In March, Raf Simons agreed to spend the following several months, on and off, discussing life at Dior with esteemed writer and critic Cathy Horyn, for System magazine. Their conversations — the last of which took place two days after Dior's Spring/Summer 2016 ready-to-wear show in October — revealed the designer coming to terms with the ever-increasing demands of heading up one of fashion's most monumental institutions, and the need to conjure up newness more and more frequently.
Days after Horyn and Simons last spoke came the announcement that the Belgian designer had chosen to leave the house of Dior, citing "personal reasons." In this exclusive excerpt of their conversation, Simons speaks about the changing pace of fashion and provides an intimate portrait of a man questioning his situation, his life and his future.
PARIS, France — The day after the Dior Fall ready-to-wear show, Raf and I meet for lunch at a restaurant near Avenue Montaigne. He has had some sleep, but not enough to counteract the pace of the previous few days. The show was held in a modernistic tent in the Cour Carrée of the Louvre, with more than 1,000 guests. The standout was the tailoring, in particular the lean, dropped-shoulder coats, worn at times over boldly printed bodysuits or a minidress. What the collection lacked in classic Dior romance, it made up for in modern ease. And the coats would have no equal during the Fall season.
"You know, we did this collection in three weeks," he tells me, not defending the show but, rather, stating the reality that now faces high-fashion houses. "Tokyo was also done in three weeks. Actually everything is done in three weeks, maximum five. And when I think back to the first couture show for Dior, in July 2012, I was concerned because we only had eight weeks."
He smiles. "And now we never have time like that. And you know? It’s clearly possible to do it, if I have my ideas together. The machine is there. Of course, we have to push really hard. It’s not like we think the ideas and mushrooms come out of the ground."
Some months ago Raf mentioned that he wanted to create a new studio structure at Dior, so I ask him about that.
"When you do six shows a year, there’s not enough time for the whole process," he explains. "Technically, yes — the people who make the samples, do the stitching, they can do it. But you have no incubation time for ideas, and incubation time is very important. When you try an idea, you look at it and think, Hmm, let’s put it away for a week and think about it later. But that’s never possible when you have only one team working on all the collections."
"Also," he goes on, "what people forget is that when you do a runway show, it eats time away from your schedule. Just the prep time before a show is six or seven days, especially when you are showing abroad."
"So you’re constantly creating," I say, "with no time."
"But I have no problem with the continuous creative process," he says. ‘Because it’s the reason I’m in this world. It’s always happening. I just did a show yesterday. Just now, while waiting in the car, I sent four or five ideas to myself by text message, so I don’t forget them. They are always coming."
"Like what? Tell me one."
He shrugs. "Stupid things. I was just thinking about this kind of very masculine tailoring you see in the navy. It can be stupid things, like a certain button. But I’ve been doing this my whole life. The problem is when you have only one design team and six collections, there is no more thinking time. And I don’t want to do collections where I’m not thinking. In this system, Pieter [Mulier, Simons’ right hand] and I can’t sit together and brainstorm — no time. I have a schedule every day that begins at 10 in the morning and runs through the day, and every, every minute is filled. From 10.10am to 10.30am, it’s shoes, let’s say. From 10.30 to 11.15, it’s jewellery. Everything is timed — the whole week. If there’s a delay in a meeting, the whole day is fucked up."
Everything is done in three weeks, maximum five. You have no incubation time for ideas, and incubation time is very important.
He looks at me intently. "What are you going to do? Walk out of the office at 8 o’clock at night? No, of course not. So you stay there until midnight. That’s the life. So we created two design teams. Each group has a person in charge, and these people are fantastic. If Team A is working on cruise, then Team B is working on July couture. Then Team A will start working on the Fall ready-to-wear show. So each group does one couture show and one ready-to-wear show."
"How many people on a team?"
"Purely designers? About seven or eight."
After some direction from Raf, a team will begin gathering research — mood boards, books. He and Pieter will then choose things they feel are worth developing. At Jil Sander, I recall, he used to sit with his team brainstorming ideas.
"I did that very often," he says. "And when the shows were running, I would sit with the whole creative team at a big table and have a dialogue. 'What have you seen?' 'What do you find modern? Old?' At first everyone would sit there with their mouths full of teeth and a rat face, but after a while they loved it. It became a real dialogue. And I liked it very much."
"But can you do that at Dior?"
"Not at all," he replies, shaking his head. "Sometimes I do it with Pieter and maybe the heads of the teams. But the groups are too big here. There is also something else. At Dior, the moment you say, 'This is an interesting thing to try,' things go very, very fast."
