Raf Simons Opens His Atelier—and Shares His Label—to Artist Sterling Ruby for the Most Complete Designer/Artist Collaboration Yet
On January 15, Raf Simons will show his new men’s collection in Paris. Except it won’t be his name on the label. Or at least, not his alone. “For one season, the brand ‘Raf Simons’ will not exist,” the designer boldly declares. Instead, he’ll be sharing the billing with Sterling Ruby (above, right), “one of the most interesting artists to emerge in this century,” according to The New York Times. Same could be said for Simons, of course, but, on the surface at least, that looks like the only thing they’d have in common. Whether painted, sculpted, dripped, slopped, or bronzed, Ruby’s work is extravagantly physical, monumentally messy—or messily monumental. Simons’ isn’t. Extravagantly emotional, maybe, but otherwise a masterwork of purity and precision. But we know that surfaces deceive. Designer and artist are, in fact, a perfectly compatible duo. “We have similar sensibilities that surface when we speak about music and art,” Ruby confirms. “And even before our collaborations, we were talking a lot about textiles.”
Those collaborations have included the interior of the Raf Simons store in Tokyo and a handful of outfits from Simons’ first couture show for Dior, which referenced Ruby’s paintings. But this time it’s radically different. “Fashion has a long interest in collaborative situations,” explains Simons, “but what interests me now is to say that this is not just a collaborative thing, not just asking someone in my field to do the knitwear or the bags. This is all the way, all the way. There is not one shirt, one shoe, one sock that is not from our mutual thinking process.”
The challenges such an endeavor presents seem obvious. Geography, for one, when the creative process so physically involves one person based in Antwerp and another in L.A. Simons insists that even if Ruby wasn’t at every fitting, every single decision was made jointly.
Then, on some level, there is surely the issue of dimensionality, meaning the scale of Ruby’s own work versus menswear’s dimensions (there are rumors of a coat composed of seventy-five different types of fabric, which sounds pretty, er, massive). But that was a challenge Simons saw as his own: for the designer to find solutions to technical issues so the artist’s creativity wouldn’t be restricted. “It was less of a challenge than you might think,” Ruby offers. “I have been thinking about my studio as a kind of Bauhaus. In the last couple of years, I have been producing my own work clothes to wear at the studio, work shirts, pants, and jumpsuits. They are made from bleached denim and canvas, materials that I also use to make some of my artworks. In my work I have been thinking about the moment the utilitarian object becomes an aesthetic object.”
The last Raf Simons collection for men offered a shiny Warholian pop/art vision of the evolution of product in a synthetic world. This one promises the polar opposite: do-it-yourself handcraft dewed with the sweat of an honest workingman’s brow. That hypermasculine image is very much in keeping with the spontaneity and physicality of Ruby’s work. “But what shouldn’t be forgotten about the rawness of Sterling’s work is that it’s about someone who takes complete control as a person and an artist,” Simons points out. It’s a paradox he explored in his own early work, when his designs twisted the raw DIY ethos of the punk, new wave, and electronic scenes he loved into intensely disciplined dissertations on youth culture. Those days—before everything got so much more “industrialized,” as he puts it, for him—have been on his mind a lot lately. “When you’re thinking about a new collection,” he says, “your own history is very much in your thoughts.”
Even before the collection is subjected to the jury of public opinion, the experience has had a transformative impact on its protagonists. “Very liberating,” says Simons. “I know this independence is what people like most about my brand.” For Ruby, it’s been an education in the unholy speed of the fashion industry. “It seems like an endless cycle for designers, and they make decisions so fast,” he says. “I am thinking about how I could incorporate that kind of immediacy into my own work.”
Simons is keen to underscore once more the essence of the project. It is not a simple collaboration, a case of a designer bringing in an artist to create a T-shirt or a bag. But nor do the creators want what they’ve done to be perceived as art. January 15′s show space has been carefully selected so that it couldn’t possibly be construed as an “art” environment. (This from a designer who showed last season at Larry Gagosian’s newest Paris gallery.) “We are making a men’s fashion collection, not an artwork,” Simons insists.
But logic is equally insistent. With the Simons/Ruby collection being one of the most attractive and fully conceived offspring of fashion and art’s courtship, there will undoubtedly be people who prefer to hang the clothes on their walls. Simons is typically unfazed. “As much as we feel free to do this, anyone who buys it should feel free to do whatever they want with it.”