In the new documentary film Dior and I (to be released in the UK in March), director Frédéric Tcheng captures Raf Simons entering the Christian Dior design studio for the first time. It’s nobody’s ideal first day at work and no amount of experience in the limelight could prepare you for the level of attention and scrutiny of a film crew chronicling your every move.
Most designers’ first days are marked by a carefully worded press release by a sympathetic journalist, but Dior had agreed to welcome a filmmaker known for interrogating his subjects in forensic detail. His previous films were 2011’s The Eye Has to Travel, about legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeland, and 2008’s unflinching portrait of Valentino in The Last Emperor. In an industry with notoriously “protective” PR machines, bringing the cameras in might have been seen as a high-risk strategy especially for a house for whom the dust was yet to settle after the departure of its last creative director, John Galliano. You’d have thought they would have preferred a bit of peace and quiet.
Simons has the demeanour of a scientist or librarian and simply dressed in a jumper and jeans, looks almost boyish, like the youngest person in the room of anxious and excited staff. It is a simple coronation. He speaks English to the assembled seamstresses, secretaries, pattern cutters and technicians gathered in the overcrowded entrance hall. Thanking them, he promises to do his best, and insists they call him “Raf”, rather than the “Monsieur Raf” that couture convention dictates. He is informal, without the hysteria or preening that so often plague creative geniuses. He barely notices the camera crew, and later we learn he had little idea of who they were and what they were doing.
Some weeks after seeing the film I meet Simons for lunch in New York. The shy reticence he demonstrates in the film in group situations isn’t in evidence. Instead he is relaxed and friendly, able to make his point with intelligence with a wide-ranging references. I start by asking about his planned approach to Dior. As a designer known for his austere pared-down, almost Calvinistic vision, how was he going to follow in the footsteps of Galliano, whose Dior universe was all high baroque drama and embellishment?
“At first, I was mainly looking back at the first decade of Dior’s work,” he explains. “I took a very simple approach and I thought, ‘They’re taking me because they are interested in seeing how I’m going to deal with it.’ So I just tried to link how I see things to the original founder.
“I think it’s crucial to look at the house’s work over the whole time span, and not only what just came before you. It’s not that I want to reject anything on purpose because I think John [Galliano] did amazing work. But then, analysed over the total time span, I don’t define the house as baroque because the person who stayed as creative director the longest was Marc Bohan. He was there for 30 years. So this is not about what was strong or what was not strong; it’s about what is possible in the brand. Bohan wouldn’t have been there for 30 years if he hadn’t been loved; that’s a long time. I just tried to connect the house to what’s outside, with women and their lives today, reality, and this moment in time.”
In the film Simons visits an art gallery and spots a Gerhard Richter painting that inspires a print for a dress. The technical challenges involved come from his self-imposed demand for perfection in realising his artistic vision. I ask him about the art world and the role it plays in his creative life.
“I don’t really look at it as an art world, just as art,” he replies. “But I think it’s ingrained in my system because after music it was the first thing that interested me, and it is always going to stay with me. When I was 16 there was this Belgian curator named Jan Hoet, who did an interesting exhibition in Belgium called Chambres d’amis. Hoet went on to do Documenta. And ever since that exhibition art has become a daily thing for me – it’s like breathing. People ask me, ‘What are you interested in?’ and it’s very difficult for me to say, because it’s something that I look at everyday. There is no day that I’m not looking at artworks.”
What luck for the 16-year-old Simons to have stumbled on such a legendary show! Chambres d’amis was a groundbreaking work of curatorial genius. Hoet was, at the time, the director of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Ghent, northern Belgium. For the 1986 show (whose title translates as Guest Room), he commissioned more than 50 contemporary artists to create site-specific works in private homes around the city. Hoet created an art exhibition that had escaped the museum and exploded across the city and into the lives of ordinary folk. It’s easy to see how it might have impacted on a young, bright and impressionable mind and how it could lead to a lifelong fascination with art.
Raf Simons only got into fashion after working as an industrial designer for a couple of years, and getting bored. His motivation was as much social as aesthetic: “When I made the switch to fashion I felt very happy because I was suddenly in such a social environment. You immediately have lots of things around you. You work on the human body; you work with a lot of people you know, human beings, people who stitch, people who produce.”
He created his first collection as a way of gaining entry to the fashion-design course at Antwerp’s legendary Royal Academy of Art, except Linda Loppa, the director of the fashion course who is credited with the discovery of the Antwerp Six, turned him down. Not because he wasn’t good enough, but because he was too good. As far as she was concerned the young Simons didn’t need academic training at an undergraduate level. Instead she recommended him to a commercial agent – one who also represented fashion superstar Helmut Lang. So his application to become a student of fashion ended up with him becoming an overnight fashion sensation.
“It all happened in a couple of weeks,” he says. “I drove to Milan and in the showroom there was Helmut Lang with a few other designers. Immediately I had 11 stores, and I had to think seriously, ‘OK, what am I going to do with this?’”
