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(Frontpage 19)

Raf Simons in Conversation With Hans Ulrich Obrist: Plotting an Artistic Future

Our latest edition of FRONTPAGE features an excerpt from our upcoming print issue, in which Hans Ulrich Obrist sits down with Raf Simons, as the newly appointed co-creative director of Prada plots his artistic legacy. The full feature will appear in Highsnobiety's new print issue, out March 11.

Raf Simons has progressed menswear in more ways than one. For nearly a quarter of a century, the Belgian designer — known as an oracle of subcultural youth — has introduced artists, musicians, and interior designers to an entire generation looking to connect with culture beyond fashion. These creative partnerships that define Simons’ collection lie at the root of his approach. 

This is what makes his recent appointment as co-creative director of Prada — a brand itself deeply rooted in anti-fashion and a pioneer in subversively merging art with clothing — so fitting. The fantasy coupling between Simons and Miuccia Prada will become a reality at last when Simons joins the Italian house in early April, their joint first collection debuting in September in Milan. In the ever-shifting fashion industry that has become dominated by marketeers and merchandisers, the hire marks a hopeful shift from individual creative authorship to collaborative creation, and from meaningless product to provoking, culturally-significant fashion that speaks beyond the logo it bears. 

Simons, who cannot separate his work from the music he designs it to and hates thinking of himself as a “fashion designer,” studied industrial and furniture design and sold furniture long before even thinking about creating garments. His work, which has long mingled with his eye as an art collector, is made modern by its ambivalence toward being “just fashion.”

While Simons was early to cross-pollinate art and fashion in his menswear, an alchemy between the two disciplines has existed for decades. In the spring of 1937, famed women’s couturier Elsa Schiaparelli partnered with Salvador Dalí to create the famous ivory silk “lobster dress” based on one of the painter’s artworks.

Then, of course, there are moments like Yves Saint Laurent’s famous 1965 adaptations of Piet Mondrian’s paintings, or Gianni Versace’s 1991 “Pop Art” collection. When Marc Jacobs took over Louis Vuitton in 1997, he transformed the luggage-house into an incubator of artist-led fashion projects by Yayoi Kusama, Daniel Buren, Richard Prince, Takashi Murakami, and many others. 

Today, “artist collaboration” seems to be a checklist item for every major fashion collection. Yet Simons’ projects with artists have always been more like collisions than collaborations. He describes the process of creating his first two Japanese stores with Brian Calvin and Sterling Ruby as a throwing-of-the-keys to people he trusted. His collections — designed around the works of the artist Andy Warhol, the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and the art director Peter Saville — treat their works almost like foreign invaders, slapped on sticker-like via screen prints and patches. It is clear, as Simons’ own sentiments about his profession predicted, that fashion is no longer about “just fashion” anymore. 

Designers have turned into curators and gatekeepers of taste. Future collaborator Miuccia Prada co-chairs her own contemporary art institution Fondazione Prada. Both Jonathan Anderson and Grace Wales Bonner have begun curating exhibitions. Many other brands sponsor art fairs and commission artists to create elaborate show sets, flagship stores, and murals. And Simons has future ideas of his own. 

In an in-depth conversation for our upcoming magazine, Simons spoke with curator and Serpentine Galleries Artistic Director Hans Ulrich Obrist about the designer’s earliest memories of art in Belgium, the day Martin Margiela changed his life, and his ambition to build an institution of his own. Here, we dive into Simons’s first large-scale art collaboration. The below copy is an excerpt from "Musée de Raf Simons," and features in-full in Highsnobiety’s upcoming print issue, launching March 11.

Hans Ulrich Obrist: I want to talk about the moment when you started to bring art into fashion through collaborations with artists. I think you designed your Tokyo store with Sterling Ruby in 2008. Was that the first artist collaboration where you brought an artist into the world of fashion?

Raf Simons: Actually, parallel with that, and less known by the audience, are the two stores that shaped up in two Japanese cities. One was with Sterling, and the other one was with Roger Hiorns, an English artist. Unfortunately, both stores disappeared, and that’s the thing that I find so sad about fashion. Fashion is so connected to the business. You can be in a contract or a licensee, and then afterwards, things change. So everything changed, and both stores closed at one point when we had to stop our licensee. 

