From the Archive: Dasha Zhukova's 2014 Interview with Raf Simons
"I couldn’t name 15 designers I admire. Miuccia holds a beautiful balance between the aspects that are interesting in fashion—concept, story, history, commerciality, the way it’s all put together and presented to an audience."
Photograph by Pascal Le Segretain for Getty Images.
The leading edge of the second wave of Belgian designers, Raf Simons launched his own menswear collection in 1995, then a decade later, became the creative director at Jil Sander, and in 2012, the creative director at Dior. A devout art collector and curator, he sat down with Dasha Zhukova in 2014 for GARAGE No. 7 to discuss authenticity, music, and the tenaciousness of history.
GARAGE: For a few years you were a senior professor at the University of Applied Arts in Vienna. To what extent is fashion design teachable?
Raf Simons: You cannot teach somebody to do what I do. In the five years I taught, there were hardly any students who did work that I liked myself. But it’s the dialogue that’s rewarding. It’s important to neutralize yourself and your own taste, and just look at the work from a technical perspective. You can teach somebody how to work out things—their own things—that they don’t know how to work out.
You’re very patient.
It’s so personal—it depends on the person sitting in front of you. I did a lot of one-on-one meetings. I’m not the type who sits in front of a class and says, “This is how we do it.” I help at a conceptual level. Do they want to tell a story, or do they want to be more abstract? And then, how to go from there.
Would you go back to teaching?
It’s something I could easily go back to. I didn’t regret one moment of it.
Tell me about your move from industrial design to fashion design.
My degree is in industrial design. I was interested in fashion, but never thought of it as a career possibility—it was just a personal interest. I knew before I graduated that I didn’t want to practice hard-core industrial design. I am not a car designer. I’m not going into door handles. I preferred to do something that is more formal and conceptual. I started making furniture. At that time, if you wanted to succeed as a furniture designer, it was about working with the big suppliers, like Cappellini. I was in a village in Belgium, thinking, “How the hell am I going to do that?” I found some galleries to work with, but I couldn't make a living and I was very isolated. I was doing flea markets—buying and selling furniture, gloves, that kind of stuff. Meanwhile, the whole thing with the Belgian fashion designers was happening, and there was so much energy and such speed, and it was very alive.
How do you think your background in industrial design translates to Dior?
Mr. Christian Dior was very architectural in the way he built patterns. People don’t often see it because we perceive the garments in the same way we’ve been perceiving them for 50 or 60 years. I would dare to say his work was an inspiration for many people whom we think of as architectural designers.
Yohji Yamamoto, Comme des Garcons...
You invited fashion students from around the world to watch your last haute couture show. What is it about Dior that you believe can influence the next generation?
These kids were not only invited to the show, but also to the offices and the ateliers. The brand Dior is like a dream for many people. I think it’s relevant to bring people closer to what it’s really about, because the evolution of our world is creating more disconnection. The young have such easy access to everything, and I sometimes wonder if that’s for the better or for the worse. I’m always in favor of communication between the generations.
Do you think that disconnection is just a natural process?
I accept it, and I embrace it automatically. This is the way our world is evolving. But there will still be people who have a desire to connect that may not be possible just by using the internet. There is a whole generation that’s satisfied by just touching a button, but I also see people younger than myself who get very emotional when they touch the real thing—something they wouldn’t catch on the runway or the computer.
In our society, digital and social media demand constant access to new content. How does this affect a brand like Dior?
There’s no escape! I embrace social media because it’s part of our new world. Does it make my life easy? No. I might be interested if jumped into it, but I don’t dare jump into it because I might lose too much time.
How has music informed your creative process?
When I was young, there wasn’t anything else. I was raised in a village with farms and cows and goats and ducks.
So music was your cultural outlet?
In a village, you have your parents and that’s about it. There was no gallery, no fashion store, no cinema—only a record store.
If the Dior, Jil Sander, and Raf Simons brands were music genres, what would each one of them be?
