On Raf Simons' Decision To Present His Eponymous Collection In New York For The First Time

text by Adam Lehrer

As if us fashion obsessed New Yorkers weren’t freaking out enough over Raf Simons’ creative dominion over Calvin Klein, another massive bit of “Raf meets New York” news has polluted the internet: Raf Simons will be showing his Fall Winter 2017 menswear line at New York Fashion Week: Men’s. This is astonishing for a number of reasons. Firstly, the industry generally considers NYFWM to be shite, and the assertion is generally not wrong. The schedule obviously has some bright spots that I’ve written about at length here (Siki Im, Robert Geller, N. Hoolywood, Devon Halfnight Leflufy, and some more), but big and boring and commercially minded brands like Todd Snyder dominate the press cycle. Important designers like Thom Browne already abandoned NYFWM due to a lack of press coverage and poor organization. Raf’s decision to show at NYFWM brings massive fashion credentials to a Fashion Week schedule that desperately needs them, and it’s fair to bet that a number of high profile menswear designers will warm up to the idea of showing their new collections at NYFWM in his wake.

But more than that, Raf’s decision to show at NYFWM solidifies the creative direction that the designer has been hinting at in his last few collections. Consider this: Raf has always referenced visual artists and musicians throughout his career (after all, he is one of if not the designer that got artsy rock n’ roll dudes interested in high fashion in the first place). But in the past, he exercised decidedly European art and rock influences in his menswear collections. The music of Manchester, namely Joy Division and New Order, and those bands’ album covers’ graphic designer Peter Saville were celebrated in his FW 2003 collection. Raf’s FW 2001 collection presented graphics inspired by the disappearance of Manic Street Preachers’ iconic vocalist and poet Richey Edwards. The European art references in Raf’s work could go on forever: Bowie, German komische and electronic music pioneers Kraftwerk, Belgian ‘Gabber’ techno music, Belgian florist Mark Colle, British fine artist Conrad Shawcross, and his fashion design hero Martin Margiela all influenced Raf’s refined and distinctly European counter-cultural sensibilities.

But somewhere along the line, Raf’s tastes shifted towards the art of the United States. If one had to find a jumping off point for this transition, he/she would most likely point towards his FW 2014 collection designed in conjunction with Los Angeles-based mixed-media artist Sterling Ruby. That collection, based on the peculiar design flourishes of Ruby’s rarified wardrobe, saw the duo incorporate patchwork based around Ruby’s teenaged tendency to adorn his clothes with patches by the likes of American bands Black Flag, Sonic Youth and Bad Brains. Since then, American artists have had a greater presence in Raf Simons collections. His stunning Fall-Winter 2016 collection was full of over-sized school uniforms imagined as the costumes of stars from ‘80s American teen horror movies. Raf has said that American artist, Cindy Sherman, influenced the collection. More prominently, the collection was heavily inspired by the work of David Lynch. The show’s soundtrack featured Angelo Badalamenti discussing his creative process working with David, creating Laura Palmer’s Theme song from Twin Peaks, while that very theme song played chillingly in the background. No artist on Earth has explored the darkness that exists within the cracks of mundane American existence more than Lynch, and it was as if Raf was criss-crossing the whole country before taking up permanent residence in his new home of New York City. But he made it here, as evidenced by his Spring-Summer 2016 collection designed in conjunction with the archive of one of the most quintessentially New York of New York City artists, the late photographer Robert Mapplethorpe. Mapplethorpe deftly chronicled the New York City sub-cultures of the late ‘70s and ‘80s that made the city such a hotbed of artistic excitement and debauched excess. His portrait subjects included members of the gay biker scene and BDSM world, New York high society socialites, and art world superstars ranging from Andy Warhol to Debbie Harry to Mapplethorpe’s once girlfriend Patti Smith. No artist’s output breathes the mysticism of New York City better than Robert Mapplethorpe’s. So when Raf presented a collection that featured Mapplethorpe prints, garments inspired by Mapplethorpe’s idiosyncratic style, and a soundtrack chalk full of Blondie hits, it became clear that Raf’s artistic heart is currently with New York.