Before I graduated in Belgium, I was very interested in form, language, and conceptual approach, more than the technical aspects of industrial design. So I [eventually] graduated with furniture, and then I ended up doing a little bit of furniture design with a small gallery. I realized it wasn’t the right energy for me. At the same time, the Belgian fashion scene with Martin Margiela, Ann Demeulemeester, and Dries Van Noten was shaping up. After I graduated, I moved to Antwerp and connected with part of that scene. Not with Martin, because he already escaped to Paris, but with Walter Van Beirendonck and Dirk Van Saene and the younger people that were graduating at the Royal Academy. I was from the eastern part of Belgium, very disconnected from the Antwerp scene, so it was new for me. And once I moved, I was in the middle of that whole kind of environment. It was very energetic. Every evening, we would be together until the middle of the night, discussing fashion and art.

But the process was very natural, and I think it has a lot to do with the fact that for the first 10 years of my career, I didn't like the idea of being a fashion designer. First of all, I never dreamed about it when I was a teenager. I wasn't even thinking about studying it — again, I trained as an industrial designer. Already at that point, there was the interest in art, but there was interest in a lot of creative fields. Art, fashion, design, architecture.

So, I never really thought in a typical box. And partly, you have to think in a typical box as a fashion designer, because that's how the fashion system works when you also want to make your living from it. This is when you have to show in Paris, London, Milan, for instance. But I could never really restrict myself or be happy with that, and I think that brought out the dialogues with people around me — among them artists that then brought me to collaborations.

And they usually happen very naturally. I was connected to Roger, and he and Sterling were becoming friends, so I was connected to Sterling. Then I had to think about these stores that needed to come, and I didn't like the idea that, if I would ask an artist to do a store for me, that I would have to work with them the way I would maybe work with an interior decorator or an architect. So I just basically said to them, "Are you up for a project like that? Here are the keys." And that's what happened. And they just made whatever they wanted to make.

There was nothing that could make me happier than them making whatever they wanted to make, because I loved what they were doing. That kind of risk and that kind of aspect of giving in is what I like so much. It’s why I like collecting and living with art. I hope it's not too dramatic and shocking, what I'm saying, but I don’t want to die with fashion. The idea of that is so horrible to me. I want to die with art.

As Gilbert & George say, "To be with art is all we ask." But then of course, after you invited artists to create a store, the next step of this integration was that you actually started to create a collection together with Sterling. How did that come about? 

Maybe these are two weird words to place here, but the art that I look at and the art that I collect makes me very happy and calm. Whereas the fashion world can be extremely restless, stressed, and nervous. As a creative animal, it gives me an enormous satisfaction, curiosity, and happiness to enter the world of an artist that I'm interested in. It's going into their brain and seeing how they think. What is an artwork about? How does it connect to the world? How does it connect to people? 

My first encounter with Sterling’s work was just a simple piece. It was a very early ceramic. I saw the piece and I was like, "Who the fuck is that? Who made something like that?" So we met and started talking. His mom, who passed away, unfortunately, was Dutch, and lived very close to where I grew up, and it instantly created a connection. We just kept on talking over the years, and it became a very close friendship — I would almost say family. And it's a very weird thing that I'm going to say now, because I really don't want to make this sound pretentious, but sometimes I can think with some of the artists. Like, I'm so into their world that I can feel things. And when you build a friendship, you're also open with each other. Like, I know that I can have a conversation with Sterling where I could say, "What if you would do it like that?" We can have that conversation. And it’s the other way around as well. 

At one point, we met each other in LA again and hung out. I don't know if it was me saying it, or if it was him, but it was kind of this very mutual feeling, like, “Why don't we do something together?” Then it was very much about, “Yeah, what should we do?” We already did the shop. So I said, "Well, let’s maybe do the collection together." And he was like, "Yes." It was that easy. 

Panofsky said: "The future is invented with fragments from the past." When you started at Calvin Klein, you burrowed right into the sand of the brand by working with two artists posthumously: Andy Warhol and Robert Mapplethorpe. Can you tell me a little bit about the future you invented with these fragments of the past? Why Warhol, and why Mapplethorpe?

