How To Spend It

Women's Fashion

Working a new look

Raf Simons is the thoughtful designer who has led Dior out of a most sensitive time into a new era of brilliance. Vanessa Friedman meets him

March 18 2013
Vanessa Friedman

If someone were to imagine the resumé of the ideal creative director of Christian Dior couture, the house that, perhaps more than any, symbolises French fashion in the global imagination, it would probably look nothing like that of Belgian designer Raf Simons.

After all, he has none of the apocryphal stories associated with most famous fashion designers. He did not grow up crafting clothes for his teddy bears. He did not secretly peruse his mother’s fashion magazines. He did not dream of a world of gowns and fantasy. He did not even go to art school. When he started his own brand, it was a menswear label inspired by street kids. When he finally embarked on womenswear it was for Jil Sander, famous for its pristine minimalism – indeed, he wears pretty much only black and navy himself.

And yet, when Dior announced last April – just over a year after the very public sacking of its last artistic director, John Galliano, for a drug- and alcohol-fuelled anti-Semitic rant – that its new creative chief was 45-year-old Simons, the reaction, inside and outside the label, was ecstatic. And not just because he is the seeming opposite of Galliano, who was known for his wild flights of fancy both on the runway and off, or because Simons had just been fired – unfairly, most in fashion felt – from Jil Sander to make way for the brand’s founder to return. But because, as Pamela Golbin, chief curator of fashion and textiles at the Musée des Arts Décoratifs, says, “it redefined today’s luxury status. At a time of economic and political prudence, they chose someone who has a spectacular talent, but is also marked by restraint.”

Simons is one of a new generation of design professionals. Alongside his peers – Sarah Burton at Alexander McQueen, Phoebe Philo at Céline, Frida Giannini at Gucci and Christopher Bailey at Burberry – he is the designer-as-collaborator, as opposed to the designer-as-character or -dictator. According to Sidney Toledano, president and CEO of Dior, when his appointment was confirmed even Franco Pene, chairman of Jil Sander, “called to say we’d made the right decision”.

“Raf is like the perfect storm,” says a longtime friend and colleague, who asks to remain anonymous in accordance with Simons’ desire to protect his personal life. “You never see him coming, and then he blows you away.”

That this kind of fashion figure has reached the heights of couture – “In France, Dior is really a cultural monument, not a brand,” says Golbin – is the final acknowledgement that the industry has entered a new stage. “There was a time,” says Toledano, “when new designers wanted to come into a house and tear it all down. Now they realise: you don’t adapt Dior to the designer; you adapt the designer to Dior.”

So what is the brand’s essence? According to Simons, femininity, the perennial Dior subject since the eponymous designer introduced his New Look in 1947, and, even more broadly, conversation. Which may sound odd, but, as the designer likes to point out, conversation is fashion’s subtext – between designer and brand, past and present, brand and women. “Fashion is a dialogue with the outside world,” says Simons, trying to explain why he loves it. “It’s not always easy, but it is continuous.”  

The back and forth that marks his own work was obvious from his first collection for Dior, which was based on the house’s classic 1947 Bar suit – with a curvy, moulded silhouette – as well as its 1950s party frocks. He streamlined and modernised, from the skinny trousers that served as a base to the truncated strapless gowns-turned-tunics, full of the romance of yesteryear with the added liberation of forward momentum. This spirit was obvious in the embroidery that marked January’s couture collection, which at first glance looked like 3-D flowers, but up close had been dipped in a neon-green resin-like wax to resemble electrical wiring, and in the ready-to-wear collection just entering shops now: skinny black knits (from £560) teamed with iridescent rose-printed duchesse evening skirts (£6,700) and grey wool coat dresses (£5,600) that flashed shiny pleats in a peekaboo surprise. It was also obvious in Simons’ pre-show way of working, which involves seemingly the entire atelier watching together as models parade around a small white room while he whispers and muses with the assembled petits mains about alterations, only to have them applaud each other at the end in a mass expression of mutual appreciation.

