1995 was a great year for fashion. Shalom Harlow was awarded model of the year at the VH1 Fashion Awards, Thierry Mugler celebrated his expansive career with a monumental 20th-anniversary couture show, and Raf Simons took his first steps at becoming one of menswear's defining voices when he established his eponymous label. When reading about the Belgian designer's fanbase a few keywords are often thrown around, like cultish, obsessive, and fanatic. So the melodramatic reaction to this week's announcement that the brand is shuttering its doors shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone. While the round-up posts akin to obituaries have even this die-hard Rafelite rolling his eyes (the man is still kicking around as co-creative director of Prada, after all), there's no denying the shocking news marks the end of an era.
In the brief announcement posted on the Raf Simons Instagram account, the Belgian designer declared that after 27 years, the brand’s S/S 23 show would be its last. ‘I lack the words to share how proud I am of all that we have achieved,’ the statement reads. Held at South London's legendary warehouse venue Printworks, over a thousand attendees gathered to see Simons’ signature boyish silhouettes stomp down the bar turned runway. In hindsight, the designer's first (now only) show to be held in London was a charming send-off from the man long inspired by the music that fuels British counterculture. From Sex Pistol vests at his S/S 96 show to the S/S 03 parkas patched with Peter Saville's iconic imagery for New Order and Joy Division, punk and post-punk influences have long defined Raf Simons’ aesthetics, making the Printworks show a satisfying conclusion for the brand.
Among the mesh tops, knitted rompers, and oversized blazers were t-shirts screen-printed with works from the late Belgian painter Philippe Vandenberg. In what can now only be seen as prophetic, the professed lover of art stamped the radical painter’s childlike scrawling on shirts that read ‘kill them all and dance’. And dance attendees did indeed. Along with Simons himself, who joined the crowd and raved the night away. ‘Thank you all, for believing in our vision and for believing in me’, concludes the announcement. If that doesn't have you shedding a tear, then the brand’s recently wiped Instagram just might. After all, fashion so often reserves the practice for ushering in a new chapter, rather than closing the book for good.
‘It ended in beauty’, explains sound director and longtime collaborator of the Raf Simons label Michel Gaubert over a Zoom call. As one of fashion’s leading sound designers, Gaubert has been the sonic visionary behind soundtracks for brands like Chanel, Louis Vuitton, and Valentino. It was in 2007 when he first began mixing for Raf Simons in 2007 and would continue to be the brains behind many of the label's soundtracks including S/S 16 which he broke down for an episode of our Voicemail Interview series. ‘But I knew him before. I was a big fan from day one', he says. When asked about what it is about that brand that people find so captivating, he explains it’s how Simons bridges his interests across music, cinema, photography, art and architecture. It’s the power of music in particular that Gaubert attributes to the brand’s emotional pull power. ‘He knew how to use all forms of media. I think the music was always very strong because he knew what music could do. He understood it perfectly.’
When we look back at the breadth of Raf Simons’ sartorial output we have to mention how the brand shifted menswear with its languid school-boy inspired silhouettes. Along with skinny suit enthusiast Hedi Slimane, the two ushered in a new era away from the shapelessness that defined 90s menswear. More than an aesthetic choice, at the core of Raf Simons’ youth-centric designs is an exploration of apathetic adolescence. The in-between state of teendom that's riddled with angst and confusion. It’s precisely this that stylist and avid Raf Simons collector Andrew Davis believes resonates so strongly with fans of the brand. ‘The really clever thing about Raf is that he has that power to trigger memories’, Davis explains. ‘A lot of creatives, while growing up, don't feel like they fit in.’ Simons himself grew up in the small town of Neerpelt, Belgium before moving to Genk to study industrial and furniture design, and then later Antwerp where his fashion journey would begin.
Saying goodbye is always difficult, especially when emotions are involved. Davis recalls attending the brand’s 10th anniversary show as part of Pitti Immagine Uomo in 2005. As models descended down a hill in The Boboli Gardens with the Florentinian sunset as the backdrop, show attendees were brought to tears. ‘That indeed is a great talent to be able to stir that kind of emotion’, explains Davis.
While sadness is sure to overtake Raf Simons’ loyal fanbase, for many the designer's decision to close its doors should be regarded as an honourable one. Simons is, after all, following in the footsteps of the design greats that long inspired him. Most notably Martin Margiela and Helmut Lang who both unexpectedly stepped away from their eponymous labels to pursue new creative ventures as artists. Michael Kardamakis, the founder of the world’s biggest Helmut Lang archive ENDYMA explained over email that, ‘Raf's work will be remembered as a special moment in time, like all art that is part of something bigger.’ For Kardamakis the move should be adopted more in the industry rather than following the fate of many ‘great designers whose labels carried on well after their creativity was gone’.
This sentiment is shared by stylist and collector David Casavant. ‘In a way, I feel like it can be better for the brand to have an end date’, he explains. ‘There’s a little sadness to it of course, but the idea the brand has said what it needed to say and accomplished what it needed to makes you appreciate it more and makes you view all collections from the beginning to now as one’. Casavant's view on the closure shouldn't surprise anyone familiar with his work. The stuff of fashion legend, The David Casavant Archive is an expert curation of some of the most revered garments from the 90s to today including standout pieces by Helmut Lang, Tom Ford era Gucci, and, of course, Raf Simons. In a recent partnership with Dover Street Market New York, Casavant hopes to give pieces in his archive new life by selling them through the cult retailer. The go-to for in the know celebrities like Rihanna and Lady Gaga looking to get their hands on fashion’s holy grails, Casavant regards Simons as the father of ‘modern menswear’.
Among his extensive collection, the archive houses the highly covetable ‘Pyramid’ bomber jacket from S/S 00 and a patch bomber from A/W 01 collection titled Riot! Riot! Riot!. The very piece set records for resale e-commerce site Grailed that reported a user paid an unheard of $47,000 USD (£39,000) for the archival piece. For a special episode of SHOWstudio's Best In Show series with Byronesque and Machine-A, Raf Simons CEO Bianca Quets Luzi explained the rarity as a result of the brand never been 'marketing drive' meaning 'the production has always been quite limited'. For many of Raf Simons' younger fanbase, the culture of covetability around the Raf Simons label shifted how they consume fashion. ‘For me, he managed to bridge the gap between fashion and art. I've seen the journey of his clothes being treated, handled and sold as works of art, only going up in value and gaining more recognition', Casavant explains.
Whether Raf Simons the designer plans to follow in the footsteps of his predecessors like Helmut Lang and Martin Margiela and shift his focus to another creative medium is yet to be determined. As of now his partnership with Prada as co-creative director looks to be stronger than ever after the Italian luxury giant reported an increase in profits across all categories in 2021. Since he was appointed co-creative director in 2020, Simons has brought his romanticised view of youth culture, and longlist of collaborators like Peter de Potter to the brand best known for its distinct intellectualised ready-to-wear and affinity for nylon. While the end of Raf Simons the brand will leave an unfillable hole in closets around the world, we can all rest easy that the man behind it will continue to drive the fashion zeitgeist with his other creative endeavours.