So we knew that Raf would be presenting his Calvin Klein collections here. From a business standpoint, it would make sense to just show all his clothes here in New York to avoid the cross Atlantic flights. But looking at Raf’s last few collections, it is clear that he has become increasingly more interested in American art. With his Mapplethorpe collection, he told the world in code that he’d be headed to New York. Like Helmut Lang did before him bringing his brand to New York in the ‘90s, Raf Simons instantly boosts the reputation of the New York City menswear schedule. I feel proud that my city finally has a designer that represents the creativity of the ways in which men dress in New York. Thank you, Raf. 


[FRIDAY PLAYLIST] Raf Simons' Musical References

text by Adam Lehrer

Now that Calvin Klein has finally announced that Raf Simons will be taking over the brand as its designer, a bitter sweet sentiment has swept throughout the fashion industry. Last year, when Cathy Horyn sat down with Raf for what amounted to his Dior exit interview, published by System Magazine, one couldn’t be faulted for thinking that Raf seemed totally done with luxury fashion houses. This was an artist struggling with the fact that he no longer had the time to find inspiration to create. Deadlines had worn him down, and it was time for him to re-focus on his own revolutionary label. The fact that Raf’s last two collections, one inspired by his heroes such as David Lynch, Martin Margiela and Cindy Sherman, and one a beautiful collaboration with the Robert Mapplethorpe archive, were his best menswear collections since collaborating with Sterling Ruby seemed to signal that Raf was back in his element, filtering counter-culture, art, music, and radical gender politics into his clothing. 

So, on one hand, it might seem a little hypocritical that Raf is already back at a luxury label, and one that to fashion snobs would seem like a (rather large) down grade in prestige from his previous job at Dior. But try to think of it on a conceptual level. When you think of prime era Calvin Klein, what do you think of? Grunge, heroin-chic, Steven Klein. If I had to put my money on it, I would guess that Raf was attracted to the idea of Calvin Klein’s brand identity, and the significant stamp that his alternative tastes could have on it. Though CK is not a cult label by any means, it did at one time conjure up a concept more rebellious than that of other American mega brands like Ralph Lauren. For some reason, that idea has been lost. I can’t say it’s the brand’s previous designers faults; Francisco Costa (womenswear) and Italo Zuchelli (menswear) both made some beautiful and minimally chic garments during their tenure at the label. But the label’s branding felt out of sync, and this caused its desirability to wane. When we buy into labels that expensive, we aren’t solely buying into the clothes. We are buying into what the brand stands for. Calvin Klein already started rectifying this with its London-based self-taught photographer Harley Weir-shot My Calvin’s campaign that feature portraits of Kendall Jenner, Young Thug, Abbey Lee, and even fucking Frank Ocean. Now with Raf designing the clothes, it won’t be too long until Calvin Klein is cool once again. My assumption is that Calvin Klein offered Raf a contract with stipulations stating that his work load will be significantly less than it was with Dior (his longtime right hand man, Pieter Mulier, is also coming on as creative director, which means Raf might not have to directly involve himself in every garment decision), and also that he will be able to fully oversee the creative direction of the branding. Raf is unquestionably a fantastic curator, and it is extremely exciting to think of the music and art elements he will be able to bring into Calvin Klein with its gargantuan ad budget.

But what of those music references? Will Cavin Klein suddenly be associated with minimal techno, noise rock, krautrock, and new wave? Undeniably, Raf Simons will be bringing those elements to the label that he now calls his employer. And can I just add this: RAF SIMONS IS COMING TO MOTHERFUCKING NEW YORK! How could anyone question that? Our city has been lacking any big name avant fashion designers for a very long time, but no longer.


Around the time of his AW ’14 collection, designed with friend Sterling Ruby, Raf was asked about the collection’s use of patches. It was simple, as a kid he patched his jackets up with his favorite band logos. Among them: Sonic Youth, Black Flag, and Pink Floyd.


Interestingly enough, Raf’s first major music reference was The Smashing Pumpkins in his AW ’97 collection that featured the band’s track ‘Tonight, Tonight’ as its soundtrack. That might seem weird, considering Raf’s rather alternative tastes, but less we forget in 1997 The Smashing Pumpkins were still a rockin’ band and hadn’t yet released a litany of terrible records, or Billy Corgan’s nauseating poetry book, for that matter. But the band’s mixture of stadium bombast and art-y punk structures make sense when considering Raf’s work, a man who has designed avant-garde menswear collections at the same time as Dior couture. 


