The picture of Raf Simons, visibly emotional in front of the ovation from his audience at FW 2012 Jil Sander show, marked the farewell to the house he had brilliantly led for seven years. Anyway, his following tenure wouldn’t lack teary moments for the designer and his new team at Dior. The vicissitudes of his first 8 weeks at the Parisian atelier were discretely narrated in the documentary “Dior and I”, where Simons was able to overcome his camera shyness, and be filmed while designing, together with his assistant Pieter Mulier, his first couture collection. The stress of a tight deadline, the sense of responsibility he felt towards a “gigantic” and “sublime” legacy, as he would himself define it, and the expectations of the industry weighing on his shoulders, culminated in quiet crying on a Parisian rooftop minutes before the show. McQueen had passed away two years earlier; John Galliano, Simons’s predecessor, had just been dismissed from his role at Christian Dior. If there is one thing “The fall of Gods and Kings” has taught the fashion crowd, is how the epithet of creative genius has failed to comprehend a fragile and humanly flawed nature. There is no need for these extremes though: Raf’s gentle manners, his nervousness prior to the show, his occasional weeping – nothing that a Coke Zero and a cigarette wouldn’t fix – make his totally unrelatable life relatable for just one moment; we sympathise for him.
After the abrupt closure with John Galliano, the appointment of a designer who shied away from the flash of the camera, resonated well with LVMH’s low-profile line. A good catch, also considering Raf Simons’s passionate commitment to the art world, in an era when cultural capital was becoming a prerogative of luxury brands. However, from his very first show, Raf – that’s how he wanted to be called at the atelier- astounded his star-studded audience (from Azzedine Alaïa to Marc Jacobs, everyone was there), proving to be more than worthy of his new role. The creative director dived deep in Dior’s archive and reimagined for a contemporary customer, the hyperfeminine hourglass silhouettes of gowns and bar jackets. Experiments with New Look-inspired waisted shapes and conservative outfits lightened-up by contrasting colour combinations, became more and more daring and independent from their originals, as Simons was finding his own voice in the brand’s narration. Warhol’s sketches were the recurring motif of the Ready-to-Wear FW 2013, that explored the artistic sensitivity shared by the two designers, namely Simons and Monsieur Dior. Futuristic visions, condensed in the profusion of synthetic materials, and pop references sprinkled his shows – one above all, the SS 2015 Couture quoting David Bowie’s style. While these are indicative of Simon’s more relaxed attitude towards the brand’s past, the designer has never hidden the reverential respect and lack of creative freedom that came together with the role. When Fury asks him if he ever felt like a “custodian” of the maisons he worked for, he says: “These brands will exist forever, no matter who’s there. […] I am interested in the core of fashion, in the ‘creating of garments’ and how that relates to a big or small audience. And I think that most of the big brands by now are driven by marketing”.
The interview is dated 28 January 2020, it seems reasonable the designer was hinting at his short time as chief creative officer of Calvin Klein. Called by the PVH corporation in 2016 for a major rebranding mission, Simons took the task to the letter, from the design of the new logo with Peter Saville, to the collections, designed with the creative director Pieter Mulier, of the new line Calvin Klein 205W39NYC. For three years Simons and Mulier, worked on American tropes, archetypes and uniforms to portray the US youths. In a few seasons time, the design duo fabricated a highly desirable array of American clichés: fireproof sets and coats, straight from the costumes of a firefighter TV show, varsity jackets encapsulating the college football craze, and western shirts. Despite the clear references used by the two designers, PVH board bluntly stated that the abstractedness of Simon’s vision made the products unappealing in mainstream fashion and unaffordable, in terms of both price and taste, to the Calvin Klein’s customers; hence the decision of parting ways.
If there is somebody who could appreciate Simons’s cerebral work, that is Miuccia Prada, who, again together with her husband Patrizio Bertelli, big fan of the designer from the Jil Sander years, offered him the co-creative direction of her namesake brand. Simons liked Prada, and not just the clothes – an integral part of the designer’s wardrobe – but her way of thinking too. As he said in an interview in System Magazine, when the Prada-Simons affair wasn’t even a thing: “Miuccia has a mindset I can relate to”. From the first shows, the co-creative directors have been reworking the codes of the new Prada, joining forces in distilling two visions in one creative dialogue. And just like that, the models of SS 2021 hold the lapels of their coats and shawls as they walk around the screens and cameras of a pale-yellow room of Fondazione Prada. A reference to Simons’s last show for Jil Sander? Or a tribute to Miuccia’s own sartorial gesture – like clutching a protective blanket, during public appearances? Cross-references to their works are featured throughout the collections: for SS 2021 black graphics and writings are printed onto large white hoodies and pleated skirts; an accurate replica of the Raf Simons SS 2002 looks, while the mundanity of work-wear and sombre fashion, a constant of Prada’s language, were the foundation of FW 2022. The suits of the menswear SS 2023 show, stripped off of the frills and alternated by thighs revealing lederhosen, channel a masculinity, whose parenthood might still be a subject of debate. As Miuccia declared during the Q&A at the end of their first show: “It’s a beginning”.