Illustration by Deer Dana

Humberto Leon Interviews Raf Simons - Pt. 1

BY Humberto Leon | Tue. August 6, 2013 | 12:00 AM | OC,A La Mode
This year, we are celebrating all things Belgian at OC. We cannot wait to share all the amazing designers, established and new, and rich culture that the country has to offer. A personal highlight, for me, is that this year we are welcoming Raf Simons into the OC family. From the very beginning of his eponymous menswear label, in 1995, through to his tenure at Jil Sander (from 2005-2012) and his latest role as creative director at Dior, Raf has become a fashion icon and proponent of outsider culture. His love for youth culture and his rebellious streak resonated with me all the way across the Atlantic in California in the 90s, and his vision is just as radical almost 20 years later.

Over a long lunch at L'Avenue in Paris last month, Raf and I talked about his teenage years, the ground-breaking designers who emerged from the Royal Academy in Antwerp during the 80s (the Antwerp Six), and our shared love for Pulp and The Breeders. As fellow culture and fashion fanatics, we could have talked forever. Look out for more in the second part of our interview, coming next week.

Raf Simons is available at Opening Ceremony stores in New York, Los Angeles, and London, and at Opening Ceremony online.

Humberto Leon: First, I have to tell you that I still have all of my Raf pieces from the beginning. I haven’t thrown anything away since I was sixteen. We have been dying to have you in the store for years and the timing seems so perfect now.
Raf Simons: I am so happy to be in the store. It’s finally a really good moment.

You’ve spoken about growing up in a small town with only one record store. I feel like all of your collections, especially the early ones, use youth codes as a starting point. Growing up, how connected were you to those subcultures?
The weird thing is that I was raised on a street where there were farms and cows and animals, and there was a complete disconnect from culture. Complete. I went to a very Catholic college—we took Latin, Greek, and mathematics—it was the kind of place where, when you reach eighteen, you’re supposed to become a doctor or a lawyer. But I knew very, very early on that this was not what I was interested in.

The area I grew up in, on the outskirts of LA, also had a very suburban feeling. There was no fashion. I made stuff because my mom worked in a factory, and I watched her making clothes while she babysat me. It really informed how I approach clothing. Did your parents influence your interest in design?
My mom was a cleaning lady her whole life, and my dad joined the army when he was really young—every boy in Belgium had to go into the army. Although I have a sublime relationship with my parents, it felt like everything that surrounded me was the opposite of what I was interested in. My dad represented sports and that world, my mom was flowers and garden. And I was completely into television. Television, television, television. MTV and music had a very big impact on me.

The other thing that was happening in Belgium then, which few people know about, was the work of Belgian art curator Jan Hoet. He was behind the careers of people like Joseph Beuys, and he later curated Documenta IX in 1992. But years before that, when I was a teenager, he organized a huge exhibition in Ghent called Chambres d’amis. He asked people who owned private houses in the city to open their homes for the whole summer and display the work of a single artist.

That's so cool. How many houses were there? Like twenty?
Oh no, more. It was a big, big thing. The interesting thing was seeing the works in relation to a domestic environment. It made such a huge impact on me and the whole fashion thing started with that. Then, when I was maybe eighteen, the Belgian scene started. Belgium did not have a strong contemporary movement at that point. There were very few artists. There was nothing happening in fashion until the Antwerp Six came. There was chocolate. Chocolate and diamonds—that was what Antwerp was about. And then, when the Belgians came in, I had already chosen to study industrial design.

What kinds of things were you making at school at that time?
A bicycle for a handicapped child, for example. A crate to carry twenty four bottles ergonomically. An egg holder. But it was during my industrial design education that I became fascinated with the Antwerp Six. I really started looking at fashion, and started to wear and imitate it. I was obsessed with Martin [Margiela] and Helmut [Lang], so I would go to flea markets, and I would basically make my own outfits. I could only afford maybe a pair of socks from the actual stores.

That sounds amazing. I love that you made your own versions of things. Was there a Helmut Lang store in Antwerp at the time?
There was a very famous, enormous, store in Antwerp called Loppa, run by Linda Loppa. Linda used to be the director [at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp]. It was one of the most amazing stores I’ve ever seen.

When did it close?
In the period I was graduating, so that must have been around 1991. Linda had all the major labels: Helmut Lang, Dolce & Gabbana, Romeo Gigli, Jean Paul Gaultier. The store was very inspired by the energy and aesthetics of Gaultier in the 80s. There were these ceiling paintings that were very historical but [the figures] would be wearing Gaultier.

So it was Linda I got in touch with. I had interned with Walter [van Beirendonck] and continued to help him afterwards with his presentations in Paris, doing things with furniture. Linda heard about my work and she said, “I want to meet that guy.” We met, I moved to Antwerp, and she became like a second mother.

Did you ever attend the academy as a fashion student?
The weird thing was that Linda was interested in my furniture. She was trying to get me into galleries and get me represented by furniture studios. But I was so fascinated with fashion at that point that I really wanted her to take me into the Academy as a student. And she refused. She said, “Go away and make clothes and then come back.” And I took it very seriously. Linda had me make a collection, and then she sent me to Milan. It was a very weird experience. Suddenly, I am in Milan with maybe twenty five pieces and about 1,500 euros. I took a job in between, with a gardener. But the first collection was not really made in order to sell. It was just to convince Linda. I was living in Antwerp, meeting kids, and going out a lot. That collection was about the mood of the people around me, and the music.

What was going out in Antwerp like back then? I hear about Antwerp having this really amazing nightlife moment. Does that still scene still exist?
The best moment ever, ever, ever for me was when New Beat hit. I’ve never experienced anything else like that in my life. Imagine three or four thousand kids coming together at a discotheque in the middle of nowhere. Everything you saw was fashion. Whether it was self-made, or second-hand, or high fashion like Gaultier. We had a very specific way of dancing, and a very specific sound. There were a lot of lasers and a lot of drugs. It was sublime.

That sounds pretty cool.
But the problem with New Beat was that it became mainstream. It started to hit the news every weekend on television, and then very quickly it became commercial. So we said that’s enough.

I feel like that’s what happens when all of these underground movements begin: more people find out about them, then this weird commercialization happens and it kills them.
When I started the label it was all over already. New Beat was happening when I was eighteen or nineteen. After that I went to a lot of gigs: early Manics, early Suede, early Smashing Pumpkins, Sonic Youth. And when Kraftwerk was in Belgium I would be there. I’ve seen them twelve times.

I love all of those bands. L7, The Breeders, Pulp...
Yes, voila, Pulp. They were all coming up. There was a club I used to go to all the time in Brussels called Fuse. I saw very, very early people like Aphex Twin. You’d just go to Fuse because every week somebody who you’d never heard of would perform in combination with a big name, and it was a scene. After a couple of years of running my label, there was a very strong community of people surrounding it. During the week we would be in the office, working hard on the collections, but on the weekends we would be in the clubs. Music was what was binding everything together. It was really the start and the end.

In part two, Raf tells us about being a New Wave kid at a Catholic school and about finally meeting Kim Gordon.