Frederic Tcheng’s Dior and I (2014), on Raf Simons’ first ready-to-wear collection for the fabled couture house, offers a revealing insight into the working methods of one of the industry’s most likeable designers. Quiet if not introverted, Simons must add to the perennial challenges of renewed inspiration and tight deadlines a series of additional difficulties: turning out a compelling debut show after his recent appointment; establishing trust among Dior staff after the departure of incumbent John Galliano’s 15 years at the house; and, more practically, getting work done. Simons’ French is poor.
We feel the tension in the Dior offices as Simons develops his idea for the season. His process is a stubborn, solo endeavour, his concepts like the secreted passion of an adolescent. Simons returns inflamed, almost jittery, from a Parisian gallery. A contemporary non-figurative artwork has struck him, Dior staff are excitedly informed. They nod encouragingly. Surely, the palette and theme will provide an excellent foundation for them to do their work. To their bemusement, and much shifting of feet, Simons is having none of it. Could we reproduce it in facsimile on a giant printer? A typical piece of Simons’ self-effacing charm: utter confidence in his ability to spot genius, without assuming any of his own, or anyone else’s. How, he seems to ask Dior’s collective of the very best artists, embroiderers, and dressmakers, could we approach anything like the brilliance of this artwork? How indeed, the staff grumble.
To share his inspirations would be to distort them, subject them to dilution or wounding ridicule. Simons’ men’s looks, especially for his namesake label, are in this way so many collages, the application, unchanged, of photographs and images, like a teenager’s pegboard above the bed, that site of dreams and unrealised promise. In this way, by applying his inspirations—photographs, album covers, text resembling signage—virtually unchanged, Simons seems to embrace those of us who cannot always obtain the runway pieces we desire. By applying his seasonal inspirations unaltered, they remain unconsummated, not subject to the sloppy adult detumescence of having been there and done it. A Peter Pan effect that we might consider clever if it weren’t so obviously the kernel of Simons’ character.
A futuristic spacecraft mezzanine preceding the models’ runway circuit gave us pause. Kyle MacLachlan and Jeff Goldblum bookended the show, suggesting a fin-de-siecle sci-fi noir storyline. Simons’ strict inspirational rubrics always threaten to oversaturate a collection: if the viewer isn’t into (anymore) a particular reference, there’s very little to do. And this is where the partnership with Prada has greatly benefitted his collections. His stubbornness—brilliance does not exist in its absence—is still evident, but is leavened by some of the excellent prints and artwork that Prada produced in the seasons preceding his arrival. The only nerdy monotony in this show was the insistent Numan/Bowiesque vocals.
Raf Simons menswear rates poorly on our proprietary wearability scale. Remember, user results will vary, but from where we write, modern Sparta, Simons’ most dependable code, the oversized jacket, is a tricky proposition. We find that in the field an outrageously feathered and/or coloured number with swiss cheese holes will generate less of a fuss than Simons’ more subtle play on the suit. The former can on the American coasts be diffidently ignored; in the South the subject of shameless glares. But a not-quite-conformist suit produces outright hostility among the American bourgeoisie, an unforgivable send-up of conservative proprieties. As a statement and concept they work—they’re quite skillfully tailored with a power-curve shoulder and almost modular join to an oversized sleeve. But the narrow lapel is the tell: this is play. Intelligent, trenchant, but not exactly pretty.
There is plenty of this tailoring here, which serves as the traditional outer shell for Simons’ blushing preference for colour, a method queer boys from the sticks will recognize from their first adventurous accessories, those wrongly coloured gloves, hat, scarf, whichever of the least costly designer items made up the first items of a collection. Of a life. Baselayers since SARS-Covid have been the site of Simons’ colour, peeking from wrists, neck, and leggings. Easter egg shades in satinized nylon—a fabric of the moment—shirts and pants in this show bring some of this colour closer to the surface, and skillfully too: we find, in our era of off-and-on lockdowns, that for a quick takeout food retrieval the kind of synthetic ski pants offered here, capable of standing up to repeated wears, are just the thing.
And yet the feeling has persisted, our hopes raised, that the partnership with Prada would at its best see Simons challenged to move beyond this restriction of colour, from necks (a key site of this show) and wrists to full ensembles of colour; to, as it were, turn the Raf Simons look inside out. And, indeed, we have that here, with mixed results. A series of sci-fi inflected shirt and elasticated waist uniforms in monochrome pastels, from a 20th century space mission or nuclear reactor are well cut, paired with leather shoes. The leather versions offer a smart texture contrast but will be skipped due to the preference of a certain talent-free celebrity for this kind of thing. A dark purple one-piece jumpsuit with intelligent conventional button fastening is that rarest of things: a men’s jumpsuit with high want factor. The tailoring is exceptional; the collar gorgeous. All this colour is welcome, the uniforms striking a slyly appropriate note of caution for recent utopian projects. How many of us now clinch at a friend’s reference to a podcast/program with all the answers!?
The concluding model Jeff Goldblum brilliantly teases at these complications of sci-fi futurism. In an ankle-length coat with cat-shaved-from-surgery fur patches Goldblum approaches the runway with arms swinging and the decisiveness of long-held authority. Yet a closer look shows his eyes attempting first to focus, then occasionally peering about him, in one instance nearly stopping, as if at an apparition, of an acquaintance perhaps, but whose ghostlike state oughtn’t be investigated, either from fear or a sense of duty to fashion. He is propelled forward. At the conclusion of his circuit Goldblum looks briefly at the lights above him, as if finally taking the measure of his surroundings. A mad aging sovereign. Or a robot?
Wants: hungry for contrasting colour and prints, we will collect the lovely dog-collars in the now-traditional Prada prints and the related turtlenecks with print accents. We plan to skip most of the tailoring since, the jackets being cut to a certain frontal bulk for Simons’ preferred coloured baselayer contrast, the jackets in effect are made as coats. So why not go for a proper coat instead? We have in mind the spectacular coloured leather trenchcoats, perhaps the best and most natural fusion of Simons and Prada yet, combining the ash and dark coloured leather of recent Prada coats, but with Simons’ unmistakably contemporary cut, the leather here creating a slightly pinched effect, harmonizing shoulder, chest and arm.
Raf Simons’ work rarely brings “sexy” to mind. Archives, the inspiration and practical effect of his pieces, rarely are. Archives are those jealously guarded dreams stuffed under the bed, shyly debuted for our first trusted avant garde friend. A good friend will send this treasure scattering across the bedroom. “Come, let’s go out.” It shouldn’t be surprising then, that the best suit from a show full of them was not on the runway, despite the often charming contrasts of colour and fabric. The best of the lot was on Simons himself. Flowing, utterly unaffected trousers and just-right signature jacket. That was sexy. Get that one.