ANTWERP — “I never really thought about big companies or big names or big brands. I just wanted to make clothes like a few friends that I had here,” said Raf Simons in a comfy sweater in front of about 800 paying attendees at the fourth edition of Fashion Talks. The event was organized by Flanders DC in the Handelsbeurs in Antwerp, the oldest stock exchange building in the world.
Simons, who also lives in the city, shared his opinions about the state of the fashion system, creativity and value behind a design, and the importance of staying independent and supporting the new generation, as well as his frustration and reflection from his previous positions at Jil Sander and Dior.
While he did not mention Calvin Klein during his 35-minute talk, between the lines, his views seemed clear. Simons left his post as chief creative officer at Calvin Klein last December.
“Big brands that work with creative directors are in constant flux,” the designer declared. “We see a phenomenon that time periods become shorter, shorter and shorter. It’s something I wasn’t aware of in the earlier stage when I took Jil. These brands, although they can very much support you and they can make possibilities that relate to the actual designer, these brands will usually exist forever no matter who’s there. Because they are extremely constructed on all the aspect that surrounds the actual core of fashion, and the actual content, emotion and creating of garments and how that relates to your big or small audience,” he said.
“These big brands are very much now driven by marketing and growth, and it’s rare that a designer is good in both aspects. I am definitely not good at all the aspects. I know for myself. What is more important is that the designer knows who to work with, which is also not your choice, but it’s definitely your choice in your [own] company,” he continued.
“As a creative director, it’s more complicated because very much most of these companies have everything in place and then you come in and the focus is in the beginning very much about collections. You bring probably a huge list of creatives in, but I have been in places where I had to be involved to bring people into merchandising or commercial because they hadn’t really sorted that out,” added Simons, who believes that the team that had been assembled for him wasn’t necessarily, in his view, the right one for him to create what he thought was needed for the brand to work.
Having been the designer of three major fashion houses in the world’s three leading fashion capitals, Simons has also learned that he needs to be very careful about what he says. “You get critiqued very quickly and I speak not only for myself. I speak for close designer friends in different positions. We get very scared to give an opinion when I think we have very specific opinions because you get critiqued on so many aspects so quickly and I think it makes a lot of us pull back on things and try to do it with the things we are doing,” he said.
Being independent, however, does give him the permission to express himself freely — sometimes. He said “Towards the end of the Nineties and early 2000s, we got a lot of proposals, but being in different positions as creative directors taught me how dangerous it can be when you marry in business. I mean, prior to me, John [Galliano] was a big example. He lost his own brand because he sold it for the majority and that’s something I will never forget.”
His independent ideology is linked to the 51-year-old designer’s upbringing in Belgium. “I got it spooned in. I started out with Walter Van Beirendonck and I’m very thankful for him being such a promotor of young people. I came from nowhere and I was welcomed there and he showed me things. It was very inspiring,” he said.
“I saw all that independence and for me, it was the only thing that I knew. In the early stages of my brand, I wasn’t aware of LVMH [Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton] brands and all that kind of stuff and creative director positions. I just saw Walter Van Beirendonck, Ann Demeulemeester, Dirk Van Saene, Dries Van Noten and Martin Margiela having their own thing,” he continued.
“To me, that’s what I want. It was a good thing at the end that desire to be, and the family feeling to me also. I remember Dries and Walter were sharing the same building, but they had an independent creative language, and what Walter was doing was completely something else. There was a community of designers being able to relate to each other one way or another. All of them individually, in a way, could see very fast how they had for themselves created something very often with people that they related to. I still think that’s the beauty. I see my own company as a family,” he added.
What he desires is very different from what he encountered later in his life. “The system was different. I started out without a computer, but with a fax machine. There was no access to the global fashion world except for TV programs and magazines months later. Nothing was out on the day of the show. The time frame was six months and now it’s just the moment the show is happening,” he said.
“When I was at Dior, I felt there was an incredible pressure from the outside on me to be with me while I was designing, while I was in the studio. Press wanted to be there, the press wanted to be at the fittings. Then you do all the previews, speak with all the press days before the show. I didn’t like that at all. It was mainly because one designer was very much at ease with it. I don’t criticize people from doing it, but because other people do something, it should not be a system for everybody,” said Simons, appearing to allude to the late Karl Lagerfeld at Chanel.
Another thing he found particularly uncomfortable is that constantly growing the company is the only measure of success.
“It’s horrible,” he said. “Most of the reviews I read in mainly big establishments, they are always judging it from an economic point of view. I find that very frustrating for everybody now. At the same time I think all the time you learn to really know what is, to kind of find out for yourself, what makes you happy. And, so then you can also push that away but I think it’s not the criterion to be judged on when you’re a creative person.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with the amount of audience that you have, or the number of stores that you are selling to, or how much you are growing your company over the years. I don’t think it’s wise. Sometimes I also see very sh–ty collections, but then they get praised because the business is doing extremely well,” he said.
