RAF SIMONS
Infinite Ingress

Raf Simons didn't enter fashion via the typical route, but then Raf Simons is not a typical fashion designer. Perhaps more than any label today, his maintains a commitment to repressed youth -- not the youthful vigor fetishized by biceps-and-pectorals labels like Gucci or Versace, but real youth, in all its awkward menace. Simons' clothes contain the psychic spark of the ignored, the revolutionary potential that builds up during the isolation of adolescence. While other designers do little more than plunder a tired series of late 20th-century youth fads, Simons alone has stayed true to his roots. True enough so that each new collection can still register revolutions in contemporary youth culture -- as well as inspire new ones.

Craig Garrett: Did you go to the fashion academy here in Antwerp?

Raf Simons: No. I studied industrial design. Can you believe that? I don't have a fashion background at all. Sometimes I hear stories like, "I was playing with my mother's dresses and blah blah blah."
I come from a white trash family. My mom went out for work when she was 15. My dad went into the army when he was 17. I was playing on a farm with cows and sheep and chickens and a lot of children, and that's it. I was in college when I was young because my mom and dad really wanted me to do something with my education, and it was Latin, Greek, mathematics -- theoretical stuff. When I was 16 or 17 I felt like I really wanted to concentrate on something more creative. But I wasn't aware that an art academy or a fashion academy existed. I was in a stupid little village. There was no culture. There was nothing.
That's why the focus for everything I do -- still -- is so much on music. Music was the only escape. You could buy it in the local record store. We had this youth club with this bus that always took us to concerts. But galleries? Never heard of them. Art institutions or art schools? Never heard of them.
I found a book in school about architecture with information about what kind of studies you can do, and in the back there was information about industrial design. At the time there were only two schools in all Belgium where you could get that education.
I visited that school and I just immediately decided, "Yes, that's what I'm going to do." It's a five-year education. In the first year you start to experiment a lot with nature and natural forms, and then it starts to develop into ergonomic things, like a handle that has to be good for your hands. And it goes further, like a radio or a car dashboard. Then at the end of the fourth and fifth years you can choose the direction you want to go. At the end I only did furniture.
In the fourth year you had to do an internship for half a year in two different places. One you could choose, which was supposed to be a design school, and the other was a hardcore industrial design place. I didn't want to go into a designer's studio actually. I really wanted to go to Walter Van Beirendonck, who was one of the Belgian designers from the first generation, you know, the "Antwerp six" (Dirk Bikkembergs, Ann Demeulemeester, Walter van Beirendonck, Dries van Noten, Dirk van Saene, and Martin Margiela). They'd just started becoming well known for what they were doing in the period I was having my education as an industrial designer. And I was really fascinated because yes, he was doing collections, but next to that he had such a strong visual appearance as a fashion designer, which was very different from anything I'd ever seen in fashion. He did a lot of things with furniture or masks -- things you cannot use -- just for the idea. I wrote to him because I wanted to do an internship in his place, but I was really scared because I wasn't coming from a fashion school. So I faked this whole portfolio, making, for example, a cover from The Face or a cover from i-D magazine, saying to Walter that this was what we had to do in school. But it was just what I did for getting into that office, fake fashion things that were very bad, I know. Then at the back I had maybe five or six projects from school, but the stupidest things, like an egg holder or something. And he was [pretends to flip quickly through pages] really not interested, and then the egg holder came [stops]. He was fascinated with the industrial design stuff.

CG: Wow. So did he take you?

