29 November 2016

Lessons to Learn from Raf Simons

It was announced today that Raf Simons' first Calvin Klein runway show will take place at 10am on February 10th, not long after his own brand's showing on the first of the month at NYFW: Men's. Raf's unification of men's and women's RTW and accessories in a oner is something that will perhaps bring an element of the interesting to the often lackluster NYFW schedule. From the "Fear Generation", conceived pre-9/11 as a hooded defense against the suppressing authoritarianism of globalization, to lavish Dior couture gowns, adorned with the most intricate of embroidery work; there's a lot to learn from the sheer variation of the maxi-minimalist's previous projects. Raf (don't dare utter "Monsieur Raf", as urged in Dior and I), has formulated his approach to design around the ideas and behaviors of a generation of men and boys. His ocular narration of events is simple and direct, dissecting a contemporary world through a modest pair of eyes. It's been over a year since my last "Lessons to Learn" on Hedi Slimane's photographic essay and instead of making any bold CK predictions, let's just reflect on his past work for now, shall we.

don't be afraid to show emotion, it can be endearing (in doses)
Stylist and long-time collaborator Olivier Rizzo recalls the day he graduated, in 1993, from the academy: "I had just done my final show, Gaultier was in the jury and afterward Raf came backstage. He was crying. I was kind of comforting him. Raf is a very emotional person. He gets touched really deeply by things. He said to me: 'What you did was really amazing. So fantastic, and I want to be part of this world.' And I said, 'You will be part of this world."

Another example of his sensitivity is in Dior and I, when Raf wanted to experiment with an imprimé chaîne technique to re-create Sterling Ruby's modernist prints on fabric. It's all very dramatic when only four engravers in France know how to do it and they're all busy, but when the atelier masters the technique, the tears come a-flooding. Later in the documentary, nerves get the better of him and he refuses to walk the full length of the runway, and again, teary droplets evidence the emotional investment that Raf has in his vision and its precise execution.

it's cool to be humble
In a 2005 New York Times interview with Cathy Horyn (go google it, you won't regret it), we get the delicate decorum of a design genius shining through but also the modest relatability of the man: "There is a wood stove, a section of a black sectional sofa and one wall papered in a blue-cloud pattern, left over from the previous owner. Simons dragged the sectional piece out to the terrace and then opened a bag of Doritos and the liter of Diet Coke that he had brought with him in a plastic shopping sack." Doritos and Diet Coke: the snack selection of champions. There's nothing less interesting nor mysterious than the showy flash of many a present-day designer. Of course, a lot has changed for Raf since that interview and more recently, his questioning of the fashion system has led a lot of us to question why he's accepted the role at the helm of a brand as commercial as Calvin Klein. Even so, he still appears to radiate a down-to-earth attitude, for which his Stan Smith clad feet are firmly on the ground.


appreciate the simple beauty of far-from-simple flower arrangements
Antwerp-based florist Mark Colle has worked with Raf since his A/W12 collection for Jil Sander - the one that was his very last womenswear showing for the brand featuring a runway decorated by plexiglass cubes of flowers. They also worked together on the Dior flower walls that will most definitely be heralded as nothing short of ingenious decades down the line – and were no doubt as refreshingly fragrant as they were beautiful. Raf's goal for it "to look like the fucking puppy in Versailles" (the Jeff Koons one), took one million flowers and the nimble hands of fifty florists to make possible.


youth culture is the perfect muse
Simons was 25 when he settled in Antwerp, no longer a spring chicken getting himself lost in the club scene that swallowed his contemporaries up and spat them back out, dripping with inspiration and ideas amongst other (perhaps not so poetic) things. So how does he get it so right if he removed himself from the very scene that his collections play host to? I don't have the answer to that but photographic and curatorial projects like his 2003 exhibition "The Fourth Sex" and its accompanying book (a real must-have if you've got three hundred quid spare), document the extremities of youth with unparalleled accuracy. Still today, while most definitely not communicating messages of modern-day youth culture from a place of experience, there's a knowing in his work, a yearning for his aesthetic and a found sense of identity for those who seek it.


don't underestimate the otherworldly power of music
A secluded, countryside upbringing is one that can present limited inspiration if you're not curious enough to look for it, and I can say that from experience. Music was an outlet for Raf, explaining, "Music was the only escape"; the likes of Kraftwerk's synth-pop and Joy Division standing as the sound of his childhood. Personal favourite Raf music moment: SS99's "Kinetic Youth" - lots of concrete overpasses, a futuristic silver ball, the show opening with "Space Oddity" by David Bowie and the show closing to Pink Floyd's “Another Brick in the Wall”. Idyllic.