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Campaign for Raf Simons Spring / Summer 2017 shot by Wille Vanderperre which featured works by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, Campaign for Raf Simons Spring / Summer 2017 shot by Wille Vanderperre which featured works by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe
Raf Simons, Raf Simons

Mapplethorpe was the most complicated one. With the natural collaborations, like Sterling, they came out of this kind of connection and friendship that was already there, and this mutual desire to do something together. I have to be honest with you here — I would never, ever contact the Mapplethorpe Foundation. Because I would just think that they would never be interested. I'm also not really thinking, like, “Who can be the next artist to contact to do something?” I don’t think like that. If it comes naturally, it comes naturally. But the Mapplethorpe Foundation reached out to me because [they are] very interested in investigating different formats to keep showing his work. They were very attracted by the idea of seeing the work in a very different physical situation. The only thing that I said to myself was: "If I do the collaboration, I really don't want to change anything." I wanted to frame it literally as they were framed. I want to bring them as frames, but on human beings. And they liked that idea, and that's what we did. 

And Warhol?

In the case of Andy Warhol, me coming as a European to America — at that time, with the political situation, I naturally felt like I wanted to do something with [his] disaster work. So we got in touch with the foundation. Obviously, I was also informed about how Andy himself so much desired for his work to keep on being commercially used after his death in order to support other art, and that’s a very beautiful thing. So it all kind of clicked very well, and that's how it shaped up. 

Unfortunately, things went very wrong [at Calvin Klein], but sometimes with the brands, they want to connect to something like art purely for commercial reasons, and I don't like when it's only that. I'm not the kind of designer who thinks, “If I connect to that artist, it's going to cash in.” There needs to be a real emotion and a real reason to do it. I wanted to bring in Andy Warhol’s disaster work because I was relating it to the current situation in America. But then the body of work is so genius and so broad that it was a kind of deal that was not about one collection. We also talked a lot about how the products from Andy Warhol are very often linked to commerce — like books or gadgets in a museum shop. That’s how I started with the first campaign. It wasn't even about bringing the works onto the garments at that point. Being a European taking the reins of an American brand, I was just confronting them with it. That's why we placed the kids in underwear, literally, in the museum across from Andy’s works. It wasn't very commercial at the end, actually, because if you have kids in underwear, it works much better when you place them in Greece on the beach.

Right now, there’s a lot of conversation about how one can exhibit fashion. There is a certain history of experimental shows of fashion. One of the unforgettable exhibitions around fashion that I remember was when I came to Rotterdam in the late '90s to see Margiela's exhibition there. It wasn’t really a fashion exhibition, but it was this multi-sensory thing. It was a great example of how radical fashion can be. I was kind of wondering about your take on that. Do you have an interest in this idea of exhibiting fashion? 

I have a complicated relationship when it comes to fashion in a museum. I have to watch out what I'm saying here, because I think I'll maybe take a too harsh position. I think there are incredible fashion exhibitions, however, one way or another, I always find it very complicated, because to me fashion is so connected to the physicality of a human being and characters. So it's very complicated for me to answer this. I do think it over, because sometimes we are asked, and so far I have always refused. It's also a very weird experience for me to realize where we are with the brand now. We’re becoming collectible, and it's something I never really thought of, although I started to collect one designer in depth, and that's Martin Margiela, because he — besides Helmut Lang — is the main reason why I wanted to be a fashion designer.

At the time that Margiela was starting out, I was interning at Walter [Van Beirendonck]. I was brought to Paris, and we went to see two shows on the same day. One was Jean Paul Gaultier, which was the show where he introduced Junior Gaultier — with Neneh Cherry dancing on a chair and all that — which was mind-blowing. Jean Paul Gaultier’s shows at that time were what Dior shows are today. You know what I mean? They were these big spectacles.

Then right after, we went to this Margiela show, and it was his third show, which is a very memorable show for everybody. It was held in the suburbs of Paris, and there wasn't even a show space. It was just in this backyard where kids played. And there were lots of kids around, running between the audience. It's very difficult for me to talk about it, because there was so much emotion.