“He’s constantly looking and learning,” says milliner Stephen Jones, who has worked with both Simons and Dior for years. “Raf talks to everyone,” echoes Toledano. “He talks in the elevator, in the atelier…” And although this dialogue is often mentioned as a new thing, Simons himself points out that when it comes to Dior, it is, in fact, a building block of the house. In 1956, Christian Dior wrote an autobiography, Christian Dior et Moi, about his own on-going debate with himself as a brand and himself as an individual. Fast-forward and Simons has simply expanded that discussion to include designer and executives, and designer and atelier. “How do you move forward?” Simons asks. “The commercial team can’t do it alone, the CFO can’t do it alone, I can’t do it alone – you have to have a dialogue.”

That is especially true when “it” is a brand such as Christian Dior, which under its founder accounted for 50 per cent of all French fashion exports, according to Golbin, and later became the cornerstone of owner Bernard Arnault’s luxury empire; the starting point for the transformation of luxury into a huge industry. In January, Dior reported 2012 revenues of €1.24bn (with couture sales up 24 per cent on 2011), 200 stores and 4,000 employees – all despite a fraught recent history.

There is no point sugar-coating the fallout from Galliano’s disgrace; the atelier, and the conglomerate that owns it, felt betrayed. Yet there was a residual love and respect for the designer in the industry at large – a recognition of his talent and what he had contributed to Dior, as well as a sense that maybe the fashion cycle, with its relentless demands, had been in part responsible. It was a sensitive situation for any successor to take on, and many did not want the responsibility.

“A house of this magnitude is not something for many designers,” says Robert Burke, a luxury consultant and former senior vice president of Bergdorf Goodman. “Dior took the time it needed in selecting the best person for the job. Certainly, Galliano and Simons are very different in their design and personalities.”

“He wasn’t our first idea, it’s true,” says Toledano, adding that Dior considered between five and 10 candidates. “But it was clear we needed a new direction.”

Simons grew up an only child in Neerpelt, a small town in Belgium; his father was an army night watchman and his mother a house cleaner. He went to a Catholic school that “was all about maths and Latin, and being a doctor or a lawyer”. At a school fair, when he was 18, he discovered that it was possible to study architecture and design. He took a bus to see the college at Genk where they were taught, and “there were all these kids sitting around, smoking”, he recalls, “and that was that”. He studied industrial design: “How to make a crate for 24 beer bottles.” Between his third and fourth year there the Antwerp Six – the group of designers that included Ann Demeulemeester and Dries Van Noten – emerged, rocking the fashion world, and Simons took note. He interned with another of the “six”, Walter Van Beirendonck, working on the presentation and decoration of his showrooms and collections.

His Damascene fashion moment came in 1991 at a Martin Margiela show. “I went in thinking about clothes one way and I came out with a whole different understanding,” he says. He launched his own menswear brand in 1995 and has run it ever since (apart from six months off when he felt it was getting too big); based in Antwerp, it has revenues of €3m and eight employees. He has also taught at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna and dabbled in various side projects. Then, in 2005, Prada, which at that time owned Jil Sander, came calling. The eponymous designer had just left the brand she founded for the second time – she first quit in 2000, returned in 2003, resigning again 18 months later. Although Simons had never really made womenswear, he signed on and for seven years ran the label to ever-greater acclaim, stretching the Sander identity to include a softer, sexier aesthetic.

During those years the brand went through two changes of ownership – in 2006 Prada sold it to the private equity firm Change Capital Partners, which, in 2008, sold it to Onward Holdings, a Japanese fashion and manufacturing group – leaving Simons feeling increasingly isolated. Last year, Sander decided to return yet again, and Simons was out of a job.

However, he’d had several conversations with Toledano over the years, and so the talks were resumed. “I think it is normal to have these conversations,” says Simons. “Clever companies plan for any future and that includes getting to know who is out there. It doesn’t have to mean anything. I’ve had at least eight of these with different houses in the past few years.”

“I was in Marrakech when I decided to call him,” says Toledano. Simons met with Delphine Arnault, the daughter of Dior owner Bernard Arnault and the deputy managing director of Dior, then with Toledano – and then with M Arnault himself. “Raf didn’t come with any lawyers,” says Toledano. “Some designers have an entourage, but he just came by himself. And he asked a lot of questions about what everyone did. And, unusually, when he didn’t understand something he would ask, ‘What do you really mean by that?’”

In late March, he was offered the job: “I knew he shared a real sense of architecture with Christian Dior,” says Toledano. Burke agrees: “Dior always had a strong instinct for structure and tailoring, which Raf has reinvigorated through his menswear expertise and transferred to the women’s collections.”

