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Raf Simons and Sterling Ruby on Collaboration: “This Was a Way To Fuck with Americana”

In conversation at the Harvard Graduate School of Design, the duo discussed the art of collaboration, Virgil Abloh, and why they believe in the future.

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Apr 24 2018, 10:59am

Photograph by Francois Guillot via Getty Images.

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Raf Simons and Sterling Ruby have one of fashion’s most celebrated collaborative histories, from their Fall 2014 joint collection to Ruby’s work designing and conceptualizing the Calvin Klein runway sets and stores. On Monday night, the two visited the Harvard Graduate School of Design to discuss their friendship and working relationship with Dia Art Foundation Director Jessica Morgan, illuminating why their partnership has been so successful, and why other art and fashion collaborations often fall flat.

Asked how they first began working together—Ruby designed Simons’s eponymous brand’s Tokyo store in 2008—Simons said it was extremely natural, rather than an attempt to combine art and fashion in any particular way. “I think if we go that much back in time, maybe even before the Toyko store, we did not want to or we did not have to say things to each other that we maybe already felt,” Simons said. “We were very interested in each other’s practices and maybe we had the desire to do things that people could not see us doing.”

Ruby referred to the “illicit merger” involved in collage, a medium both men traffic in, and said the two had noted how few fashion and art collaborations are done well. “In most cases, it is not a natural desire or it’s not a natural going together,” Simons said. “I think it’s a very often...a business decision. There might be something that triggers [it], like a designer who’s interested in artists, but all the rest it’s a package to sell.”

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Ruby even admitted that “I had art dealers saying, ‘This is a bad idea. Don’t do it,’” but he had become so disillusioned with the commodification of the art world that he felt driven to experiment. “I think over time I started to feel so disheartened by the idea of what art was becoming, and if there’s a commodification within fashion, there was certainly a commodification happening 10 years ago with art,” Ruby said. “And I just started to see something cynical and ironic and kind of blasphemous. And at that point I decided that we had been friends for such a long time and we had so many great discussions about what we can do.”

Simons considers himself a natural collaborator. “I believe very strongly in collaboration,” he said. “I always question, if I think for myself—I hope this doesn’t sound pretentious—if I think I have a great idea, if I can share it with someone whose work and person I admire, and it comes together, it’s a greater idea. It’s a better idea. If we both love it, it must be even better than when I love it.” Ruby responded, “I have almost the opposite—I’m not really a collaborator.” His studio, he says, makes what he wants them to make. The two went on discuss the details of their collaboration for the 2014 collection, down to styling the clothing and casting the models together, with Simons calling it one of his favorite collections he’s ever worked on as a result.

So what do they make of collab king Virgil Abloh, the newly minted head of Louis Vuitton men’s, whose work Simons has spoken of bleakly in the past? When an audience member asked, Simons looked at his friend and smiled mischievously: “Sterling?” Ruby had kinder words for Abloh: “The curatorial process of it or the styling process of [this kind of streetwear] is giving the wearer more liberty…[as well as] the presence and the passion to mix it up.” He added, “I really like the Grailed phenomenon…. An entirely younger demo is looking at [clothing] from a collector’s perspective.”

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Sterling and Simons discussed their most recent high-profile collaboration to date: their work together at Calvin Klein, which has involved large-scale Sterling works at each runway show, as well as store and showroom redesigns essentially directed by the artist. “It was an interesting time when Raf decided to take the position at Calvin Klein, because Calvin Klein represents something historical in America…. And when Raf and I first started talking about what we could do together at the brand, I think we started to understand that this was a way to fuck with Americana, and to use that as a kind of push for American fashion which recently had been at an all time low. To try and create icons for this fashion brand at that time, [with the world] in such global turmoil and the way that America was represented, was kind of dangerous but exciting to bring in certain motifs, think about the way that spaces were devised, think about what a 15 minute runway show can be like. All of these things for the two of us started to create an identity for the brand—which in totality, that’s what we wanted to do: we wanted to make everything seem like it was a kind of branding motif.”

Simons and Sterling also addressed the state of fashion criticism. When asked about how they create in a medium that lacks a strong infrastructure of critical analysis, Simons lamented this vacuum, saying, “There used to be critical reporting, but they kicked them out. People don't really like to read about fashion, also, unfortunately.” Ruby said this wasn't limited to fashion, mentioning Cathy Horyn and comparing her to Roberta Smith—“they’re both brilliant”—but saying “that contingent of analytical writing that really breaks down what’s happening and kind of offers it a critique—that’s happening less now than in the past. But I think in art, too.”

Simons added, “I wish there were way more critical writing in fashion. I wish, wish, wish. That’s not possible anymore; the system is too complicated right now I think.”

The evening ended on tender notes of optimism. Asked what he looks for in the next generation of fashion designers, Simons said he seeks something “completely different, but sublime.” Ruby said eventually the two would collaborate on something autonomous from their respective genres or media: “We don’t know what it is yet,” he said, but “hopefully we’ll see that in the next 10 or 20 years.”

Simons is refreshingly excited about what’s to come. “I always think future is better, in the first place. I have to. If I don’t think that, I cannot move on anymore.”

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