Arts and Entertainment

Raf Simons: Fashion and Creating a Dialogue Between Generations

Belgian fashion designer Raf Simons has revolutionized the industry, combining his knowledge of industrial design with his firm belief in self-expression to revitalize menswear and womenswear alike.

Reading Time: 3 minutes

When thinking of the global fashion centers from which noteworthy brands emerge, Belgium is hardly the first place that comes to mind. With large cities such as Milan and Paris serving as hubs for the new and flourishing artistic projects of the season, it can become difficult for those outside the upper echelon of fashion to make a name for themselves. Despite this and numerous other tribulations in his life, Raf Simons was able to establish a culture—a religion, even—around his clothing, his name becoming synonymous with the duality of the retrospective and the visionary.

Born in 1968 in Neerpelt, Belgium, Simons graduated from the LUCA School of Arts with a degree in both industrial and furniture design. Despite dabbling in the fashion industry with his internship with Walter Van Beirendonck, a member of the Antwerp Six (an influential, avant-garde fashion collective of the ‘80s), the world-renowned designer lived most of his early life dismissing the idea of fashion as a career choice.

All of that changed when his then-mentor Beirendonck took him to Martin Margiela’s Spring 1990 all-white show. In that event, Margiela presented an amalgamation of couture and street that felt more present and significant than anything Simons had experienced before in fashion. The former glitz and glamour of the typical runway show were deconstructed into its unembellished form. The event in which Simons would later describe as “emotional and conceptual and psychological” featured models stumbling down uneven runways in deconstructivist style clothing as children filled the front row seats at the site: a graffitied playground. By its end, the emotive performance left audience members in tears, including Simons. Just like that, the designer knew fashion was his passion and was immediately catapulted into unfamiliar and exciting territory. Despite being untrained and inexperienced in the field, Simons was able to actualize his ideas of harmony between the human form and the story it tells into his work in fashion today.

Simons established his eponymous menswear line in 1995 and held his first fashion show in Paris just two years later. His brand gained traction rather quickly as it catered to fashion’s two most important audience members: critics and teens. The former commended his use of fabrics and garments—much of this knowledge he acquired through his time studying furniture—to create visually captivating pieces. The latter admired how wearable his clothes were and how well they fit into the streetwear scene.

Through the early 2000s, Simons depicted fashion in a new light: seeing a man’s world through a teen’s eyes. From his first collection inspired by schoolboy outfits to his post-9/11 collection, in which models walked the runway wearing torn clothes, masked, barefooted, and carrying torches, Simons has uncannily represented the youth’s spectrum of emotions through his creative vision. Despite having never designed womenswear, Simons accomplished much in the first few years of his career and was able to broaden his horizons when he was appointed creative director at German fashion company Jil Sander. Up until his departure with the brand in 2012, his work was applauded for bringing new sexuality to Jil Sander’s silhouettes while maintaining the minimalistic characteristic of its collections.

The following year, Simons made headlines when he debuted his Fall 2012 Haute Couture line as creative director at Dior. As Simons’ portfolio grew larger and larger, his influence extended to more brands and subcultures including collaborations with sportswear brand Adidas and game-changing work as creative director of Calvin Klein; his personal brand displayed a commingling of his own genius along with the ideas and trends he picked up while working with such a vast set of companies. His collections began pushing boundaries by vitalizing the ideas he had played with since his older works. Still present was that teenaged restlessness in his designs, but in subtler manners as time progressed. Saturated colors, genderless clothing, shredded fabrics, and asymmetrical layering were all discreet homages to his past designs. With these, Simons simultaneously took inspiration from and elevated the past with bold shapes to create nostalgic fashion that felt unlike anything done before.

With his colorful and decorated career, Simons has become a figure of individuality—a pioneer of the outward expression of emotion through a medium that was once seen as a means to flaunt affluence and status within the high fashion circle. By putting forth innovative ideas and transcending the line between fashion and other cultural outlets, Simons has ingrained his brand into the lifestyle of many. Rapper A$AP Rocky writes for Time Magazine’s “100 Most Influential People” how the Belgian designer has changed the face of fashion so much so that “it’s to the point where kids, male and female alike, will get in full arguments over why he's the greatest.” With Simon’s womenswear debut for his brand just this October, it seems there is so much more he has to show. As he puts it, “the fashion world doesn’t know the word ‘stop,’ so you have to make sure there are sublime moments every day.” The fast-paced industry slows down for no one, yet Simons and his reputation have no trouble keeping up.