RS: Yes, I had an internship with him. In the first period he made a collection named "Fashion is Dead." I'll never forget it. He made a newspaper, which was also fake: a front page with big headlines, a horoscope, perfume ads. But all this stuff had to be made, so I had to make him a perfume bottle. He was making a portrait with a mask, so I had to make the mask. We got along really well, and so after a couple months I could kind of work with him in the collection. Even if he was another generation from me, we had a really strong creative click at that time. And he took me to Paris. He had a presentation of clothes where the furniture and everything was specially done, and that's what I did. And that was also the period that some of the Antwerp scene designers, the six from Antwerp, started showing. Martin Margiela, for example, had his first and his second show there. And I saw that, and that's where the click came. Because I remember, when I saw Martin Margiela's show I was already like, "I'm wrong. I don't want to do industrial design." I suddenly started to feel that it was very isolated, industrial design. In school they were really mad with me because you were supposed to be in an industrial designer's studio. So a fashion designer? It was out of the question. They hated me for that. It was only after -- years after -- that they showed respect for it, because at that time it was like fashion [holds up right hand] and industrial design [holds up left hand]. Now we have all these crossovers suddenly. It's so much crossover it makes you sick.
Because I was choosing the Walter thing, of course they pushed me into an industrial factory. Really hardcore. I remember very well -- it was a producer of these carriers to hold 24 beers. We had to make it more ergonomic, but it was not at all about the form. It was just about the plastic, and they have to inject it into a mould. After weeks and weeks and weeks I realized, "This is not going to be the rest of my life. I don't want to do it. It's so isolated -- you just sit in front of your computer screen." I said in school that I was going there, but I wasn't going there. Every day I was taking the train to Walter's studio in Antwerp. That was like another world. It was wild. Walter's assistants were a group of five or six people my age, and he took us to the Paris or to the Venice Biennale or to Florence. Sometimes there was a presentation or a photo shoot. It was very social, which is weird because I'm not that social a person. I never go on stage, for example. I really don't like that aspect of the whole thing. I don't like public speaking. But I like social contact. I like it very much if it's more in a private situation.
And usually something clicks with the people you like. Like Larry [Clark]. He's such a normal human being. He's such a nice person. Just a very relaxed, nice person. Beecroft is maybe different [laughs]. But then in a way also not. She's an extreme personality, I find. Ten years ago I was already very interested in looks and people and fashion, and sometimes if I see someone, I'm like, "Whoah." You don't know the person, just from the look. But the first time I saw Beecroft in New York, I was nailed to the ground. She was sitting there in this fashion dress, this Comme des Garçons dress or I don't know, but sleeveless. And she has all these tattoos on the inside of her arms, these pin-ups. And I found it so strange on a person like her. To see that? It's like a trucker or something.

CG: They look like she got them in prison.

RS: And she saw that I saw them, although I didn't say anything about them. And she said something immediately like, "I was so drunk that night. And in the morning I woke up with all these trucker tattoos." [laughs]

CG: Have you ever collaborated with an artist?

RS: I did, years ago, maybe five or six years ago, one series of photographs called "Isolated Heroes" with David Sims. Actually, it's because of David Sims that I started to do my collection. I think David's photos were something totally deep. He brings in people who are not noticed by the world. For me it's a very historical approach, what he is doing. David is not thinking about which pants someone should wear to look good.
We became friends. We were speaking a lot. And what he was saying was what I was thinking, and what I was saying, he was thinking. At a certain point we made a book, although it was never published. It was never intended to do something other than just please ourselves and the people we worked with. It was also very related to an attitude -- at that time very new for the fashion world -- that had nothing to do with models. I still never work with professional models, because there is a very strong social/psychological aspect to the whole thing. I'm more interested in the language that comes out with the things I'm doing than making clothes for a hanger in the shop. I don't give a fuck actually. If it would be about that I would already have stopped seven years ago. So I started asking people I saw in the street or people I knew already who I thought had an interesting attitude to connect with what I was doing and thinking.
And that was also David's attitude actually. For him it was more about that certain person he saw in the street, to bring that person into the area of fashion or culture magazines, more than choosing a perfect model and then putting the stuff on it, the Comme des Garçons shirt with the Yohji Yamamoto pants. When I started doing this project with him, I already had a relationship with the people we were working with for so many years. For example, there was sometimes a person we'd see in the street we'd never seen before, and we'd just ask if they would be interested to relate to what we are doing. We'd send information. They'd get in touch with us. And then we got to know each other. Usually it's a process of half a year before we really do something with them. Then, for example, they can show in Paris, but sometimes they also get involved with what we do. Like Robbie for example here? He was just a guy in the street, and we started to get in touch. And then he did a show, and then did some photos together. And now he's my manager, actually. I couldn't work without him. That process for me is the most important.
I started my thing not because I wanted to be a designer who was going to sell all over the world in the fashion stores. I just wanted to bring out some kind of language which was meant for me and my environment who didn't feel comfortable with the kind of look that we got presented. And we were interested in fashion -- we were following it -- but there was something that was missing. And that's how I started doing it. I think that's also why I started focusing on Larry [Clark]'s work so much. It's not so staged. It's real. I was in New York in February, and I rang Larry's bell. And I went up to his space, and there were seven kids. They were just sitting there and helping him. It's bringing you back to where you come from and how you were yourself. And it's probably also related to not wanting to age. But it's still also an investigation into what it is and how it is.