With its AW '98 collection, the Raf Simons brand identity really started to gel. Raf found inspiration in the Emil Schult-designed cover of Kraftwerk’s 1978 album 'Man Machine,' and even used the group’s much-aged four members as models. Raf took the skinny black ties and red shirts look and re-imagined it for the runway. Raf was really the first fashion person to acknowledge that creative fashion people and artists find much more fashion inspiration from the pop culture they love than from the fashion they see on a runway, and basically created a whole new genre of fashion in the process. Brands as varied as Hood by Air, Vetements, Nasir Mazhar, and others wouldn’t exist without his realization of the intimacies of the fashion-pop connection.


Gabba was rather exuberant sub-genre of Hardcore Techno that was coming out of The Netherlands and Raf’s home of Belgium in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. In his SS ’00 collection, SUMMA CUM LAUDE, Raf celebrated brilliant young kids that studied during the days and partied their faces off in raves at night. It was his first collection that really served as a re-creation of an “of the moment” sub-culture, as opposed to digging into references from the past. He sourced the military surplus MA-1 jackets that gabba kids were wearing and applied his own Raf Simons patches to them, pairing the jackets with nice shoes and high-waisted trousers. This is such a standard "cool guy" look now, and it wouldn’t even be commonplace were it not for Raf’s affinity for the kids of gabba.


Bowie is quite evidently immensely important to Raf. Raf seems to not only be a fanatic of Bowie’s music (which he certainly is), but drawn to the man’s ability to both come off as a man who subverted gender expectations while simultaneously being emblematic of the alpha-male trope. Raf Simons is a label for those men who exist AND thrive on the outside, weirdos who refuse to be put down, and men who are in-your-face about their oddities. This all makes David Bowie something like the perfect Raf Simons man, and Raf used his music in the SS ’99 Raf Simons show, as well as the SS ’17 Dior show.


It’s nigh-impossible for me to answer the question, “What is your favorite rock band?” That being said, the iconic Welsh glam-grunge rockers of Manic Street Preachers are always at the tip of my tongue when that question arises. They encapsulate everything great about rock music: melodies, guitars, bombast, hooks, drugs, sex, swagger, fashion, art and poetry. Raf Simons is partially responsible for cementing the group as an art world favorite. He centered his AW ’01 ’RIOT RIOT RIOT’ collection around the still unsolved mystery surrounding the disappearance of the Preachers’ lyricist and rhythm guitarist, Richey Edwards. When Edwards joined the Preachers, he was rather inept musically, but his poetry, wild and erratic drug-fueled persona, and gender-bending aesthetic elevated the Preachers to a level of scrutiny higher than that of their Brit-pop peers and into the upper echelons of rock folklore. Raf included photos of the late Edwards on bomber jackets as well as making use of the newspaper headlines published about Edwards’ disappearance. 


From 2002 to 2003, Raf re-discovered his love of both Joy Division and New Order as well as the iconic graphic artist responsible for both bands’ covers, Peter Saville. In his AW ’03 collection, Raf held access to Saville’s entire archive, and the parkas emblazoned with the covers of New Order’s ‘Powers, Corruptions and Lies’ and Joy Division’s ‘Unknown Pleasures’ still fetch upwards of $15,000 on consignment e-commerce sites like Grailed. Raf arguably re-sparked the interest in Joy Division and New Order with these collections, and is arguably responsible for every 19-year-old NYU student that walks out of Urban Outfitters wearing a Joy Division t-shirt that doesn’t even recognize the opening drone of ‘Atrocity Exhibition.’ But that’s the thing with the great revolutionaries: from Che Guevara to Raf Simons, their ideas always get sold. 


In what amounted to a great return-to-form, Raf's stunning FW ’16 collection came chalk full of references, from 1980s teen horror films to Cindy Sherman to Margiela to, most prominently, David Lynch. The surrealist director was paid homage through the show’s soundtrack, that featured Lynch collaborator and composer Angelo Badalamenti discussing co-composing Laura Palmer’s theme music from ‘Twin Peaks’ with Lynch, “Angelo, THAT’s IT! OH, ANGELO, YOU’RE TEARING MY HEART OUT,’ we hear Angelo quote Lynch with saying. The show was incredible, fully encapsulating Raf’s ability to turn the spectacle of men walking down a runway in extreme clothes to the tune of powerful music into a grandiose statement of artistry. 


