How Raf Simons Became the Biggest Cult Icon in Menswear - Fashionista
The Belgian designer became a household name among women when he was appointed as the creative director of Dior, but for his male acolytes, Raf Simons means something much different.

Raf Simons is a name that brings to mind the "frequency illusion," a cognitive bias in which something or someone has been recently discovered and is suddenly everywhere. But upon further inspection — or by getting stuck in a Kylie Jenner-esque K-hole of "realizing stuff," it becomes evident that the lauded designer has somehow always been around, influencing the way we dress more behind-the-scenes than in the spotlight, through his consistently progressive and on-the-nose approach to clothes and their relationship with the wearer. For many men, Raf Simons epitomizes what we talk about when we talk about "fashion," and for this reason, he's become an almost godlike figure among menswear fans around the world.

Ever since he was appointed the creative director of Dior in 2012 — following a seven-year stint at the minimalist, Milan-based label Jil Sander — Simons has been the reluctant center of attention as more and more people have been sucked into the orbit of his galaxy. And now, with his eponymous label making its stateside runway debut at New York Fashion Week: Men's (with his hotly anticipated debut for Calvin Klein following just days after), Simons is at yet another pivotal point in his career.

The soft-spoken, genuinely sweet, Coke Zero-swilling Belgian captured the hearts and minds of many fashion fans through Dior couture dresses made from custom fabrics inspired by juxtaposed Sterling Ruby prints — the composition of which was documented in the film "Dior and I" — and he remains one of fashion's last true auteurs. Simons is one of fashion's hottest stars, but retains a down-to-earth sensibility and composes collections with a self-effacing European humility — like somehow, even after all his accomplishments, it's still about the work. There's an indelible scene in "Dior and I" when Simons has an "a-ha!" moment clad in a pair of shorts and a Prada sweater. Part of his appeal is his accessible, delightfully aloof "fashion dad" persona, as if he's only truly at home within the wonderful world inside his head.

The son of army watchman Jaak Simons and house cleaner Alda Beckers, Raf Simons was reared in the sleepy Belgian municipality of Neerpet. Like a plethora of angsty, suburban teenagers who found solace through art and culture, he turned to music to escape the ennui of his hometown. In a recent 032c profile, Simons describes the village as devoid of galleries, cinemas and boutiques. "The whole existence besides school was built up around music," he says.

Exposed to artists like Blondie and David Bowie through television shows like "Top Pop," he broadened his horizons at the local record shop, which imported English and American bands like New Order and Sonic Youth, two groups which left a lasting visual impression on the teenager.

He left Neerpelt to study industrial design at university in Genk, Belgium, developing an affinity for designers like George Nakashima and Jean Prouvé. As a side hustle, he flipped midcentury pieces for extra cash. It wasn't until he started interning for Walter Van Beirendonck, member of Belgium's highly influential “Antwerp Six” class of Royal Academy of Fine Arts graduates, that he realized what he wanted to do was make clothes.

Already an avid follower of designer Helmut Lang, it was Martin Margiela's Spring/Summer 1990 show that showed Simons the engrossing power of the fashion-show-as-narrative. The all-white collection was staged in a tent and featured street-cast kids from the neighborhood, subverting the stereotypical glitz and glamour in favor of something simultaneously raw, ethereal, relevant and poignant. It literally brought Simons to tears.

Raf Simons's first collection debuted in Fall/Winter 1995. Inspired by the school uniforms he had to wear (Jaak Simons put him in a Catholic school), it consisted of two sharply tailored looks styled on two street-cast models. The idea of uniforms would become a recurring theme for Simons, who would constantly re-examine both schoolboy suits and standard-issue military staples.

Designers often find themselves struggling to update menswear, because it can feel constricting. There are only so many ways to reinvent the suit, after all. Men's fashion regularly toes the line between dictated dress codes, established "rules" of style and deciding how to defy them. Simons's constant reimagining of uniforms uses silhouette, proportion and graphics to break the boundaries between staid notions of formalwear and sportswear, and on a deeper level, what it means to dress your age.