“It’s a network, of course. It’s all connected. It took me a while to find out. I think for most designers it’s painful. In all honesty, I would also find it even painful if behind my back one would really hate the clothes, hearing me out and then say ‘oh, what a good brand because it’s doing so well.’ But then, on the other hand, I read sometimes the reviews that maybe because they have a big business together, they are advertisers, I guess they have to write something, and if the collection is that sh–ty, you have to write about how good business is,” said Simons.
His honest language was met with rounds of applause from the audience.
Nowadays, Simons finds television shows more interesting than fashion. “If I have to be really honest, I might have become stimulated and emotionally fulfilled, or just feeling happy thinking about things I know for a long time nearly enough. I don’t know if this is because I’ve been working for 25 years, or you get to see more and more and know more and more and maybe you’re not so naïvely, quickly overwhelmed anymore as 25 years ago or even before you started out,” he said.
“I keep coming back to people like Martin [Margiela] and Helmut Lang, which never changed and probably will never change. Today, I find fewer things new. At the end of the Eighties, when I started looking, and then during your studies, and then when I started going into it, I thought everything was new. I thought Martin was new, Comme des Garçons was new, all the Belgians, it’s all so new. It’s all so avant-garde, so extreme, and that I miss a lot,” he continued.
“Here and there [there are exciting things], but I don’t know if because I’m too deep into it. I wonder why don’t I have that with fashion, but I have that with art? Even with movies, I even have that with television series. You can ask my team. Every day I talk about television series. I think there are so many people bringing daring TV shows, controversial topics, incredible new ways of making and building scenarios,” he added.
Simons recalled when he moved to Antwerp, “from those six designers that we all know so well, there was one really scared and mad that I came in, and there was another one who was extremely supporting and promoting that I came in,” he said.
“Young people should not be so scared anymore to kickass, and designers should not fear new generations. They should promote new generations because that’s what fashion as a global community still is and activates and keeps going. Maybe they’re going to make us look very stupid and old, it’s a normal thing. I mean, Martin and Dries, they kicked out [Thierry] Mugler and [Jean Paul] Gaultier and everybody,” he added.
He also observed that fashion consumption now is far more diversified. “Emotion, usually is what I can’t explain very much. It’s so intimate. I know when something touches, I feel the moment, but I can also feel what it means for another person. I think maybe that’s one of my main drives. I can feel let’s say the audience in general, people who embrace the brand, who follow the brand, discover the brand, I can feel that. It’s probably one of my main drives, emotion in that sense,” he said.
“I always have this incredible desire to connect to a brand. When I say connect to a brand, I didn’t think I was going to meet a designer and it was out of the question the idea that you would ever be in the same space with a designer. But I connected to it, I feel like ‘oh, I am part of that world.’ Even if I couldn’t buy it. It really feels like this kind of emotional connection,” he continued.
“A lot of people call it a gang. It’s also something I miss in fashion, if I have to be honest these days. When I went in the early days to Paris, the days when Walter was taking me, you would be there queuing for the show, and there were Gaultier clan people and there were Martin clan people and you would have Ann Demeulemeester clan people and I don’t feel that so much anymore now. You have it maybe in a small amount, but I think back in the days, people went for a brand. ‘That’s my brand, I go for that brand, I stay on that brand forever.’ I think right now people embrace lots of brands. Is it bad or good? It’s not up to me to judge that.
“If I have to be really honest, if I would have had money at the time, nothing would have existed for me to wear except Helmut Lang. The rest, I could be interested as a buyer, but not my brand. If I would have been a woman, Martin,” he said.
“But it’s not the case now. People can be extremely into Celine, but they will still have a bag from something else or shoe maybe. It’s not a bad thing, it’s just very different. That’s how fashion shifts all the time to a new kind of system — that’s not a good word, but although I think right now everything becomes very systematic and in a hardcore way. Too much connected to the time schedules that relate purely and only to commerce and economics. Click connections, post connections, but it doesn’t count for my brand,” he added.
Looking into the future, Simons said he would remain in his position as an antifashion fighter. “I want to stay young in the way of thinking. I don’t want to give in with the brands. So many brands gave in. They could start out so interesting, then at the end, commercialized and it becomes a very flat kind of business,” he said.
“For my brand, I want to keep on having that typical emotion that I am constantly seeking for and that means that you sometimes have to give things which they won’t like or won’t be ready for it, but at least it will create a tidal wave because it’s going to make them think about what it eventually could be,” concluded Simons.
After the talk, the winners of the third annual Belgian Fashion Awards were revealed. Pierre Debusschere, a close collaborator of Simons’, won professional of the year award.
Dirk Van Saene, one of the Antwerp Six, took home the jury prize. Christian Wijnants, who used to work at Dries Van Noten, received the designer of the year award. Namacheko, designed by siblings Dilan and Lezan Lurr, won the emerging talent of the year prize.