Standing to attention: at Raf Simons, clothes worth a closer look

Alexander Fury
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The standing audience at Raf Simons spring/summer 2015

What makes a great fashion show? Great clothes, obviously. In fact, no. Great clothes make a great collection, a great show is something else. A great show can gloss over clothes that aren’t so great. Nicola Formichetti’s first Mugler show, for example, looked inconsequential when reduced to garments hanging on a rail, and didn’t sell much as a result. In the context of the show, it was dynamite. Oh well.

The coupling of great clothes and a great show, where neither one outshines the other, is very rare. It’s all the more remarkable, then, that Raf Simons’ formula for his eponymous label seems such a sure-fire hit. I tried to think back to a Simons show that hasn’t worked, gloriously. Then I realised this was his business’ twentieth anniversary. I couldn’t think of a single instance.

The fact Simons’ own label is emerging from its teens feels important. Raf Simons – man and label – has always been obsessed with the raiment of youth culture. I interviewed him earlier this year in New York, the afternoon before his Cruise show for Christian Dior, when he said of his earliest collections “I wanted to make clothes for kids, in the beginning. We were young, we were going out… I just made clothes for myself.” Those early collections were influenced by Depeche Mode and Kraftwerk. Last summer, he showed a collection inspired by Belgian gabba and the clubs he used to go to in his early adulthood.

But back to this spring/summer show. I say show because, this time, the show was about much more than the clothes it contained. That’s something Simons has been ramping up over the past few seasons: that gabba-infused show was staged in the Gagosian gallery near Orly airport, a good forty-five minute drive outside of Paris. The models marched around giant examples of multi-million pound contemporary art. Last season, a step further: the artist Sterling Ruby crafted a series of gargantuan vampiric mouths through which the models progressed.

This time, the affair was more all-encompassing. Maybe the art was the whole happening this time? The audience was requested to stand, like in a gallery, places allotted on a first come, first served basis. Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité cherié - the truly devoted Raf fans filed in first, and took their spots along the duct-taped perimeters of a “catwalk”. The lighting was hazy, shades of red and yellow prevailing, distorting colours. Then the models began to ricochet around the room, seemingly senselessly, the same passing four of five times past your eyes. A round of applause and it was over.

It was discombobulating. It ended up not feeling like a fashion show. Which is possibly the point. Simons has sought similar effects before – a show from 1998 saw models progressing along a series of concrete overpasses, reflected in a giant silver ball. Ten years ago, for spring/summer 2005, models descended a series of huge escalators.

Both however, had the audience seated. So why did we have to stand to attention? There was a Balenciaga collection shown in 2011 where the benches seating the audience collapsed. Attendees were politely asked to stand for the show – the religious symbolism of this was noted by many. I wonder if Simons wanted a similar feeling – devotees huddled at worship, a fashion mass. Probably not, it’s a bit pretentious for this remarkably pragmatic designer. Although Simons does like emotion. More interesting was the discomfort it roused – mental, I mean, not Achilles Tendons playing up. You occasionally met a model’s eye as they whipped past. It was more engaged, more voyeuristic, than conventional catwalk staging. The models became darting figures, moving through a crowded place.

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A look from the spring/summer 2015 Raf Simons show

Those darting figures were exceptionally dressed. They wore unusual combinations of garments, tailoring patched with odd insignia, cut-and-paste bricolages of photo-print images and embroideries. There was a Japanese feel to much of it – the square-cut sailor collars resembling schoolgirl garb, and two models wearing coats cut to the knee with boxy pleats that recalled the “Lolita” garb adopted by gaggles of Harajuku teenagers, although generally female. Edo woodcuts of crashing waves were reproduced, as repeat prints on knitted vests or printed onto long-sleeved, clingy jerseys that ended up resembling tattoos. Single images were patched alongside seemingly random photographs, as if pinned on a teenager’s bedroom wall. One was an image of Simons himself, as a teenager, positioned below a patch bearing his initials.

All Simons’ collections feel personal, but this one profoundly so – and not just because his name was on the inside and outside of the clothes. I was struck by the echoes of the Dior Cruise show I saw in May: the rows of five (functional) buttons fastening jackets were a device featured heavily in that collection. Many of the jackets sported a defined waist and longer hemline, adding a feminine fillip to the silhouette of Simons’ men. For the last ten years, he has designed womenswear – so part of Raf’s universe is now fundamentally feminine. The heavily beaded vests, depicting yet more Japanese scenes, recalled his couture work for Dior. They were precious, which isn’t something Simons does often at his own label.

On the other hand, maybe this show was something of a protest – a quiet protest, but no less powerful because of it. Really, what Simons did in this show was buck the conventions of the fashion system quite fundamentally. He destroyed the rigidly codified and hierarchical system of seating – as with variations of seating at the court of Versailles, where only blood could decide between a fauteuil, versus a chaise, versus a stool, they’re piffling trifles little understood by the outside world, but argued over ferociously within its egotistic, nit-picking little bubble. He destroyed modern fashion’s obsession with the instant replay of the catwalk image.

Again, nothing new for Simons. In a fashion world increasingly obsessed with speed, Simons opted to “drop out” and miss two seasons in 2000 to pursue other interests. For winter, Simons chose to re-brand his label to “Raf Simons Sterling Ruby” in a collaboration with the artist who created those set-piece mouths. The clothes go on sale shortly, each one born from a collaborative process. The co-labelling is entirely accurate, but is tantamount to a revolution in fashion.

It’s certainly not something Simons could do at Dior. Which isn’t a criticism, just an observation. Simons said an interesting thing – just one of very many – during our conversation in New York in May. “My opinion is that a creative director in a huge institution is… how do you say? You enter, and you’re going to go out out. I could never take the attitude that this thing stands or falls with me. No. My brand, yes, but Dior or Jil, no.”

Perhaps that was what this coming-of-age show was all about – rediscovering the teenage rebel, bucking against the system. That isn’t necessarily indicative of frustration, though. “When you are all the time in one place doing one thing, when it’s so intense, when you get out, even if it’s difficult to get out – because these days it’s so difficult for me to get out – when you come back, you feel so renewed,” said he, again in New York this May.

What else? So much – there was so, so much in this show. Probably too much to take in at first glance. Maybe that was why Simons used distorting lighting effects in shades of red and yellow. They washed the colours in and out on those clothes, those fantastic clothes, forcing you to look harder than ever as each model took their turn, after turn, after turn. The clothes, after all, are what really matters. They certainly matter to Simons.

Maybe he printed that portrait on them to remind us that, when we put Raf Simons on our backs, we’re getting a little piece of him. For Spring, Simons may have made it difficult to see his clothes, but he also made it impossible to ignore them.

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