The Raf Simons menswear line grew rapidly, thanks to critical acclaim and a strong customer base: “I was very young – 26 – and in the space of two years I suddenly had 18 employees. I had a real company.”
The distinguishing feature of his work has always been a direct connection with street fashion and music. He also had a talent for casting young men with a certain look, which quickly became his signature and something others strove to emulate. “I would go to clubs; I was always going out,” he explains, “and that’s where [my label] had its roots. The aesthetic came from how I lived my life, the environment I was in and the people around me.”
In 2005, Jil Sander called and he was appointed creative director of the label, which had been in something of a crisis since the departure of its eponymous designer. He had the backing of the critical community from the get-go, even if he may not have designed womenswear before. Yet his sensibility was so in tune with the German founder’s conceptual minimalism that he was the obvious choice to bring the brand back to commercial relevance. His seven years at Jil Sander gave back the label instant credibility that had been lost since Sander’s departure in 2004. How did he tackle the task? Did he review the archives?
“She did not keep an archive – there were no clothes to look at,” says Simons. “She threw everything away. There was a very, very limited language and Sander had been very strict about it.” The exact opposite of the challenge at Dior, where the past is always present. In the film we see Simons and his assistant Pieter Mulier wearing white gloves and fumbling their way through Christian Dior’s sketchpads, working books and exquisite fashion illustrations like museum assistants handling manuscripts.
Yet Simons has a way of seeing through these mountains of archives and discovering what resonates with his own vision: “Dior has a very architectural approach that links to my own approach. But it isn’t recognised as a revolution in the language of shape because it was connected in people’s minds with a nostalgia for the belle époque”. But I think what he did in 1947 was shockingly revolutionary. To have the guts, after the war, with economic-aesthetic restrictions on so many levels, to say, ‘Here I am, and the skirt is 15 metres of fabric!’ I think it was very radical and that also attracted me.”
In the film, viewing the potential location for his first couture show, a concept presents itself to him almost instantly and with a click of his heels he turns and says quietly, “I think I have an idea for the show”. He mentions Jeff Koons’ flower puppy to the blank faces around him. The film then shows us the monumental work of realising an idea as crazy as it is spectacular: the entire building’s interior is covered in a thick layer of fresh flowers. Each room is covered with a different kind of flower, which had to be kept alive and refrigerated for a couple of days, each in the perfect uniform hue.
I attended the show in the summer of 2012 and, like the rest of the invited audience, spent the first 10 minutes trying to look less agog than I felt at the immensity of the spectacle. Aside from the sheer technical achievement of using what seemed to be the entire output of the Dutch cut-flower industry suspended floor to ceiling, it was a perfect analogy and defence of couture: impossibly expensive, totally ethereal, ridiculously ambitious, and worth every penny. Photographs are a pathetic medium for conveying the idea and words don’t fare much better, you had to be there, breathe the air, and have your brain short-circuit with the sheer intensity of colour. That is the magic of couture, the suspension of disbelief. You can only ever experience it with all your senses, sometimes all your senses aren’t even enough.
There is another fantastic moment in the film when Dior’s éminence grise, Olivier Bialobos, the devilishly handsome and quick-witted International Communications VP of Dior Couture, takes Sidney Toledano, their suave CEO, to one side, out of earshot, to tell him the rough cost of 150 florists installing 1 million flowers round the clock. You expect him to faint; instead he simply nods his approval.
But then the illustrious house of Dior needed a shot in the arm: it had been in trouble for a while before Galliano’s much-publicised meltdown. For some years the house seemed to be operating on the unsustainable idea that you could create spectacles with your fashion shows to get column inches, on the back of which you could sell accessories and perfume. The more baroque the collections became and the more over the top their execution, the more distant and irrelevant the house of Dior felt to the lives of the women who should have been its core customers. It’s something Simons is well aware of: “The world moves on. Women evolve all the time and fashion is about what women desire. It’s not about what the designer desires alone.”
What Simons offers Dior is more than a tonic of novelty and undeniable talent, he brings in relevance. An acute connection with the energy and vitality of contemporary life and culture, and a direct translation of this into highly relevant and highly desirable clothes. What Simons is doing isn’t a reinterpretation of the “New Look” or rehashed versions of the master’s sketches. Simons has done what has been needed for a long time, which is to ask, “What would Christian Dior have done if he were alive today?”
The hardest thing to do for a house with history is not to look to the glories of the past but to imagine the glories to come. At Jil Sander, Simons effectively created a new heritage and palette for the label: “I thought, I have the guts to do this because the house needs to have more to build on in the future. It’s going to get stuck in minimal language”. At Dior he is forging a new path forward. Or, as he puts it in the film, “The past is not romantic to me; the future is romantic to me”. §
Portrait courtesy Dior
All clothes by Dior
Hair: León Downing for Color Wow
Make-up: Ivana Kiss
Videography: Kimberley Rabbitt
Photography assistants: Sohrab Golsorkhi-Ainslie and Aldo Ayllón
Styling assistant: Madeleine Ruggi
Production: Mitzi Golsorkhi-Ainslie
Model: Charlotte Lindvig at Ford Models New York