Raf Simons has settled in to New York. He’s relocated his life, his business, his partner, and his dog—a tall, intimidating beauceron named Luca. That’s who greets me with a few stern barks when I enter Simons’ office in midtown. “She just barks,” Raf tells me. Luca is a protector. The dog laps the perimeter of the room a few times before settling into a bed just outside the door. The wall by the elevators says Calvin Klein, but I came to talk to Raf Simons about Raf Simons, the label Raf started in Belgium back in 1995. Next week he will present the Fall-Winter ’17 collection of his namesake line at Gagosian Gallery in New York during NYFW: Men’s. Later next month, he will show his first collections for Calvin Klein, where he is now serving as chief creative officer. He’s wearing an oversized varsity cardigan from his acclaimed “Twin Peaks” collection, frayed and mended like he’s had it for decades (even though it’s from this season). A plate of pastries is delivered to the table in front of us and we begin.
GQ Style: Have you found your favorite coffee shop and place to get a martini in New York yet?
Raf Simons: I have to be really honest with you, we didn’t really do a lot, besides working. It’s the first season—maybe I should say seasons—and I know exactly how that goes. It’s the third time I’m doing it. It requires full focus, so we are always here, basically. And when we have the opportunity to take some time, we go out with her [Luca]. We go out of the city where it’s beautiful and green. We go to the Berkshires. We’ve been to Connecticut. I’ve been coming for many years to New York, for whatever reason. I come here for three days for a shoot, or a week to just hang out, and we’d do so much. Everybody always says, “Yeah, but when you live in New York it’s not like that.” I’m like, “No! I’m going to see shows every day, museums every day.”
No. I haven’t done a lot since [we arrived]. I saw a couple of shows. The Agnes Martin show at the Guggenheim, for example. Some gallery shows. In the beginning we’re taking care of the house. You close down the whole thing in Europe, move it over, organize the the whole thing. It’s a whole different life. We have a big dog. So no. Not yet. No coffee shop and all that. The house, yes. We have a house and it’s really nice and really together now. We feel very at home there.
Does living and showing in New York have an effect on your creative output?
Yes. Big time. The city is always inspiring. But I think when you are here all the time it is inspiring in a different way, obviously. I can be very honest about it: Both collections are going to relate very much to how I experience it. How I see it. How I have always seen it. And how I might want to see it. It relates to myself and my roots and Europe. Both collections, in a very different way—maybe one more America, the other one Europe.
You’ve come to New York during a fraught time. Do socio-political situations influence your work?
Yes. But I’m not gonna say—I’m gonna show. It’s too fragile to express in words. It’s something you have to feel. I’ve always thought that it’s interesting if I can cause a relevant dialogue, or a constructive dialogue.
Do you think that fashion and design can be a form of rebellion or resistance? With a situation like Donald Trump’s presidency, can it be a form of protest to design or to just get dressed in the morning?
Yes, I think it can be a form of resistance. But no more than any other person taking a position or speaking up. I don’t think that because it’s fashion it’s more of a resistance.
It’s also difficult to talk about because one thing is that when you come as a European to America, it’s already quite something. My whole existence had a very specific foundation in Europe. Belgium, Paris, Milan. My company was established there and is based there still. But I had to rethink the whole thing because the one thing that I said is that, if I step into a new creative director position, I’m not traveling anymore. I came to an age where I found that to be the very annoying part of the job. Because I’m really still challenged by doing these two different things. I always like to do that. In the early days, before I became creative director of Jil Sander, I was also always doing two things. The brand and art curating. Or the brand and teaching at university. And then it became two brands. Jil-Raf. Dior-Raf. Now Calvin-Raf. And it’s very interesting for me, those two roles. I think it makes me very alert. Instead of becoming lazy in your own settled thinking process and environment. But I just can’t cope with the travel anymore so everything was restructured. My people come here. We have an office here for my company.
So all of that together is a lot. Coming here. Living here. Your partner. Your dog. It’s a new city. New experiences. Starting a new job. And then suddenly—woosh!—something happens which is like the last possible thing you could even imagine.
Yeah. That’s how we experienced it. Literally, you start thinking, Oh my god. What did we decide here a half-year ago? And then you can go and sit there and [cry] or you can just say, I’m going to do my thing. I have things that I have to do. And I have not only a responsibility, but a challenge.
I’ve felt a lot lately like I felt a very long time ago when I started in fashion. I had a love hate relationship. I’m not trained as a fashion designer, I’m trained as an industrial designer. It’s quite a different kind of dialogue that people have in that world. It’s more like the environment of architecture and design and art. It’s a different way of behaving. A different dialogue. A different speed, also. A different process to come to an end result. I used to have this love and hate relationship with fashion because I thought it was a lower form of creative expression. And at the same time I started to feel that it was dull. I thought, Oh my, we just keep on producing clothes, clothes. Like, we could do something so much more relevant, you know? Until one person said to me—and I’m not going to name the person—but the person literally slapped me in the face and said, you have to start looking at it differently, because otherwise you’re never going to be proud and happy about what you do. Because you inspire people. You bring something out that they literally need. So you do a good thing. Not a bad thing. And that’s how I’ve started to think lately.