“Of all the designers we saw, he made the most effort to understand Dior personally,” says Toledano. Indeed, Simons had a flirtation with Dior-the-man in his last years at Sander, while investigating the history of couture: “The designer I felt the most affinity with was Dior. It surprised me. I used to be attracted to design that was very conceptual, über-intellectual and complicated. But there was something liberating about the idea that you could concentrate on women and beauty.”

As to whether there were concerns about hiring someone who had never worked in couture: “Who has real haute-couture experience these days?” asks Toledano. “There’s Karl [Lagerfeld], [Jean Paul]Gaultier and a few more, and they all have jobs. We had to take a risk. But we knew Raf understood how you build a garment.”

Although conventional wisdom about Dior’s biggest shareholder, Bernard Arnault, often paints him as a “wolf in a cashmere coat”, what Simons saw was a man who had nurtured the brand since he bought it in 1985. For the designer, “it seemed like a family; they were in it for the long term”. He was also attracted by the company’s size and the implication he would have to make clothes that appealed to a vast number of people. “I don’t want to be in a niche,” he says. “I had that at Jil, and though the world likes to define you, it is too limiting.”

Still, in the beginning, he rejected many of the trappings of “Dior”, choosing, for example, to drive himself back to Antwerp until, he says, he started falling asleep at the wheel and Toledano insisted he use a driver. (He spends every other week in Antwerp, working on his own brand, which allows him a private life – something he might not be able to achieve if he lived wholly in the French capital.) He is adjusting. Now he says he loves the time-out-of-time element of being driven, when he can read or make phone calls or sleep. Simons is a night person. He says he doesn’t really start functioning until noon, and although he makes an effort to get to Dior at 10am, most of his colleagues know he’s “like a zombie for about half an hour”. He has trouble going to bed before 1am. He often gets his best ideas at 3am, and will scribble them on yellow Post-it notes or text them to himself. “I do a lot of texting,” he says, on a phone so old he won’t reveal what kind, for fear of being called a Luddite. He works very hard and his great outside interest is art.

Simons’ only indulgence is smoking – about a pack of Marlboros a day – although he intends to quit; in January he kicked his Coca-Cola Zero addiction. He used to drink two big bottles a day and would sleep with it next to the bed and often wake up to an empty – “so I must have been drinking it in my sleep”. But he started to worry about the aspartame content, so now he drinks water. He doesn’t cook much in Paris, but he does in Antwerp. And he stopped going out to clubs years ago. “There’s one side of him that’s very analytical,” says Jones. “And one side that’s very passionate.”

Pointedly, when Simons came to Dior, he brought with him only his long-term assistant Pieter Mulier – the now head designer of accessories he had hired straight from college, and who does not have a traditional fashion background, either – and one other former employee; otherwise he has not changed any Dior personnel. “The first day a designer arrives, we have a ritual,” says Toledano. “We bring everyone down from the ateliers into the main room and introduce them. But afterwards, Raf went back up to talk some more. I’ve never seen that before.”

Insiders say Simons’ way of working came as a surprise to many at Dior. Unlike Galliano, who primarily communicated through his assistant, Steven Robinson – whose death in 2007 is widely believed to have contributed to the designer’s crash – Simons does not limit his dialogues to Mulier, but includes the whole team. Simons says he finds Dior, despite its size, easier than his own brand, because he does not feel the ultimate responsibility for it; he sees himself as simply one part of a big operation.

“My most nervous moment,” he says, “is when the garment is in my head but not yet in its form. Then I am not sure if it will work.” Once he has seen it, he says, he can judge whether it is interesting or not, and how many iterations it may then involve. Couture sales have been rising since Simons’ first collection and – more importantly – the age of couture customers has been falling. “We have new clients from Brazil, Russia, Asia…” Toledano says. Department stores agree: in London, Harrods is currently devoting all its store windows to the brand, as well as creating a pop-up shop for the products and offering “Dior” teas and cupcakes in a special “Dior café”.

“The thing is,” says Simons, “there was a period in the 1980s and 1990s when it was all about the designer. Then stylists arrived and suddenly everything was mixed up; it was impossible to force a look on a woman. But I think that’s wonderful – to give women the possibility to decide for themselves.” He pauses and looks around the room, stretches his black-clad legs forward, focuses his very blue eyes on me and asks: “What do you think?”

See also

Raf Simons, Dior