection, just before this one."
Design is a continuous and evolutionary process for the Belgian modernist designer, and his debut couture collection for Christian Dior established a new blueprint for the house. Simons produced the collection in just seven weeks and quite simply blew everyone away.
The show opened with five black tuxedo looks: beautifully refined silhouettes that reference the iconic "Bar" jacket that formed the backbone of Mr Dior's classic 1947 "New Look" collection, updated with chic cigarette pants. In one instant Simons swept aside the bows and ribbons of the house's recent history, and took us straight back to the core years.
"Mr Dior was a supreme architect of pattern," says Simons. "He could construct something so perfect and yet he would often throw in a gesture on purpose to break that perfection."
This pared back look and the sculpted peplum shape of the "Bar" received an immediate nod of approval from Pierre Cardin seated in the front row. The 90-year-old former couturier had worked with Mr Dior and tailored the original "Bar" jacket. "I was honoured he came to see the collection and he was very complimentary after the show, and very talkative," says Simons.
The tuxedos, the fine cashmere sweaters with ball-skirts, and a series of "New Look" style Corolle dresses cropped short and worn nonchalantly over cigarette pants, with the models' hands tucked into pockets, expresses a fresh modern attitude. Simons talks about bringing a new dynamic and fresh energy to couture. "It doesn't have to be hands-off." He wants to make couture more relevant to customers' lifestyles today.
"Haute couture is not challenging enough to simply make a spectacle on stage, have it photographed and maybe see someone wear it on the red carpet. That is not enough for me. I think about what women really want," he says with some thought.
The comment wipes the slate clean. Christian Dior appears to be expunging all reference to the John Galliano years: the style, the imagery and the campaigns. Dior fired the flamboyant Galliano last year, after his anti-Semitic remarks in a bar. Simons, who is more low-key than his predecessor, will not comment on Galliano, but simply says, "when a position like this is offered you shouldn't look at the work of the last decade, but the body of work and in the case of Christian Dior I feel myself relating to Christian's work."
Mid-century couture is something Simons had been exploring for two or three years as a designer at Jil Sander. "I love the modernism and psychology of the period. It had a strong relationship with the aesthetic of the past, but a feeling for Space Age and Futurism," he explains. He is also intrigued that the 1950s silhouettes keep recurring and still feel relevant in fashion today. His swansong autumn collection for the label in February had the fragrant air of fifties couture featuring powdery-coloured double-faced cashmere clutch coats over sculpted skirts and graceful lingerie-style dresses. However, his minimalist designs seemed at odds with Dior's ultra-femininity and flamboyant fashion shows.
His final Jil Sander show came two days after the surprise announcement that he would be leaving the house. The standing ovation and tearful response from Simons when he took his bow expressed the shock everyone felt at the way he had been dropped by the label, so that Sander herself could return. He does not dwell on it, but clearly he wasn't happy with the situation leading up to the decision. After some reflection he says: "I wasn't feeling comfortable anymore with the design restrictions of realism and minimalism at Jil Sander, because I wanted to explore more the relationship of women, their bodies and ideals of beauty."
Meanwhile, there had been much soul-searching at Dior after Galliano's departure and various names had been suggested to replace him, including Marc Jacobs. "I know that designers get approached, but that doesn't mean anything is happening, it is just showing a mutual interest," he points out. "I never thought that a couture house would consider me, but I can assure you that when I was doing my last show for Jil, I was not thinking about coming here." There had been no job offer, but the moment he left Sander the situation moved fast, discussions started and five weeks later the announcement came that he would be moving to Dior.
"The first day I was introduced to lots of people in large groups of 50 or 70, which was the most intimidating thing for me." A not surprising reaction given that for years he refused to take a catwalk bow. "But five hours later we were working together and I think everyone was relieved that the gossip could end."
Simons certainly looks happy having spent the past few weeks in the couture atelier. To the outside world it appears a slick machine, but he says it is like a family, "like working with my aunties".
Sidney Toledano, the chief executive and president of Christian Dior, said after the show that hiring Simons "was the right decision … he brings a new aesthetic to the house." The group of distinguished guests in the front row, which included Sharon Stone, Princess Charlene of Monaco and a number of designers, agreed.
"Before the show, I found it really difficult to imagine what Raf would do at Dior," admitted Donatella Versace, "but from the very first look today it made total sense."
Although Raf Simons is highly acclaimed for his womenswear, he is regarded as one of our most influential modern menswear designers too, having launched his own label in 1995. He has a fascination with seventies and eighties rock – Kraftwerk, The Cure, Joy Division – which together with youth cult has had a major influence on his men’s collections. These bands were the music of his eenage years when the only outlet for young people in the sleepy Belgian village of Neerpelt where he grew up was the local record store. It is poles apart from the couture aesthetic of his womenswear except for the way he handles colour.
Simons studied industrial design and is as attracted to furniture and industrial designers of the mid-century period as to fashion designers of that era. There was a lot of creative energy in Antwerp in the early 1990s, so he interned at menswear pioneer Walt Van Beirendonck, designing furniture. However, it was a trip to the collections in Paris with Van Beirendonck and seeing the Maison Martin Margiela all-white collection that changed everything for Simons. “Suddenly I could see the emotional and social aspects of fashion in a different way.”
He was encouraged by Linda Loppa, head of fashion at Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Arts, whom he calls his “fashion mother”, to launch his own collection at 27. Such
was his success that within two years he had 17 employees. That baptism gave him the experience to oversee the collections he is responsible for at Dior as well as continue his own. “I’m not chaotic in the design process, I communicate very early on what I want,” he says. It is how he thinks he will be able to handle the pressure. However, he admits to not being good at keeping a work and home-life balance: “I will have to learn. In summer I can, but in winter I work all the time. I think it’s because it doesn’t feel like a job. It feels like a passion.”