Raf Simons: Fashion Should Be “Hard To Grasp, Hard To Find”
Pitti Uomo kicks off in Florence tomorrow, and the headliner this time around is Raf Simons (left), who unveils his Spring ’11 menswear collection for Jil Sander on Thursday night. The timing isn’t entirely coincidental: Simons brings Sander to Pitti as he marks five years as the brand’s creative director, and he says he sees the excursion to Florence as a fitting celebration of his work, as he puts it, to “free Jil from itself.” “I believe in the Jil Sander heritage, but the brand can’t always be about double-face cashmere and a white shirt,” Simons says. And since he’s taken the reins, it hasn’t been. Marbled suiting. Half-length blazers. The pieces, in stores now, printed with the artwork of Tsuguharu Foujita. Jil Sander will be a far different thing after Simons’ tenure, and that, Simons says, is the point. “When someone else comes to do this job, there should be more possible than there was before,” he asserts. “Not that I’m planning on going anywhere.” Below, Simons talks to Style.com about the influence of nature, the changing designer customer, and taking stock at the five-year mark.
The Jil Sander show is a cornerstone of Milan’s menswear fashion week. Did you have any concerns about relocating the show to Florence this season?
No, no, quite the opposite. It felt right, after five years, to do something different. And separate. People are coming specially; they’re not turning up for our show and then running off to the next one. It’s a whole event. We’re bringing people to an estate in the hills, showing outside in a tremendous garden with a view of the city below. Afterwards, there will be a dinner. We are creating an atmosphere of celebration—the people at Pitti are very good at that. And it was the right moment. Next season, back to Milan.
You must have known you’d be showing Spring ’11 at Pitti before you started designing the collection. Did the anticipation of a change in location have any effect on the clothes?
In fact, that’s another, very important reason why I thought it would be good to come to Pitti, because I was curious to see how it would influence me.
So? How did it?
Well, as I said, we are showing in a garden, and so first of all, I was thinking about what it meant to be in nature. Not to say this is an “eco” collection, but you know, Milan can be quite sterile, and our shows in Milan, they’re very clean and quite intimate. Nature has a different scale. To be in dialogue with nature, you have to contend with that scale in some way. I was asking myself, how does the human body relate to this space?
I suppose the obvious way to answer that question is to do something dramatic with the silhouette.
This isn’t a silhouette-driven collection at all, as a matter of fact. I don’t want to compete with nature; I also don’t want to blend in. What I want is to create a tension, a certain friction or electricity, and show something you wouldn’t expect in that environment. The collection is quite uncomplicated. It’s very much about color and about material, which is the heritage of Jil. I wanted to go back to the roots. No spectacle. No over-the-top form—more simple and easy to relate to. The color and the material are more challenging. But I’ve probably already said more than I should.
I imagine that the five-year anniversary has occasioned some reflection on the brand. Has your sense of Jil Sander evolved over the years?
My perspective has changed and it hasn’t. What I’ve been conscious of, from the beginning, is that I can’t be Jil Sander. There was—and is—an audience for this brand that wants the Jil that she created, but it’s my job to make them think, to see new ideas, to feed their brains. There won’t always be a good reaction, but that’s not the point. You have to open things up, give lots of directions. That can be a challenge, with a brand like Jil Sander, because it’s always been linked to a certain kind of realism. And it emerged at a time when fashion evolved more slowly than it does now. I really respect the heritage—I’m here because I connect to it, profoundly. I feel it’s my responsibility, no matter what we take as an inspiration or a direction each season, that there’s always a quality you recognize as Jil Sander. But if you keep showing the things you found beautiful in the nineties, you’ll get bored. Even if you still find those things beautiful. And eventually, the audience will get bored, too. That’s the trouble you run into when you give up as a designer and let the audience define the brand.
I’m intrigued by what you just said about Jil Sander emerging at a time when fashion was allowed to evolve more slowly than it does now. I take it that you feel like, not only have you changed Jil Sander, but that the brand’s audience has changed, and that it was going to with or without you.
There will always be a Jil Sander client who wants a good cashmere coat and a simple, flat shoe, and we offer that. But fashion in the past decade has gone in so many directions, there is so much diversity now, that in general the consuming psychology has changed. It’s hard to surprise anymore. And also, there’s not the loyalty there was. In the nineties it was common to see people who expressed themselves through one designer—the Jil Sander woman, the Martin Margiela woman. You saw her on the street and you knew who she was. I bring up women because the change has been most dramatic for women, but it’s true of men, too—consumers are more likely now to buy a mix. They want more change. They want more of everything. I’m not complaining—I’m from a generation that believes in this mix. But Jil Sander, as a brand, is in an interesting position, not only because it’s founded on this realism, as I said, but also because it’s not a brand that makes its turnover on bags and shoes. We really have to sell the clothes. We can’t put things on the runway just to entertain people.
In other words, do you see the consumer mentality beginning to shift again, in light of the recession?
Maybe it’s the economy, maybe it’s just time for another shift, but yes, I’m beginning to sense a new approach. For example, we’ve seen that our stores are doing better than they ever have. There could be many reasons for that, but perhaps it has to do with a customer who is committing again to one brand. We’ll see. I can see how it would get exhausting, feeling like you have to buy 16 bags by 16 different designers every year, in order to keep up.
Does the possibility of a shift like that excite you or frighten you?
I’d like to see fashion slow down a bit. What freaks me out about fashion today is the speed—the speed of consuming, the speed of ideas. When fashion moves so fast, it takes away something I always loved, which is the idea that fashion should be slightly elusive. Hard to grasp, hard to find. We say this word, elite, like it’s bad to be elite, but is it? Shouldn’t there be some things, fashion included, that you can enjoy as creativity, as a message that requires thinking over? I’d like there to be time for that again. I mean, in the end the consumer will decide. We can only suggest. That’s their freedom. But I know for myself, it’s like, for the past eight years, I’ve been collecting art. And I follow the artists I care about; I don’t buy one piece by every artist. I know there are people who do that, but I can’t express myself that way. My point of view is that if I love a certain kind of beauty, I want more of that beauty. I don’t need 200 different beauties.
Do you have any particular favorite collections you’ve designed for Jil Sander? Any standout moments?
I always say, the best are the first and the last. I’m an emotional person, and of course the first collection for Jil made a big impression on me. I had no idea how people would react; our strategy, as a team, was to go in modest. The brand had been turbulent for many years, and our goal was simply to stabilize it. And then as time went on, we would make more of a statement. But the reaction to the first collection was so amazing, it kind of destroyed our strategy of being modest. And of course that first collection was also memorable because it scared the shit out of me to design women’s clothes. So that will always be a favorite season, and then there are also collections, like the African show, that I feel are important. That African show—that was the first one where I told the team, let’s go every place this brand has never been. Go to the past, go to exotic places, do fringe. It was a risk, but it was the season when I really said to myself, yes, we have the right to go wherever we want to go. But the collection that is always my favorite is the last. Actually, what I really mean is not the last, I mean the next. The task of the designer is to be excited about what’s to come. I’m a romantic about the future. That’s where all the possibility is.