In other words, the efficiency of Dior’s ateliers, not to mention the expertise of its 75 seamstresses and tailors, helps to move the design process along, which makes everyone involved more proficient, but leaves little time or room for second options.
We have finished our lunch and Raf is heading back to his office on the Avenue Montaigne. "So, in spite of the incredible pressures, your system seems to work?" I ask.
He nods. "Technically speaking, it works. Does it work for me emotionally? No, because I’m not the kind of person who likes to do things so fast. I think if I had more time, I would reject more things, and bring other ideas or concepts in. But that’s also not necessarily better. Sometimes you can work things to death when you take too much time."
"People are used to processing information much more quickly now, thanks to technology," I say. "Also, shows are about communicating to large audiences, often via social media. In any age, isn’t the point to master the changes around you?"
"Maybe," he says, and with a laugh adds, "Fashion became pop. I can’t make up my mind if that’s a good or a bad thing. The only thing I know is that it used to be elitist. And I don’t know if one should be ashamed or not to admit that maybe it was nicer when it was more elitist, not for everybody. Now high fashion is for everybody."
A few weeks later I hear from Raf again. It is a Friday evening (his time), and he is with his driver travelling from Antwerp to Paris. Sheepishly, he reveals that he was leaving the next day to spend the weekend at Disneyland Paris with his boyfriend. Hearing my snort, he chuckles and says, "I actually like that kind of thing, believe it or not."
I don’t, but decide to leave it. During his first two years at Dior, Raf rarely took breaks. He would work non-stop for four or five weeks, running up to Antwerp to check on his own business, and then he’d be back in the grind of Paris — and complaining that he didn’t have a normal life. So the news that he had done something about it was positive. He said he had been spending weekends with his boyfriend’s large family in the south of France, exploring villages and just hanging out.
Fashion became pop. And I don’t know if one should be ashamed or not to admit that maybe it was nicer when it was more elitist.
Somehow we get into a discussion about the ‘State of Fashion’ — the noise, the crowded multiplex of brands, the rise of bluntly commercial clothes. Where is it all going?
I tell him I think the question is a waste of time. Raf remains silent, so I continue.
"I actually think that what you do and what Karl does at Chanel makes the only sense. You focus on the problems you have in front of you. How to make your studios work more efficiently? How to produce six shows a year and make them vital? You answer those questions. To me, this makes the most sense. The journalists don’t know what to do with that larger question anyway. And I don’t want to waste my time with it. Consumers also don’t care.
"You know," I say, "there is no more regular print edition of Women’s Wear Daily. After more than 100 years the newspaper is finished."
"Wow, I hadn’t heard that," Raf replies. "My god." He seems to mull this over and then says, "I’ve been talking to Sterling [artist Sterling Ruby] a lot about some of these things. Can ideas only work within existing systems? That’s what I wonder. I’m in a very well-defined system, obviously. But are there other situations or places where this might not be true? For example, Sterling and I took a lot of emotional satisfaction from the collaboration we did together." In autumn 2013, the two friends created a one-off collection that reflected their separate ideas about fashion and art, and also the ideas they have in common.
"I think it worked because it was so unconnected to anything we had ever done before," he continues, "even though it still involved fashion and art. In a way, it was not the same as doing one of many, many collections, or one of many, many art exhibitions."
"It was an exhilarating show," I say. "So free in its thinking."
"But can an approach like that exist by itself, and survive?"
"No, it can’t survive," I say. "It’s absolutely contrary to the existing fashion system, which wants stuff it can repeat again and again."
Raf pauses and, after a moment, says, "Everything is so easily accessible, and because of that you don’t make a lot of effort anymore. When we were young, you had to make up your mind to investigate something — because it took time. You really had to search and dig deep. Now if something interests you, one second later, you can have it. And also one second later you also drop it."
Raf suddenly lets out a grunt. "You should see us here. We left Antwerp two hours ago and were supposed to arrive in Paris at 8.30 tonight. But we’re in a traffic jam, and won’t arrive until 9.50. I’m supposed to meet someone for dinner.
"This is the feeling I have all the time," he continues, clearly exasperated. "There’s never enough time. You get a tension. I know how to pull out from this in my personal life. We go and look at nature for three hours. It’s heaven. We go to a bakery and buy a bag of stuff and lie in the grass. Sublime. But how to do that in the context of your professional life? You buy a house and you start doing pottery or something?"
"Don’t do pottery, Raf," I say.
The complete text of Cathy Horyn's interview with Raf Simons appears in the Autumn/Winter 2015 issue of System magazine.