What Raf Simons has been doing with his fashion shows for the last two years now is fascinating. He’s been consistently chafing at the confines of the industry, challenging perceptions of his work. Frequently his role as artistic director of Christian Dior—whichSimons resigned in October, after three and a half years—threw the staging of his own-name label into strong relief. His standing audiences seemed a riposte to the rigid hierarchy of traditional fashion seating; a collection sharing a credit with the contemporary artist Sterling Ruby challenged the very notion of the designer label.
For Fall 2016 Simons constructed a complex labyrinth of wood, like a series of twisting alleys culled from a horror film, around which his audience loitered, waiting for the models to appear. When they did, they dashed erratically through the crowds in oversize sweaters, coats, and down jackets, those in the latter crushing against the audience as they strode past. The soundtrack wasn’t music, but rather composer Angelo Badalamenti discussing his collaboration with the director David Lynch, whose birthday coincided with Simons’s show.
The latter was coincidence, Simons said, but it transformed the presentation into some sort of ode to Lynch. Pressed against those walls, watching those clothes, it seemed very Lynchian—that odd combination of the mundane and the macabre. Simons issued guests with pamphlets, but rather than decipher the collection into lazy sound bites, they deliberately added to its obtuseness. Said paper was printed with a litany of key words and phrases, seemingly disconnected. “All the things on this list were what was on my mind,” Simons said. “Not trying to think about the stories I could make. Very fragmented.” It included a bunch of artists (among them Lynch and also Cindy Sherman), some place names, movie titles, and cryptic statements like “The Boy Scout” or “Red Americana / Flemish blue.”
Simons halted the habitual quizzical stampede backstage with a sigh. “Everything is there,” he said, of that ambiguous palimpsest. Then he asked, laughing, “Do we have to do this now? Do you have time tomorrow? I have so much time!”
How about that for challenging fashion right now?
Simons’s central notion this season was time—turning it back, charting its passage, and taking his. He was thinking back through 20 years of his own archive, and although the collection was formulated while still ricocheting along on the Dior schedule (one he’d been frantically attempting to keep up with for a decade, including his tenure at Jil Sander), the empty hours gave him the rare and precious opportunity to not only consider, but reconsider. He thought a lot, he said, about Martin Margiela—the man, not the label—how he orchestrated his exit from his eponymous house, and about his influential body of work.
Simons isn’t unique—nor even rare—in his admiration for the always-admired, often-imitated Margiela. But his clear articulation of Margiela as a reference is noteworthy for a number of reasons. First off, because so many designers would naturally shy away from overt homage to a figure so pivotal to contemporary fashion. Second, because the collection was so Margiela, in its distressing, its conspicuous wear, XXL-scale sweaters and coats slipping and sliding off the figure—a point that only exacerbated the first. Generally, you expect designers to cloak such open reverence. And thirdly, because it highlighted that, really, Simons has been following in Margiela’s tabi-toed footsteps all along—he’s previously stated it was a Margiela show that triggered his interest in entering the industry. It was a show that Simons himself declared didn’t look like a fashion show. “But it was more about how I felt—something so meaningful, so totally from the heart that show, that collection.”
Just as Simons’s shows also don’t resemble fashion shows, they also evoke the same complex emotional response: They’re always remarkable, always from the heart. The clothes here were sloppy, careworn, ripped and patched back together, like walking representations of memories. There were Boy Scout uniforms, maturing into high school sweaters, randomly patched with meaningless letters—a depersonalized history, one we observers weren’t privy to. Alternately dwarfing models or abbreviated high up, trousers skinny and cropped short on the ankle, these seemed like clothes destined to be grown into, or already grown out of, clothes that represented an implied passage of time. Uncomfortable clothing. That all-important list on the pamphlet included four Simons collections, from the early 2000s, whose patched and frayed layers were echoed in these tattered, moth-holed, memory-riddled garments.
Simons called the collection Nightmares and Dreams. “I always like creating beautiful things,” he said, “but it’s interesting when something’s weird, something’s dark. Something goes wrong.” He for one wasn’t making a wide and sweeping social statement. Rather, Simons was wrapped up in himself, in his own world, in his dreams and nightmares, the navel-gazing of the teenager we all are at heart. It’s easy to see that as a direct response to shrugging off the identity of Christian Dior, reclaiming Simons as his own man. But it’s something he’s done repeatedly, with many a collection, with just as much success. That Raf Simons can so persistently project his personal world externally, and pull in so many, ranks him up high with auteurs like Lynch, with artists like Sherman. The dream weavers.