Raf Simons' Magic Lies In His Lack Of Snobbery
Independent designers are falling by the wayside with increased regularity in recent years. While a few are wholly personal decisions, the majority face unemployment and financial ruin due to a simple failure to balance their avant-garde tastes with the industry’s commercial needs.
Money is a dirty word in most sectors, but this is particularly true in the fashion sphere which pushes the illusion that young talent can go wild with their creativity rather than worry about whether their designs are actually sellable. One man, however, has managed to close the chasm between applaud-worthy design and commercialism, yet he’s often overlooked as a role model for any modern-day creative director.
That man is Raf Simons. Born in Belgium, the now 50-year-old designer has gone from the penniless voice of the youth to the voice of the youth with a multimillion-dollar contract. And somehow, he’s kept his own label going for more than two decades, collaborated with huge corporations and put the entire Kardashian clan in a campaign without once being sneered at. His story—which covers the launch of his own brand through to stints at Jil Sander, Dior and, now, Calvin Klein—should be the blueprint for any business with a creative edge.
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Like many OG designers, Simons’ beginnings lay far from fashion. With only a record store and television to keep him company, his school days were spent in the midst of a group of misfits who obsessed over bands like Joy Division and Sonic Youth, naughtily pinning badges to their otherwise bland uniforms.
Simons went on to receive a degree in furniture design and began working under the wing of the legendary Walter van Beirendonck. Beirendonck took Simons to see his first fashion show—Martin Margiela’s all-white show in 2001—and this single experience gave Simons enough fuel to launch his own menswear label just 4 years later. In an era when Versace’s muscle men reigned supreme, it was Simons—not Hedi Slimane, like many believe—who instigated the slimmer uniform lapped up by regular-looking men who hadn’t been hitting the gym four times a week.
This more realistic silhouette immediately appealed to the youth; a market which has long been known for feverishly buying clothes even if their finances say no. Simons had tapped into the thirst of his own people. The band-loving community who wanted to wear their musical adoration on their sleeves and would save up for the chance to wear Simons’ separates which referenced iconic groups. Groups who still have a cult fan base today.
Sticking to what he knows has always given Simons a sense of authenticity that other designers could only dream of. Every item is a manifestation of the closet in Simons’ head; the one he wished he had growing up in that small Belgian village. It’s why his work will always feel fresh, not forced—no matter how famous or successful he becomes.
The head honchos at Jil Sander are likely to have been intrigued by this down-to-earth attitude. In 2005, Simons was elevated to creative director of the famously minimalist brand. Now, he was in the big leagues with the chance to inject some realism into womenswear. Women wanted clothing to make them feel simultaneously alluring and comfortable, so they were rewarded with fringed dresses and two-in-one gowns which resembled T-shirts hastily shoved into long skirts.
Not only did Simons still have his youth following but he had also convinced celebrities that he was the name to be seen in. No designer can deny that a celebrity endorsement influences sales (or at least brand awareness). A photo of Miranda Kerr, who chose one of Simons’ sultry fringed designs for the 2009 Met Gala, inevitably sat in a magazine alongside “recreate the look at home” editorials.
Instead of letting his wannabe customers copy his style elsewhere, Simons simply lowered his prices. Jil Sander’s Navy diffusion line came about in 2010 and was predated by Simons’ own Raf by Raf Simons range which launched in June 2005.
The ability to be even more democratic at Calvin Klein may have swayed his recent decision to take the reins at the brand. In fact, he proved his savviness in a 2017 interview, telling The Wall Street Journal: “What I like about Calvin is that my mindset can connect to some kid in Florida. He can only spend $30 on underwear but he still connects to what he sees in that world. I am able to create that.”
A designer with a non-elitist viewpoint is a rare breed. One that’s willing to diversify even further in order to reach kids living in regular towns and cities is practically a unicorn. Simons has never seen his various collaborations with adidas, Fred Perry and Eastpak as diluting his brand. Quite the opposite, actually. Now, a large proportion of young people know his name. They know that they can pick up an extra special pair of Stan Smiths for a relatively decent price and sell them on for perhaps three times as much a few years later.
Whether he intended to be or not, Simons is a firm fixture in pop culture history. His name has become as synonymous with “cool” as the music idols of his youth. Awareness of that could easily have turned into snobbiness but it didn’t.
Yes, Simons spent his time at Dior creating couture gowns for A-listers—one which will forever be remembered as the dress that tripped Jennifer Lawrence up on the Oscars stage—but his on-point perception of the modern world has never left. In the early noughties, he reflected Western society’s fear of terrorism with face-covering designs and new age riot gear. And now at Calvin Klein, he is mirroring the planet’s opinion of Trump and other world leaders by mocking traditional views of America and producing blood-splattered horror shows.
Rappers—many of whom grew up surrounded by violence—adore Simons’ pragmatic stance. So their fans do too. The Kardashians—arguably the most influential family in history—love him for letting every single one of them have their time in the Calvin Klein spotlight. So their fans do too. Forward-thinking stars Saoirse Ronan and Lupita Nyong’o liked him enough to agree to be the faces of his first fragrance. So young feminists will too.
Simons doesn’t have to work to gain favor anymore. He has proved himself to the public and to CEOs on countless occasions. Calvin Klein’s revenue rose by 23% in the first quarter of 2018 due to his shrewdness. Before that, he was credited with making Dior’s global sales increase by 17% in 2012. And critics, buyers and stylists have lauded numerous collections. (It’s not surprising that Dior reportedly introduced a year-long non-compete clause into his contract.)
What’s vital about Simons' work is that anyone can have a piece of him. I cannot afford anything that walks down that Calvin Klein runway but I can add a pair of Andy Warhol-printed jeans or Brooke Shields hoodie to my shopping cart. With a little saving, I can even pick up a pair of Raf-branded Ozweegos. I can become part of his universe. He appeals to the masses without losing himself in the process and that’s why he is still around today.
Put it this way: Simons is the antithesis of people like Dolce & Gabbana who desperately try to win over millennials but automatically turn their noses up at the sheer mention of an affordable mass-market collab. But being snooty no longer earns designers brownie points. It’s actually a total turn off.
I think it’s time everyone, whether you’re up-and-coming or established, took a leaf out of Raf Simons’ all-inclusive book. Don’t you?