In Conversation with Raf Simons

During Milan Design Week, we sat down with the acclaimed fashion designer to talk about his background in industrial design and fashion, and the crossover between the two


Design Anthology: As an outsider looking at the fashion industry and the pace at which things happen and change, there seems to be an enormous amount of work and pressure to create each year.  I wonder how sustainable it all is.

Raf Simons: Fashion definitely has a whole different pace and rhythm compared to the design and architecture worlds. It’s also a different responsibility. It’s not to say that you shouldn’t make timeless designs in fashion, but at the end of the day, it’s natural that it changes a lot more. Good design is really supposed to last for a long time. It’s crazy right now in fashion and it’s escalating. We must see where it’ll go because things usually don’t move year by year, it can evolve over decades. But right now, there’s a very intense, commercially oriented wave. There’s also a new, dominant aspect of marketing, and we have to see how that’s going to evolve because it doesn’t necessarily have a positive impact on the desired results.

You originally trained as an industrial designer. What about that background do you think gave you the instincts or the ability to be able to work in fashion?  

During my education, at the end of the 80s and into the early 90s, there was the emergence of the Belgian fashion designers like Margiela, Dries Van Noten, you know, the Antwerp Six. That actually made me look at fashion in a different way. Before then, I had a very glamorous perception of fashion and I didn’t really consider it from the point of view that it might be a profession or even an education.

Before I chose to study industrial design, I was in a Catholic college where you were supposed to study to become a lawyer, or a doctor — that kind of classic education. When I was in my last year of high school, some people came to the school to tell us about what we could study after graduation. They gave me a booklet, and inside was some information about architecture. I thought it seemed very interesting; today I still think that could’ve been such a fantastic career path. But then on the last page I saw industrial design, and I thought ‘Hmmm…what is that?’.  I was a small-village boy, it wasn’t like anything was possible. I visited the school and I was instantly attracted to it, because it was a school for the applied arts, so I could take industrial design, graphic design or videography — it wasn’t just sculpture or painting.

At the start of my fourth year, I decided to stay on and go into a more conceptual furniture design direction.  I interned with the Belgian designer Walter van Beirendonck because of my interest in fashion. He took me on not to do fashion things, but to make objects like a fragrance bottle or a mask. Then it all clicked and eventually I started to do some fashion things with him. He would also take me to Paris where designers like Ann Demuelemeester, Dries van Noten and Dirk van Saene were presenting, and he asked me to conceptualise his fashion presentations. After I graduated, Linda Loppa, the director of the Academy’s fashion department, heard about my furniture and came to see it. Over time, I got to know her better and I told her that wanted to attend the Academy. She kind of forbade me and said 'You want to do fashion? Show me you can do it’. So, I made a collection to show her, hoping to get into the Academy and afterwards she said, ‘I knew you wouldn’t need school’. That’s how it started.

I suppose it’s a little bit like coming full circle for you, being here in Milan for Design Week. How do you feel about that?

I’ve been coming to Salone for a while now. I was here for Jil Sander and before that as a graduate industrial designer. I’ve always liked it. After I graduated, I was independently creating furniture in the backyard of my parents’ place in the village. During that period, it was the start of the furniture galleries. These pieces were designs that couldn’t possibly be produced unless you had the support of a big institution like Cassina or Capellini. When you come from a small village in Belgium, you think that’s the last thing that’s ever going to happen. But through the process of getting to know Linda, I started designing clothes and I never stopped. Actually, I never returned to furniture design. I was always looking, and following, and then I started collecting a lot of the furniture that I was very interested in back when I was at school, like Jeanneret, Le Corbusier, Matégot, Royère, Prouvé and Nakashima. At that time there wasn’t much interest in that type of furniture. Most of these designers weren’t covered in my education. I remember liking Nakashima but there wasn’t anybody really to have a conversation with about his work. It wasn’t really the era to like different things, you had to like Starck and you had to like Memphis.

You were ahead of your time, clearly.

I was always fascinated with that mid-century generation because of how they defined a very specific language and aesthetic. It was always clearly serving an audience in a credible way. The way a product can last, its quality and the way it serves human beings. When you’re an industrial designer you have very different training, it’s very much about serving the audience. I started my brand, and then Patrizio Bertelli and Miuccia Prada asked if I wanted to do Jil Sander, since it was owned by Prada at that time. It was a big shock because I’d only done menswear. Right away they offered me both menswear and womenswear. Jil was so specific about fabric, so I investigated fabrics with Tsuyoshi Tanaka, an incredible fabric researcher at Jil who used to work for Yohji Yamamoto. Tanaka came across a Kvadrat material, so I made a collection using many Kvadrat fabrics. After I left Jil Sander, Kvadrat asked me if I wanted to design fabrics with them for a side project called Kvadrat x Raf Simons and that’s how this started.

Are we ever going to see a building designed by Raf Simons?

That’s a huge responsibility. In my case, because I don’t have the education, I would need to work with architects. I also not trained as a fashion designer, but I think that worked out okay. Maybe not, but it would be interesting.

As told to / Suzy Annetta

This is an excerpt from our full interview with Simons in Milan earlier this year. Find out more about his collaboration with Kvadrat for Milan Design Week in our first Milan Report

Design Anthology Fair Report: Milan Design Week 2019

From the editors of Design Anthology, this 94-page perfect-bound compendium captures the energy, events and encounters of the world’s most influential design event, combined with key insights and analysis unpacking the industry’s future

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