Last month I met with iconic designer Raf Simons
and picked his brain about the Belgian fashion scene, the Antwerp Six, and the laser-filled New Beat parties of the 80s! (Read part one of our interview here
.) In part two, below, Raf tells me about what inspired him in the early years of his brand and which designers and bands still make him fan out today.
Raf Simons is available at Opening Ceremony stores in New York, Los Angeles, and London, and at Opening Ceremony online.
Humberto Leon: We were talking about the kinds of music you’re into. What else were you influenced by in the early days of your label?
Raf Simons: There really was no other visual communication besides television and record sleeves at that time. My village did not have trendy magazines like i-D
and The Face
. But I’d take train trips to Antwerp. You had access to everything there.
I've kept every magazine I've bought since I was a teenager, so I have all of the early i-Ds. And still one of my favorite magazines ever is the issue that you curated. It must have been in around 2001.
I’ve always stayed very connected to i-D
. The first people I met in fashion—on the press side—were Terry and Tricia [Jones], and it almost became like a family.
Yeah. In 1998, near the beginning of my career, they staged a huge exhibition in the stazione
in Florence, and I had two boys living in the exhibition space for two months. I put a bunch of clothes in there, a television, and a lot of video games and documentaries. Terry also put every i-D
magazine in there. So I got to keep all of these issues from the early period.
You also talk about TV a lot. What kind of TV programs were you into when you were growing up?
When I was a kid, I was obliged to watch the Schlager Festival [laughs
], which my mom was obsessed with! Then there was an early evening program called “Top Pop.” It was Dutch but they got everybody on it. It was sublime. Everybody was on it: Debbie Harry would be there in Stephen Sprouse, but when you're young you don't really recognize these moments at the time.
Totally! Over the years though, have you been able to meet a lot of the musicians and bands you love?
I finally met Kim Gordon at the Met Ball this year. The first presentation I ever did—before I started showing—was just a couple of boys that I was filming with Sonic Youth music.
I feel like you're very good at tapping into things. With your Fred Perry and Vans partnerships, for example. They feel like such authentic brands to me, with their own subcultures. After you did the show with white slip-on Vans, I went straight out and bought a pair.
The Fred Perry partnership was quite a natural thing. It’s very easy to make their culture and our culture come together. It’s magic. And now the adidas collaboration is really great too.
I love the footwear from the fall collection.
In fashion we have been seeing so much development in the construction of the sneaker. I was really fascinated by the process. Working with adidas, I feel that the possibilities are enormous.
How big is your studio in Antwerp today?
Very small. We only have six people. And now we are hiring maybe two more because [the label] has been growing so much in the last couple of seasons.
As you've expanded as a brand, has the fact that you don’t come from a super technical fashion background ever affected you?
No, not at all. I think, early on, my attraction to fashion was just the idea of “pop.” As a kid I was completely not into clothes. But when I was teenager I wanted to be a part of the whole New Wave period. The Virgin Prunes, The Cramps, New Order—they were all very big for us as college, so we had black hair [styled with] with sugar water.
I love that look.
We were the New Wave kids at this very Catholic school and we were not even supposed to hang out together in big groups. We were not troublemakers, we just didn’t really relate to the environment we were in. I started going out when I was really young and we would just find each other. We shared the same love for certain bands, we put up posters everywhere, and we had a good time. Lots of us got into the Belgian scene, especially Walter Van Beirendonck, he was big for us at that time.
For me too. Walter was someone I discovered by looking at European magazines. Back when there was no Internet, you could only see things in magazines. I feel really fortunate to have lived in an era in which you had to seek out information, when it was harder to find.
The access that we had to the Belgian fashion designers was really like that. They were around us, so you could feel their presence very strongly when you were in Antwerp. But you would get one glimpse of a Helmut Lang collection on television and then you’d have to wait for six months until you could find it in a store in Brussels or Antwerp.
The last thing I wanted to ask you: is there a reason why you’ve never done womenswear under the Raf Simons label? Because I know a lot of women who wear it!
Originally the intention was not to do menswear only. The intention was just to start making clothes for a young generation that I could relate to. It was more for practical and economic reasons that I had to choose to only do men’s in the beginning—because I was making all the clothes myself. But women have always responded to the clothes after the shows so sometimes we do make a piece in women's sizes. I think lately especially I've been seeing a lot of guys wearing women's clothes and women wearing men's clothes.
Definitely. I think the borders are less defined now. But it's amazing that with Jil Sander and now at Dior, you’ve been able to make that transition.
I like the dynamic between doing Dior and [Raf Simons]. It feels very satisfying and freeing to have this huge historical institution for women on one hand, and then a different kind of freedom with my own line on the other. I go back and forth, back and forth, and it’s very good for the brain. Owning your brand is psychologically very different from being a creative director.
Yeah, that's true.
I will never let my brand go—ever, ever, ever.