It would be too obvious to say that Jil Sander would be minimal techno. Maybe mine would be minimal techno, but more than that, too. The whole idea of my brand was strongly linked to many music references, from Pink Floyd to Kraftwerk to new rave music to Joy Division, New Order, Sonic Youth…. In the beginning it was more about music than it was about actual fashion, weirdly enough. We went to gigs a lot. People would actually ask us if we were a band.
What would Dior be?
It should be very beautiful classical piece. Something that had an impact on the history of history of music, because the brand is about this constant legacy that stays powerful.
What are your favorite new bands?
Perc. And I stay fascinated with Plastikman’s Richie Hawtin, but he hardly produces anything. He did something for us for the Guggenheim, and that’s what I’ve been listening to for the past couple of months.
What, other than music, inspires you when you’re creating collections?
It can be anything and everything. For while it was very much related to people—a dialogue, and the street, and certain conclusion I drew about how people live their lives. Lately it comes from another kind of world. The last Raf Simons collection was about the early days, old brands. At Dior I’m also looking into history and trying to analyze why it still has so much impact. The DNA of 1940s and 1950s Christian Dior fascinates me.
Have you figured it out?
No. My collections relate to the process of figuring it out. If I do figure it out, I should stop. A long time ago I met Vanessa Beecroft. She always hates her own work. She said that if she liked it she would stop, because she wouldn't know what to do anymore. I thought, “That makes so much sense.”
How do you feel about a collection straight after you show it?
It depends. Sometimes I’m depressed for a couple of days. Lately, to be really honest—and I find this a problem—I forget about it because the next one is coming up so quickly. I find it a sad evolution in fashion that we have to run against the clock doing so many collections. At the same time, I embraced it, because otherwise I wouldn’t choose to do it.
What other contemporary designers are you interested in?
Miuccia Prada is very strong. I think Phoebe Philo’s is very strong. I think Phoebe Philo’s work is great, very contemporary—it makes me think about where I was before Dior. It’s very interesting the way she deals with the whole idea of minimalism. I think Nicolas Ghesquière’s period at Balenciaga was a mind-blowing moment of the past 20 years.
Do you know Russian designers?
The couture designer Ulyanna Sergeenko always comes to our shows. In every brand, in every collection, from every designer, I find beautiful clothes. These days, I find beautiful clothes. I tend to judge a designer’s work more in the context of a certain time. So many people that I really admire are not there anymore. Like Margiela—the first 12 to 14 years—mindblowing. I’m also specific and strict—I couldn’t name 15 designers I admire. Miuccia holds a beautiful balance between the aspects that are interesting in fashion—concept, story, history, commerciality, the way it’s all put together and presented to an audience.
You recently worked with the visual artist Sterling Ruby. How do collaborations develop?
The collaboration with Sterling was different from any collaboration I’ve ever done. In all honesty, I’m more attracted to art than to fashion. In the morning, in the evening, in between, I will naturally look at artworks. It’s not like if I go on holiday I won’t look at fashion for a month, but I will look at art every day. I’m very protective about art, so if I want to do something I will always have a dialogue first. I will not just write to ask if I can use an artist’s work in my collection. The project with Sterling was also about giving up a certain kind of control. I am very aware that I have the control in my own practices, and I thought it could be interesting to link with a person whose work I believe in as much as I do in my own. It could not be a approached as a Raf Simons collection, it was already in itself a completely new brand—if only for one collection.
Tell me about your art collection. You seem to like a wide range of artists. You are very open to the world.
I was very young when I started looking at art—15 or 16 years old. Have you heard of the curator Jan Hoet? He did very early Documenta, and he got a lot of people from 1980s generation into Documenta.
How did he reach you guys?
He did an exhibition in Ghent called Chambres d’Amis, for which he invited all these artists, quite important artists already, into private houses. The works were not shown in museums or institutions or galleries, so the whole thing became domestic. All summer you could go and see artworks by Joseph Beuys, On Kawara…. Maybe it was the domestic environment that triggered my interest. Just looking and following art was enough for me, but teaching gave me financial possibilities. Being a creator, I am aware of what it is to be supported, so I like to support artists. That’s why I started buy art by my own generation.