You ask these questions, I cannot answer them literally. I can just say that I know that I’m doing something that people are going to feel good about. I know that. Maybe some of them hate my stuff, and they can go somewhere else. But I’m not doing nothing. I’m already doing something. I think that if people have to deal with this thing that they can’t deal with, and there is something they really like, it’s going to make them feel better.
I’m constantly thinking about what could I do on a bigger scale. I’m thinking a lot about it. And I’m watching a lot of the people who do speak up. Like the march and all these women. But I also question a lot. Like, What is this all going to become? I open the newspaper and I see that he’s ordering a wall. I’m like… It’s almost like the middle ages or something. I cannot believe it. You know, I’ve been doing this thing for 21 years. People do their thing. I do my job. Then you watch a television series like Game of Thrones and you think, Oh my god, it was like that back in the days. Then you see all the evolution. You know, we went through the sexual revolution—I thought.
The civil rights movement.
It’s almost incredible that something like that has been manifesting in a country like America.
Throughout your career, you’ve referenced youth and rebellion. How has your perspective on that changed? Because in the 21 years since you’ve been designing, what it means to be a young person has changed radically.
This collection is going to relate very much to your question.Very much. I’m thinking a lot again about that period when there was a political climate that caused punk. My thing is not gonna be punk, but you know, what it meant, and why it came at that point—the whole thing with England and Thatcher.
I’ve been thinking also about the bourgeoisie of fashion—and the new youth of fashion, who has no interest whatsoever in the bourgeoisie of fashion. Then I’m thinking about the structures of the high fashion world. And I’m thinking about all these young kids who have a whole new world out there which does not relate to the events where the high bourgeoisie is. It’s also about the relationship between things which are the highest and the lowest. Which could possibly be the garment itself. What could be the lowest of the lowest, and what could be the highest of the highest?
And then there’s this other thing: The mother and the son thing. Also with Thatcher and the punks—I think that a good president or a good king should be a good father or a good mother to their children.
So thats where it started when I began thinking about doing that kind of collection, which might be the beginning of a series that I’ll try to do. It’s eras with me very often. There was this era where I started to think a lot about the relationship between audience and spectator. And I made them all standing again, and there was a party mood and freedom. I said what I needed to say. Now we’re talking about something else. And I think that body of work that I’ve been showing in that last 3 years maybe, with all these shows, from the Sterling [Ruby] show on—the Twin Peaks show and the Florence show—they were not reactive shows. They were not reacting against or reacting. They were just shows that were more related to a collaboration, for example, with Sterling. Or they were related to things that were always in my mind, whether it was Twin Peaks and horror movies, or my parents. Right now it’s way more related to what’s going on in the world for me.
What do you mean when you talk about the new youth of fashion? Do you mean young designers?
No. Spectators. And people that just bring out their opinion. People that have dialogue with other people. I’m analyzing and analyzing and analyzing, trying to take it all in. Trying to figure out what it is that changed in fashion so much. And what changed in fashion so much is that it no longer belongs to a bourgeoisie small environment.
It isn’t just for the elite anymore.
I was actually someone who was very often saying that fashion keeps thinking that it can serve everybody, that it can be there for everybody, high fashion. I’m sorry, but high fashion was always for a small environment. High fashion by nature used to be extreme. Right now we define a lot of things as high fashion, but they’re not high fashion. They’re clothes. They’re clothes on the runway with a nice little twist of styling and coloration. Everybody thinks it’s high fashion. Bullshit. There is very little high fashion.
Now, the high fashion world used to have, for many decades, almost all through the 20th century, a bourgeoisie. But bourgeoisie is not necessarily a bad word. That’s not what I mean. Let’s say a high court audience. And it never changed and evolved. Because our world structure kept it like that. Up until young kids said, “We are going to look and consume and react and say something and have a dialogue. Even if we are not in that show. We are not in the court. We are not in the castle.” And that’s what’s happening now. And we designers, we are completely out of that whole thing. We have to think, how are we going to deal with it? Because the bourgeoisie, they really still think it’s all for them. They spit on the youth. Nobody dares to say it, but it’s like that. They spit on the youth. They don’t even realize that they are going to lose the game.
There are some designers now—and I’m thinking of Virgil Abloh at Off-White, Demna Gvasalia with Vetements, Gosha Rubchinskiy—who are connecting with the youth through fashion in a new way. Are there any young designers today that inspire or excite you?
Anyone in particular?
Not Off-White. He’s a sweet guy. I like him a lot actually. But I’m inspired by people who bring something that I think has not been seen, that is original. It’s not always about being new-new because who is new-new? And of course you have to have people who inspired you. I’m not just trying to be politically correct here—trying to be nice and sweet about people because that’s what we’re always supposed to do when these questions come up in interviews—but honestly, are you asking me if I think that these people are inspired by my brand?
I think they absolutely are.