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Much of Raf Simons Fall / Winter 1998 was inspired by the aesthetic of Kraftwerk, Raf Simons Fall / Winter 2001
Raf Simons, Raf Simons

Afterwards, I found out how they got the space and how it happened. Just like myself in the first years, there was no money. And they found this backyard, which was actually this outdoor play garden. You had these kind of metal things on which the kids climbed, and then these girls came out, and they were so alienated. There was so much history in these clothes and so much emotion. They came out, and there was such a harsh visual contrast. How they looked — it was such a new type of fashion and the casting was so different. It was so at contrast with anything that I’d ever seen before. It gave me a whole different perception of fashion from everything that I knew before. I always saw this reporter going to shows [on television], and that's what we got to see back in the day. It's not like these days. You couldn't click on a computer and see all the fashion and all the shows. So I had this perception of fashion being this kind of grandeur and very glamorous thing. Gaultier was the avant garde. He was the one who kind of made it all so different, but it still was very much like Claude Montana and Thierry Mugler and all that. And I had absolutely no connection to that. Then Martin came, and he showed on what wasn't even a floor. It was just sand, and the girls were there, and they were all in white. I feel so embarrassed about it, but after five silhouettes, I cried. And I couldn’t look to my left or my right anymore. I thought something was wrong with me. Everybody was crying. It was so shocking. At that moment, I said, "That's what I want to do." It was very human, very alienating, and at the same time very normal, unpretentious, and earthy; I still don't have words for it. That show really changed me drastically — if I would not have seen that show, I don't really think I would have ever become a fashion designer.

I think that's the reason why I'm collecting him now, because it's not about having the garment. To come back to the exhibiting fashion thing — I know that I want to do something in an exhibition context, and I cannot even say if the word "exhibition" is the right word. But I've been collecting Margiela since the day that Martin left Maison Margiela. The whole body of work from the beginning... and he knows it too, because we are in touch. Maybe it's going to be very different. Maybe I can do it with him. But for me, it's such an important thing in my own life, actually, as a creative animal and as a thinker.

The older I get, the more I go back to my own past. At the time when I thought about starting fashion, I never really thought about fashion in that museum context. What we do is so in the present, present, present, but then people really start to collect Raf and all that. And now we’re like, "Oh. We also have to take care, because it’s probably important for certain people." So we are now trying to structure it more. 

I’ve been talking with a few designer friends lately, and I’ve asked them, "How did you keep your archive?" And I'm not talking about the big brands, because they have it all sorted out, but more like people from my generation. Quite some of them say, "We don't have anything. We threw it away, or we sold it." And I think there was a long period, probably 20 years, when I thought, “You know what? Get rid of it.” Because it's like a turtle with a heavy house on its back. We have to carry it around, and it's too intense. And now I start to realize we've got to take care of it, because I'm going to be sad if we don't. And it's not only museums and stylists and magazines. It's also the very young audience. I realize now that for young kids, my brand means for them what Martin meant for me. And this is very beautiful. It's a very rewarding thing. It's very emotional, and perhaps it’s the most satisfying thing. Seeing somebody in the street wearing my brand is more satisfying than a good review.

In a way, it's a form of legacy. And it's interesting that labels are more and more becoming art institutions. You've outlined in a beautiful way in this conversation how you want to bring all these things together in this yet unrealized project of creating an institution. And your institution, I suppose, will be in Antwerp, correct?

Not necessarily. I don't know that yet. We have been looking for the past two years. But the one thing that I find interesting is that it's a pilgrimage, a place where you have to go. The amount of visitors and all that kind of stuff isn’t important to me. For me, what’s important is that it's going to still be there after I’m gone. As much as it's fantastic, the whole fashion thing, it's also partly frustrating. If I have to be really honest, I would prefer to be creative and not think, like, “Oh, that needs to sell, or that needs to be presented on that date.” I think it always comes back to the fact that I don’t only see myself as a fashion designer. It just doesn't match. But, of course, to the world, I am.

What would you say, of all the shows you have done, is your favorite one? 

It's a very cliché answer that I'm going to say, but it's the one that's [yet] to come. Because if it wasn’t, then I can’t do it anymore. If I think about a specific past one, then I would be done. I know what you are trying to find out, but I don’t really know, Hans.

Click here to preorder the newest issue of A Magazine by Highsnobiety

  • InterviewHans Ulrich Obrist
  • IllustrationTom Bachtell
  • IntroductionChristopher Morency
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