On November 21, Belgian designer Raf Simons announced the closure of his eponymous label on his Instagram account, which was otherwise wiped clean. This fin-de-siècle moment feels… strange. Not a tragedy in the way Alexander McQueen’s death felt nor a drama in the way Helmut Lang and Jil Sander quit their labels, but rather, a fitting end to a brand of an exceptional designer who increasingly looked like he’d run out of ideas and left the brand on autopilot. Nevertheless, Simons remains one of the greatest menswear creators and will undoubtedly leave a mark on the history of both fashion and youth culture, for there is no designer who has made a greater impact in merging the two.
When Simons quietly presented his first collection in 1995, fashion and youth culture were not unknown to each other, but neither were they symbiotic. There were designers who were clearly influenced by the rebellious spirit of rock music – from the great Vivienne Westwood to Simons’ predecessor Ann Demeulemeester – but these relationships were oblique. Simons literally mashed together the messiness of youth and the squeaky cleanliness of luxury fashion.
He sewed post-punk badges on fine merino wool sweaters and turned perfecto jackets into coats. He subverted the conventions of luxury fashion by taking it away from the staid bourgeois conventionalists and giving it to the young. He superimposed teenage angst and alienation in the form of Joy Division and New Order graphics onto army fishtail parkas and put them onto the Paris catwalk, daring the world to say that it’s not fashion. Simons brought various subcultures from the dark and dank corners of the fashion universe into its center, from the basement clubs into the limelight, and in the process, created a hardcore fanbase the way few other designers had.
By 1999 Simons already set the tone for the menswear silhouette, slimming and elongating it when everyone else was making loose garments which, overnight, began to look dated. It’s a silhouette that Hedi Slimane picked up and ran with, popularizing it a few years later at Dior Homme and changing the way men dressed. And it was Simons’ success that undoubtedly encouraged the likes of Jun Takahashi of Undercover and Takahiro Miyashita of Number (N)ine and TheSoloist to put their own stamp on sartorial counterculture.
Simons’s early fanbase, of which I was one, was positively rabid. Finally, we had a designer who merged our obsessions with fashion and music. I hunted Simons’ designs at Barneys and at independent New York boutiques Atelier and Seven with the fervor of a gold rush. When Simons was forced to skip a season in 2001 for financial reasons, I was in Europe for the first time; on my way from Brussels to Amsterdam I stopped over in Antwerp, stuffed my backpack into a rail station locker and beelined for seminal store Louis, where I bought a pair of pants from the capsule collection Simons designed specifically for it.
I was not alone in my infatuation – talk to many men's fashion insiders today and they’ll tell you how seminal Simons has been in defining their style. “It’s hard to overstate the impact Raf has had in taking high-fashion and rooting it in ideas that people in the real world can relate to,” says Sam Lobban, Executive Vice President and General Merchandise Manager, Apparel & Designer at Nordstrom. “Be that a fascination with subcultures, nightlife scenes, music, youth angst; the Raf Simons collections were not unique in drawing inspiration from these concepts, but Raf was able to display these ideas in a novel and unexpected, yet relatable, way. He creates a world and draws you in – clothes to live by.”
“Those early Raf collections were so revolutionary and soulful – how he mixed utility, preppy, tailoring, punk, music and art,” says Jack Cassidy, Director of Accessories at Selfridges. “It’s that mix of all these different references that he combined in a way that hadn’t been seen before. I also love how Raf would pivot each season from a minimal and refined approach with a beautiful colour palette, a tailored suit and overcoat, to something more anarchic, youthful and ‘streetwear’ – those collections are still so modern!”
In the mid-‘00s, Simons and the like-minded fashion creatives who came from the same corners of underground culture that fell under the spell of his work – Willy Vanderperre and Olivier Rizzo in Antwerp, Corinne Day and Panos Yiapanis in London – ruled the pages of the independent fashion press. This was the pinnacle of fashion anti-establishment, when the avant-garde seemed unstoppable, and Simons’s FW05 collection, A History of My World, was its number one-charting hit.
And then things began to change. In May 2005 – recognizing Simons’s influence on fashion – Prada appointed Simons to design Jil Sander. It seemed strange but not entirely unfitting; though Simons was never trained to design womenswear (or menswear for that matter - his degree is in industrial design), one could see how he could propel the minimalist aesthetic that Sander was famous for. Things got weirder when, in 2012, Simons jumped to design Dior’s womenswear. To many this seemed unnatural and a misalignment of, well, pretty much everything his early work stood firmly against. Then came the disastrous 2016 Calvin Klein appointment. And while Simons was hopping from one famous brand to another, basking in the lap of luxury, many old fans quietly moved on.
Though there were flashes of brilliance at Simons’ own line, like the FW14 collection with American artist Sterling Ruby, it has never quite recovered its esteem amongst his diehards. Meanwhile, thanks to A$AP Rocky (who name-dropped Simons in his breakout hit “Peso”) and Kanye West (who wore Simons’ early designs), a new generation of fans and crazy resale prices of his early work marked a new era for Simons - mainstream acceptance. Rehashes of his greatest hits followed, especially in his SS18 collection which reused the infamous Joy Division and New Order graphics. His last few collections looked tired, the same goth and postpunk references that were energizing before seemed stale and ingenuine. A History of Raf’s World seemed to come to an end well before yesterday’s announcement.
The poet T. S. Eliot famously wrote, “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but with a whimper.” And this seems true for Simons, who will rightfully go down in fashion history as a singular talent, one who created a world that was influential and worth celebrating as a moment when counterculture still had a place in fashion.