CG: Do you think your involvement in contemporary art has had an influence on how you design your label?

RS: I just want to keep it away from this typical structured fashion world, which is very defined. In the early beginning I booked some models once, and after the show they were saying things to me, and it was like they were aliens. They loved it! They were all slimy, you know? It's very good for your ego, if you're looking for that. I work with guys from the street, and their approach to what we are doing is so different -- but for me very interesting. Because at the end I am also concentrating on a language that is meant for a certain generation, and their response gives you a lot of energy. So the whole thing is structured very differently. I take a pair of pants and they just give me a critique on the pants. Sometimes they love it, but sometimes it's like, "Ha, I'm not going to wear that!" And I don't make them wear it, because it makes no sense to me, because they're not at all going to represent an attitude that I want. It's also very fascinating for me to find out why yes or why not, and how they feel about it. It's something I could talk for hours about.
Some guys we cast already five or six years ago, when they were only fifteen. The way they looked was street and baggy, and that's what they wanted to represent. Now years later, when they've had an education and they've started to have jobs, suddenly they start thinking over their whole look and their what they want to represent. So they start thinking over things that they used to critique when they came here in the beginning. Like a suit, for example. Now they call me and say and say, "Do you maybe have a suit that's small in the shoulder?" And that's really interesting for me. That makes it worth doing the things.
For Paris we are very structured like that. We have our own cast, and we bring them over by buses. It's a very social thing also because we don't just pick up a guy from fifteen on the street and say, "Come, let's do a video." It doesn't work like that -- definitely in Belgium that's a very scary thing. So we get in touch with people, and we give them a card, and then they get in touch. And then we send a bunch of materials about what we are doing, and if they are attracted they come here. Their parents come here and their sisters and their brothers come here. Sometimes we have all a whole bus that goes to Paris with one guy and like five family members with him. People sometimes say, "You're crazy to do this. It's more work actually." With a model agency one week before the show you just call them with these stupid fiches.

CG: So where are you going to have your show next week in Paris?

RS: It's in Place de Clichy. We found a garage, on the seventh floor. I usually prefer to show at places that are not too well known for the fashion scene. What disturbs me as a fashion designer is that you have very little possibility to show your work to a non-professional audience. Because the costs are very high. It's already hard enough to do one show in a season. Of course for surviving you have to do it in a professional area for a professional crowd: your buyers and your press. Which is sad because it would be lovely to do an additional show every year or every season just for everyone who wants to see it. That's the nice thing about art. People can just go and see it. With fashion it is locked in.

by Craig Garrett

copyright 2004

at left:
Raf Simons, Spring Summer 2004 collection.
Photo: Etienne Tordoir.

David Sims and Raf Simons, Isolated Heroes: Werner, 1999.
Photograph.

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