"Confusion is one of my favorite words," declares Raf Simons. "When there is confusion, there is dialogue." He is musing on the critical response to someone like himself, part man of the moment, part discombobulating harbinger of things to come. "Dialogue is about creating an interesting debate, about creating momentum." And there is plenty of that in a conversation with Simons. It's like catching up with an old friend from school, someone you haven't seen for a dog's age whom professional success has elevated to a higher plane, but who still worries about the same intense making-the-world-a-better-place issues. And thank Christ for that.
In the world of high fashion—and there is scarcely fashion higher than the world of Christian Dior, which Simons now straddles as the house's creative director—he is a humanist anomaly, a commonsensical riposte to some of the curious orthodoxies that prevail in the industry. Why, for instance, are catwalks alive with flights of fancy, while stores often seem to be selling the same old, same old? "It doesn't feel right to me," he says. "I'd rather find a beautiful balance between what we show and what we sell. At my age , I'm happy to try to find a way to succeed on both levels. It's one thing to make yourself into a designer where everyone says, 'Oh, you're so genius!' then nothing sells. It needs to be on people's backs. That's ready-to-wear."
Simons launched his career in 1995 as a designer of menswear that rapidly moved the goalposts of male fashion, chilling it with a razor-thin, hard-edged urgency drawn from the punk and electronic music he loved. One of the most mesmerizing aspects of his Dior tenure so far has been the way that Raf then connects with Raf now. "In the early days, I wasn't even thinking about runway shows as a possibility," he says. "It was more about making clothes, and the attraction of people wearing those clothes. I think that attraction—the emotion of a man or woman dressed in things you're doing—is coming back very strongly. It's very often the reason to start communication. I got disconnected from that as things got bigger over the years. Dior has reconnected me. It was fantastic what clients had to say at the Dior Joaillerie dinner after the last couture shows. They wanted to sit and talk."
That notion of reconnection—so subtly but forcefully insinuating as to link the superficially unlinkable—is the thread that ties together Simons' own Spring collection for men, his Dior couture collection for Fall, and Dior's latest ready-to-wear collection, for Spring 2014. "I have a problem seeing couture as this thing that has to be very different aesthetically and mentally from ready-to-wear, from fashion for people," he muses. "It's weird for me to think about couture and focus on its old aspects. I find it more challenging to link it to what kind of life we live these days."
Contemporary life doesn't faze Simons. "I am embracing what our world is becoming. It's very propaganda, very man-made, a world of speed, a world of fast, direct communication. Our world is very produced. It's a lot about consumption. I want to make collections that show that. But under that are the basic ingredients I am always interested in: a certain kind of romance, darkness, youth." In a world of speed, a shadow must inevitably pass over youth and beauty and—eventually—everything else. That melancholy scenario has, in a subliminal way, often provided the poignant core of Simons' own collections.
But now that he's at Dior, there's something else in play—his own fascination with how Christian Dior himself would have responded to the changes wrought in the decades following his death, in 1957. "Everyone defines the Dior aesthetic around the Bar silhouette and the full skirt and the Femme Fleur, but that was only ten years. What if Dior had gone through the sixties, the seventies, the eighties…? He was interested in very different things. I found him revolutionary in taking risks. He was very liberated in the way he reached out to the women of the world, to different cultures and religions."
Not so long ago, the notion of Raf Simons helming the house of Dior would have seemed like a surreal idea, but he has risen to the challenges he's set himself to a remarkable and surprising degree. Take his last couture show, set against digital backdrops created backstage in the moment by four stellar fashion shooters. Dior himself, friend to Dalí and Giacometti, might have appreciated the collaborative nature of the whole shebang. "I love collaborations and reinterpretations," Simons says animatedly. "It's inspiring to see my clothes in different situations. I know there are designers who have problems with that, who only want their clothes shot as complete looks by magazines, but I'm the opposite of that. The more you open up, the more things come in."
He's encountered that kind of open attitude within the walls of Dior. "It's as if everybody wants so much for it to be nice, not just the collection but the atmosphere, the mood. I think that's because the presence of couture is still so strong. It's just all these women sitting together. It's a pretty calming feeling for a designer, very different from when you're sitting in a room presenting to seven different manufacturers, none of whom may be able to do what you want."
Equally reassuring has been his role as creative director. "How I see myself at Dior is very different from how I see myself in my own brand. Creative directors are not in charge. They are a link in a chain. That is calming for me. It works very well because we are all together. It's actually the same with Dior and with my own business. I need to have an environment where people decide things and believe in things together."
Which brings us almost too neatly to Antwerp, spiritual and actual home of a surprising number of the people who are responsible for the current health of the fashion body politic. The images on the previous pages were created by stylist Olivier Rizzo and photographer Willy Vanderperre, both Belgian. Simons met Rizzo more than twenty years ago in Antwerp, when Simons was interning with Walter Van Beirendonck after graduating in industrial and furniture design from the college in Genk, and Rizzo had a holiday job in WVB's studio. A level of professional success that takes them away from home far and often has come to them all, but they still see things the same way, hang out the same way, share a state of mind and a language. "We've all been feeling, 'Let's get back to Antwerp,'" says Simons. "Then we did things together because that was our world. Now we have a lot of nostalgia for doing these things again in Antwerp. It's very much a need, I think, for this small environment and strong friendships."
Simons, Rizzo, and Vanderperre are arch global fashion arbiters, and yet, says Simons, "At the end of the day, we all carry Antwerp so much in our hearts. On New Year's Eve, we're all together. None of us could imagine it any other way." And now, neither can I.