I believe in that as well.
When you start buying things, they come into your domestic environment and I learned how satisfying that is for me. It give me rest. I like to be in my house where there is none of my work, because otherwise my mind keeps spinning and I’m scared it will drive my nuts. I don’t even have a computer in my house.
Do you see the future of fashion as being more influenced by science or art?
I hope not science!
Are there any countries that particularly inspire you?
I can be quite inspired by the US. It sounds stupid, being inspired by Americana, but it’s because the generation of artists when I was growing up had a huge impact on me, and they were either American or were strongly engaged with American society. Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, Charles Ray, Felix Gonzalez-Torres.
Why did you decide to have your first collection for Dior captured in the behind-the-scenes documentary Dior and I?
I didn’t decide it! They had this idea to film those weeks as a document for the future, without deciding on what would be done with it. I was not into it at first, but then I had to admit that I would enjoy it when I’m 80. For me the idea was very confrontational and very complicated. But then I met the filmmaker, Frederic Tcheng, and he is an amazing personality. I got intrigued. He told me, “You’re not going to be disturbed,” and it was true—after two days you don’t really know cameras are there. Then it’s simply the case that it’s going to be shown. Do I find that difficult? Yes, but I find all exposure difficult.
If you weren’t a fashion designer, what would you be doing?
Something with art.
You could be a second-market dealer. Like at the flea market.
I could do that very well. It would be a challenge for me to try to make good art, but I don’t know if I will ever dare. I am attracted to doing something more simple than fashion.
More simple in the process? Less loud?
Yes, but specifically something I could just do in my garden with my hands. In fashion you need a lot of structure around you—suppliers and fabrics, atelier, business people. As an artist, you can still take a canvas and paint. That’s something I dream about, but I don’t know if I would ever do it. Actually, all of my closest friends are artists. For some of them it’s becoming quite a system, too.
Someone like Jeff Koons has a massive infrastructure. Some artist just take a canvas and work away.
If I did it, I’ve seen enough to make sure that I would not get into such a big structure. Though it might be nice to be part of a structure like that. I’d also find it interesting to take a position that’s purely about exposing things, or purely about curating things, and not necessarily a business for me, and after 20 years in it, I’m not sure I could step into the art world business.
How do you balance your creative visions for two lines, Raf Simons and Dior?
I always need to have two things going. I didn’t realize 10 years ago that I’ve always liked to do two things at the same time. At the beginning, it was curating art exhibitions and designing my own brand. Then I was teaching and I had my own brand. Then I was at Jil Sander and my own brand. Now it’s Dior and my own brand. It’s refreshing.
Are you a Gemini?
Capricorn. I’m pretty decisive. Geminis are not so decisive.
I’m a Gemini and I’m very decisive! They always say that it’s that split-personality think, but I guess your personalities are not in opposition to each other.
It’s always refreshing to go away and come back. If I do just one thing, I can get bored. As much as I talk about leaving fashion and doing something else—like in my dreams, becoming an artist, though fear might hold me away from it I would also get bored. I think back to being a furniture designer, and it was very boring and very slow. Still, human beings often reject what feels comfortable, and want to explore something new.
What legacy would you like to leave at Dior?
That is… I cannot…
Is that a scary question?
It’s still very early, so I don’t even know if I’m going to leave a legacy. I don’t know how this decade of the 21st century will relate to heritage. A year ago, a woman came up to me at a dinner and said something that made me so happy. She said, “Thank you for making us look intelligent.” I thought that was a really beautiful comments.
Intelligent and modern.
“Modern” is one of my favorite words, but it’s actually difficult to grasp. It’s so personal. The Dior brand is a big challenge because it has very strong language that has been defined and repeated again and again. A brand like Dior cannot be approached the same way as your own brand. I see myself as one of the links in a chain. I don’t look at my position there as the man of Dior. I am someone who comes in and then goes. The brand Dior will be there forever.
A version of this story originally appeared in GARAGE Magazine No. 7.