What separates Raf from other designers, is that he really keeps his finger to the pulse of culture. He’s not like Hedi Slimane and his permanent fascinations with ‘70s rock n’ roll or Gosha Rubchinskiy and his renderings of a post-Soviet 1990s. Raf finds himself fascinated with new art and new music constantly, and is always looking for ways to bring it into his own curatorial sphere. In recent interviews, he has cited appreciation for the music of art rock Londoners These New Puritans, Detroit house production icon Richie Hawtin, and even music as abrasive as that of modern techno producer and Perc Trax label head Perc. This is what I find most fascinating about Simons’ entry into Calvin Klein. At Dior, he would have never been able to incorporate those influences into Dior’s branding, but at Calvin Klein and its openness towards counter-culture, he might just be able to. 

The Other Half of the Antwerp 6: Belgium’s Unsung Fashion Heroes

When it comes to Fashion, the Belgians will continue to be a driving, influential force. With a round of fashion weeks upon us in September, there will undoubtedly be a few references to these sartorial geniuses from this unlikely creatively kinetic country. Sure, the Martin Margiela and Raf Simons stars burn the brightest – especially at retrospectives like the one that is on view now at the Bozar Center For Fine Arts in Brussels – but the credit for laying the first fashion stakes belongs to a band of misfit outsiders known as the Antwerp 6. Here, our fashion editor-at-large,  Adam Lehrer, explores the life and works of the more unknown members of this fashion collective that may not be household names, but are just as influential and still worth talking about.

I get really obsessed with radical art collectives and movements. There is something so alluring about a group of likeminded weirdoes banding together to express a uniform idea and fucking up everybody’s pre-conceived notions about what art or music or cinema should be. I can rifle off some of said movements that have all held massive spaces in my Internet search history: the Fluxus movement of the 1960s, Warhol’s factory, Albert Ayler and the early ESP-Disk Free Jazz artists, late ‘70s Los Angeles Punk Rock, French New Wave Cinema, the literary Brat Pack, early New York graffiti, late 1970s New York No Wave, Motown Records, Wu Tang Clan, Lars Von Trier and Dogme95, and so much more. I love learning who the players were, and then seeing where the players ended up. It seems like in all of these movements, some of the people were able to translate their talents and creativity into massive successes, while others were never able to re-create their glory days of being in a badass art collective and waving big ol’ middle fingers to the system. Perhaps this is why in all my interest in fashion, I have never been able to live down my utter fascination with the Antwerp 6.

The Antwerp 6: Walter Van Bierendonck, Dries Van Noten, Ann Demeulemeester, Dirk Van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs, and Marina Yee (Martin Margiela was not an official member, despite common belief). Six design students that all attended Antwerp’s Royal Academy of Fine Art, employed an avant-garde approach to fashion, and literally put Antwerp on the map as a fashion city to respect. The other influential fashion designer from Antwerp, Raf Simons, used a drapey black hoodie in his A/W 2001 ‘Riot’ collection emblazoned with the word “Antwerp” and a graphic depicting the Antwerp 6’s members in all of their youthful glory. The sweatshirt looks like a punk rock hoodie you could get on St. Mark’s and that is the point: the Antwerp 6 was one of the first group of fashion designers looking towards the more down-trodden sub-cultures (Rei Kawakubo, Yohji Yamamoto, and Issey Miyake were also doing this in Japan) to create high fashion. And they just happened to all be friends hanging out, doing drugs (probably, anyways, right?), listening to music, and borrowing clothes from one another.

But, as these things often turn out, only half of the Antwerp 6 achieved international success. Demeulemeester, Van Noten, and Van Bierendonck all translated their visions into massive brands, and the latter two are still designing their brands to this day. Does that mean they were more talented than their compatriots? Maybe, but I don’t think so. Let the rest of this piece be an ode to the ever-unsung talents of the forgotten members of the Antwerp 6: Dirk Van Saene, Dirk Bikkembergs, and Marina Yee.