The Raf Simons F/W 2016-2017 collection. Photo: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

The Raf Simons F/W 2016-2017 collection. Photo: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images

As the cultural dress code continues to skew more casual, firms like J.P. Morgan are allowing cashmere sweaters and slim chinos to stand in for navy blue suits. Streetwear brands like Supreme are partnering with storied brands like Aquascutum, and most recently acclaimed fashion house Louis Vuitton. Alessandro Michele's Gucci and Demna Gvasalia's Balenciaga are turning the very idea of "dressing like an adult" on its head — something Simons has excelled at throughout his career.

In his 1877 essay, A History of A Crime, French writer Victor Hugo wrote: "An invasion of armies can be resisted; an invasion of ideas cannot be resisted." Hugo penned it after his exile from France, where he spent some time in Belgium. Now, an increasingly visual consumer culture, a saturated fashion market of carbon copies, and savvy shoppers looking for clothing that signifies taste and a dressed-down idea of luxury have made it the perfect gestation for Simons's oft-visited themes to proliferate into the mainstream.

Through his label's 22-year lifespan, Raf Simons's design legacy can be boiled down to a few distinct collections. The 1999 "Isolated Heroes" range saw him team up with photographer David Sims for a series of intimate portraits of the Belgian teens that doubled as models; these images would eventually end up on clothes in Simons's Spring/Summer 2016 line. This fetishization of youth became another running theme for the designer, and Sims's visuals would go onto influence Justin Bieber's "Purpose" tour merch, featuring the pop star's face shot in a similarly stark black-and-white manner printed on graphic tees.

Collections like Fall/Winter 2002's "Virginia Creeper" and Spring/Summer 2003's "Consumed" would prove to be similarly prescient. The two often serve as explicit references for designers like Virgil Abloh, furthering Simons's penchant for mining his favorite subcultural figures and turning them into covetable runway pieces. 

Fall/Winter 2001's "Riot, Riot, Riot" collection feels especially appropriate in today's geopolitical climate, depicting masked teens rebelling in baggy layers and oversize bomber jackets with atypically placed graphic patches featuring post-punk Boston band Mission of Burma. The latter pieces in particular would come back into the fashion vernacular when celebrities like Kanye West, A$AP Rocky and Rihanna wore them out on the streets, on loan from stylist David Casavant.

A$AP Rocky's "Peso" famously shouts out Simons, and the artist frequently busts out archival pieces. This pop cultural boost elevated Raf Simons's status in the finicky world of street culture, which has an affinity for high-end luxury brands like Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Saint Laurent — but also has the power to make or break labels that traffic in the currency of cultural relevancy. One day a streetwear brand could be on the backs of guys like Young Thug or Travis Scott, and the next it could be languishing on the shelf at Zumiez.

Raf Simons occupies a unique space between both worlds. The collection that made him universally revered among brand-unloyal hypebeasts was Fall/Winter 2014's collaboration with Sterling Ruby. It hit all the right notes: editioned pieces like a series of paint-splattered trench coats, plenty of camo, bold graphic placements and street-ready silhouettes like bleached skinny jeans, fishtail parkas and crewneck sweatshirts. It was a hodgepodge of repurposed punk packaged as wearable art.

At the heart of it, Raf Simons's immense design talent stems from his adeptness at cultural curation. It seems his mind functions like an Instagram feed, a limitless well of classic imagery and eternal youth that he offers his acolytes sips from.

If Yohji Yamamato's protective oversize layers are suits of armor, Raf Simons's graphic-heavy designs are wearable fountains of youth. In that regard, his cross-generational appeal can be compared to the devoted brand cults of Supreme and UNDERCOVER — if you don't "get" why people like it, then it's probably not for you. 

Homepage photo: Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images