Because in the fashion world, and especially in the high court, but I’m sure with all the young kids online, who talk a lot, when they say it, it’s ok. But when the designers themselves say something like that, it’s not ok. I don’t know if you read the interview I did with Miuccia [Prada], but the only topic we talked about was that. Because we are the only ones who are supposed to shut up. And we suffer from that. And I know it’s the same thing for Marc [Jacobs]. I know it’s the same thing for Phoebe [Philo]. We all feel like we have to shut up. But we are the activators. I hate to talk about this because it always makes you sound pretentious, but we are the activators. Fashion doesn’t exist if we don’t exist. But it’s possible that the ones who talk will not exist. So I find that it’s a very difficult thing to talk about.
If it comes to somebody like Demna, I think he knows what he is. What I liked about it is almost what everybody hates about it now. That it was going back to something that I like: Martin Margiela and myself. You know, to have the guts to go so direct. Because it’s what people like. People like Martin. They love Martin. And people like youth and that rebellion feel. And all these things are what he brought. But you cannot escape from it. He knows it himself as well. It’s been there for many decades at Martin. Oversized hoodies with text prints. It’s been there.
Now, that’s not a critique. At all. I think he’s a smart one. And I think there will be things coming up. I don’t think you can compare him at all to the guy from Off-White. So I cannot talk about these people in the same way.
How important is it for you to remain connected to the art world? And why is it important for you?
It’s natural. It’s like breathing and drinking. It’s very natural. I am not working with anybody the way I see big artists and big brands work together. It’s not that kind of relationship. I have had a relationship with Mapplethorpe since forever. Not with the foundation. The Sterling thing is something thats been building for 11-12 years now. I will do other things with Sterling. It’s very natural.
Do you think about going beyond collaboration and going into other mediums?
Thinking, yes. But I will not do. Not now.
Because of time? Or that your creative expression is best focused on fashion?
Definitely not because of time. That would not be a reason. It’s always horrible, time. If you’re convinced about something, you will manage it. It’s not that, I think it’s more that if I would step into another field it would require full dedication. People have been asking, why would you not want to be an artist, sometimes we think you’re an artist. But no, I’m not an artist. I’m a fashion designer. If ever I would do it, there cannot be fashion anymore in my life and I would do art. But how are you going to erase 21 years of fashion?
Helmut Lang did it.
Yeah. He kind of did.
And Tom Ford made a movie.
[Raf does a small bow in his seat] Really. I bow for that one. I find it really mind-blowing. The work that has to be done to get to the point that this movie is coming out, aside from doing the collections. Wow. I find it mind-blowing. I don’t know if I could do that similarly. I think that I would just want to, not erase, but try to have a clean slate. I can’t even say what it would be. There are a lot of things that inspire me. But I would probably have a fear to do art. Because it is the world that I still kind of idealize probably too much.
Do you feel like at some point in your career you turned a corner and went from being a hot contemporary designer to being a legend who is adding to the legacy of his career?
It feels always the same. Nothing feels bigger than many, many years ago. Nothing feels more important than many, many years ago. What feels new to me is how people look at the brand. There is this hunt for pieces. That is a very new thing for me. Honestly speaking, the first moment it happened I was like, Oh, am I getting old? They started to collect it. I started to see pieces going to auctions. It’s like how I perceived old brands. Like, ah this brand from a very long time ago. It’s weird to experience it when I feel in full bloom. But then it’s nice, also. I would be like that for a Helmut piece or Martin piece, but they’re both out. The brands exist but they’re both out. I’m completely in it still, and I’m starting something new again now.
Well, there are plenty of young people just getting into fashion and discovering your past collections, and people want to find and own those pieces. Especially when Rihanna or Kanye are seen wearing them. What do you think when you see people wearing the past collection?
Rihanna, famous, or unfamous people that go into the old collections—the weird experience for me is that it makes me feel like I am from yesterday. But I understand. I do it myself. I go to things that come from the past and mean a lot to me… this thing from the past that I think is an incredible foundation and I know it’s going to last forever and I’m going to like it forever. I guess it’s the same for them. I’ve had my archive my whole life—you know, you’re a designer, you have to keep your archive—but lately I’ve started to be very, very protective about certain pieces. Because all the time they disappear. They go to an exhibition and don’t come back… I was never really worried, but lately, now I seal it, also. 266 looks that were in the exhibition in Florence, now they are sealed, packed, well taken care of. They will become important in the next seasons for some things we might do. I started to realize: You have to take care of your archive. It has a relevance to people and to the world. Certain companies do not hold a good archive and it is almost sad. I understand the nature of it. Somebody like Jil did not hold an archive because she did not have that thing with the past. She was just like, get rid of it, get rid of it, get rid of it. Always the future. And I was actually very much like that. I didn’t get rid of it, but I wasn’t paying too much attention to it. Always romanticizing the future. And now I start to understand that it has an importance and I should care about. I know it’s important. And for a long time I thought not. But it is important. Otherwise there wouldn’t be pyramids.
BY NOAH JOHNSON
Shared from – GQ.com