Marina Yee showed her first collection in London in 1986 under the brand Marie five years after she graduated from university. Yee often re-designed and structured clothes that she found in flea markets, emphasizing a worry that she held concerning the wastefulness of fashion. Interestingly enough, it is Vivienne Westwood that we most often associate with the eco-conscious high fashion, but it was Yee who expressed concern with such issues as far back as the 1980s, when Westwood was still designing with Malcolm McLaren. Her visibility in fashion in the ‘90s was scarce; she designed with the Belgian brand Lena Lena and with her old friend Bikkembergs. She had a comeback of sorts in 1999 when she participated in the 400 Anniversary Antoon Van Dyck celebrations curating a selection of Van Dyck’s emphasizing fashion. In 1995, Yee briefly launched her MY label and showed 30 pieces at a private event in Paris, again recycling thrift materials to be fashioned into utterly elegant fashion. Yee’s talents are monumental, and her lack of success in comparison with some of her friends may have to do with her resistance to the fashion system. Countless designers now are placing importance on dismantling the fast fashion system. Hiroki Nakamura of the VISVIM label designs hoping people will wear his clothing for a lifetime. Stella McCartney is committed to green fashion. And of course, Westwood has been lauded for her commitment to fashion that has a positive impact. Yee’s output was small, but her impact was massive. In fact, Marina Yee is set to release a new line of scented candles and perfumes in the coming month. 

The Flemish Dirk Van Saene also avoided the fashion system. Though he participated in a group show in 1987 with his five friends, he mainly designed clothes out his small Antwerp boutique Beauties and Heroes. Van Saene’s lack of international recognition can be traced to two arguments. For one, Van Saene wasn’t interested in any one particular aesthetic that his brand could be recognized by. He employs the mindset of an artist: he makes whatever he wants to make. That attitude is admirable, but not exactly business-minded. The other is that he too also avoids the fashion system, and in some ways is downright disdainful of the fashion industry: “ I think there's currently nothing interesting in fashion. It is so boring. The designers never tire of repeating the 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s. So what? We've already seen everything. I can think of no designer collection, which I really like. And the worst thing is the press, which comes from a designer the next, as long as there is a bag for free.” Van Saene has started creating pottery, and a career as an artist might suit his incendiary talents more than fashion design.

Dirk Bikkembergs might be the most internationally recognizable name out of the “other members” of the Antwerp 6, but his career path is idiosyncratic to say the least. In fact, some people may not realize but his garments are still being produced and sold every day (his website is having a huge sale right now). Awarded the Golden Spindle award in 1985, Bikkembergs launched a shoe line in 1987 and a menswear line launched in 1988. When looking back at those old collections, it is immediately notable that he already was elevating sportswear to luxury long before Ricardo Tisci emblazoned a Givenchy t-shirt with a Rottweiler. But unlike his compatriots, Bikkembergs moved away from the brutal and deconstructed fashions that Antwerp was becoming famous for with the successes of people like Demeulemeester and especially, Martin Margiela. He moved towards soccer, Bikkembergs fascination with sports, and soccer in particular, made him extremely successful financially, but most likely hurt his artistic credibility. But that didn’t seem to matter to him. Bikkembergs continued to use professional football players as menswear models. In 2000, he launched Bikkembergs Sport and used a footballer as a logo. He even became the Sole Sponsor of Inter Milan, an amateur football club. Not exactly highbrow, I know. But one has to admire the strong “don’t give a fuck” attitude of an art school educated fashion designer turning around and designing soccer clothes. When your friends are selling shredded knit sweaters to be retailed at $800, it’s pretty punk to sell a hoodie with a soccer graphic for a quarter of that. I like to think Bikkembergs has fun taking the piss out of his art minded classmates.

So if you have to split the Antwerp 6 into two camps, perhaps you do so by looking at the fact that Van Bierendonck, Demeulemeester, and Van Noten all consciously decided to redefine the fashion system and progress the idea of fashion. But nevertheless, they all decided to exist within the fashion system. Yee, Bikkembergs, and Van Saene all did whatever the hell they wanted.  The Antwerp 6 was a rebel collective, but they weren’t all fashion rebels. 

Necessary reading: 6+ Antwerp Fashion (maybe the most comprehensive monograph on the Antwerp 6) and Belgian Fashion Design (a good history lesson). And make sure to see The Belgians: An Unexpected Fashion Story on view now until September 15, @ Bozar Rue Ravenstein 23, 1000 Bruxelles, Belgium

Adam Lehrer is a writer, journalist, and art and fashion critic based in New York City. On top of being Autre’s fashion and art correspondent, he is also a regular contributor to Forbes Magazine. His unique interests in punk, hip hop, skateboarding and subculture have given him a distinctive, discerning eye and voice in the world of culture, et al. Oh, and he also loves The Sopranos. Follow him on Instagram: @adam102287