Virgil Abloh, the designer of Off-White and admitted Raf Simons disciple, has said "The youth will always win." It's an adage that defines Raf Simons' scope and lasting impact in menswear, an arbiter of subculture who made rebellious ideas wearable. As Kanye West said to Style.com after the premiere of his first adidas collection: “You guys know my fucking influences. You see Raf Simons right there.”
Raf Simons has only recently become more known in the realm of hip-hop style, but his clothes have been influencing streetwear and men's fashion for decades. As his namesake label enjoys 20 years of success this year, there's no better time to trace the evolution of his designs and see how even his earliest work parallels today's trends.
Simons began as a graduate of industrial design and furniture design in 1991 from a university in Genk, Belgium, holding internships at the design studio of Antwerp Six member, and current Head of Fashion at the Antwerp Royal Academy of Fine Arts, Walter Van Beirendonck. While Simons wanted to study fashion design at the Royal Academy, he was persuaded instead to go into the field without prior fashion study; starting his menswear label in 1995 at the urging of Linda Loppa—then-Head of Fashion at the Royal Academy. Simons would also note that Margiela’s infamous all-white show in 1991 as a key inspiration for his fashion work.
Perhaps the strongest early indicator of Simons’ untrained, “D.I.Y.” aesthetic, is that many of his models are street cast—circumventing modeling agencies in favor of boys on the street that Simons asked to be in his presentations. It added an air of authenticity to the garments. After all, the clothes reflected what those boys were actually wearing at the time. As noted in a profile in The Guardian, Simons didn’t just have the boys in his show, they directly informed his designs. “He talked to the boys about their lives and their opinions on his clothes. ‘These kids, they didn't care. If one in 40 said [your design] is shit, you thought: he has no taste. If 20 said it, you think: maybe this isn't what this generation is interested in,” says Simons to The Guardian.
It was the beginning of a new era in high and street fashion. The first couple of seasons established Raf Simons’ focus on combining youth subcultures, presenting the concept in a way that both fashion critics and the kids in the referenced “scenes” could understand and enjoy. The critics could appreciate the tailoring and shape, the kids could find themselves in the literal “D.I.Y.” style of the presentations.
Simons’ first runway show would be in the Fall/Winter ‘97 season, a collection that spun the “Ivy Look” on its head, taking once-prep school designs and altering shape and silhouette to filter the schoolboy uniform through new wave and punk music. Simons understood that kids would alter their uniforms to fit their personal style, and like Angus Young and AC/DC in the ‘70s, this was just the latest iteration of music’s role in youthful rebellion. His Spring/Summer 1997 collection, “16, 17 How to Talk to Your Teen” wasn’t just poking fun at the classic “parents just don’t understand” phrase, it was his way of tackling the disenfranchised youth that were separating themselves from society.
Music has always played a significant part in Simons’ collections. His Fall/Winter 1998 show featured members of seminal electro group Kraftwerk as models and inspiration, pairing red shirts with black ties as a nod to the group’s 1978 album Man Machine. His Spring/Summer 2000 collection combed the influences of high-IQ MENSA students and Gabba (a niche genre of hardcore Dutch techno) clubgoers to inform his designs.
Military-surplus style bomber jackets mixed with V-neck wool sweaters and checked zip-ups—as seen in the book Isolated Heroes—show Simons taking the seemingly isolated youth of a niche subculture, and photographed them (credit to David Sims) in a new romanticism that mirror classical sculpture. Considering the models were all “street cast” for the book, the intention was to portray the boys in their purest form—showing the faces that inspired Simons in a very particular time (around the year 2000). Pieces from this collection that would go on to be cult favorites, and are highly sought after.
After taking a break following his Fall/Winter 2000 runway show, Simons returned with his classic “Riot, Riot, Riot” Fall/Winter 2001 collection. Like the Spring/Summer 2002 collection (known for its epic title: “Woe Onto Those Who Spit On The Fear Generation...The Wind Will Blow It Back”), these collections would be characterized by oversized jackets, drapey black hoodies, and the heavy influence of authentic military surplus. Instead of using the innocence of youth finding themselves through their respective subculture, Simons instead focused on the militant side of teenage rebellion—the moment a boy is “confronted with the horror of reality.” When you look at these collections, it’s clear how much they informed Yeezy Season 1 nearly 15 years later.
Simons musical influences shone through Manic Street Preachers’ Richey Edwards presence on an oversized camo bomber jacket (which reappeared most prominently in the wardrobes of Kanye West and Rihanna). Simon’s focus on less-militant youth archetypes would resume with his “Virginia Creeper” collection in Fall/Winter 2002, creating, as collector David Casavant notes, a collection that “looked like an American high school in a haunted forest with a serial killer on the loose.” It was so influential—via the tree-covered runway, and distinctly destroyed pieces—that it would go on to directly influence future shows, like Off-White’s Spring/Summer 2015 womenswear collection, titled “Nebraska.”
2003 to 2005 would be an especially influential time for Simons, starting with his collaboration with Peter Saville, and culminating in his appointment at Jil Sander in June 2005. The designer was given access to Saville’s archive for his Fall/Winter 2003 “Closer” collection, full of graphics for the seminal bands that informed the subcultural styles Simons often drew from, like Joy Division and New Order. For Fall/Winter 2004, Simons plastered Joy Division’s Tumblr-ubiquitous Unknown Pleasures album art on the back of a leather jacket, and New Order's Power, Corruption, and Lies art on fishtail parkas a full decade before Supreme used the same motif.
By 2004, Simons had shown his ability to pull off both tailored and baggy silhouettes, but as former Arena Homme Plus editor Jo-Ann Furniss wrote, “The key turning point was A/W ‘04-05 (Waves), when the obsessive youth culture codes of his past were turned into clothes that were purely about shape and form.” By July 2005, he began his position at Jil Sander, where he notably provided the minimalist brand with “feminine accents and more fluid silhouettes.” This includes his mesmerizing Fall/Winter 2008 “Marble” collection for Jil Sander—a collection that would unexpectedly find new life through Simons stan and collector Virgil Abloh in the in the now-infamous “South Park” photo. He also increased the commercial appeal of Jil Sander and his own label by creating diffusion lines called Jil Sander Navy and Raf by Raf Simons respectively.
Later that same year, he released Raf Simons: Redux, a book honoring the 10-year anniversary of Simons’ menswear label. The book isn’t just a comprehensive look at the first decade of Simons’ work, it’s also an extremely rare tome, currently fetching around $600.
2005 also saw Simons receive love at the famed Pitti Uomo trade show—where he was given a retrospective exhibition and showcased his Spring/Summer 2006 collection. This collection, using Simons’ penchant for oversized shapes, also incorporates some of the minimalism found in Jil Sander—especially in the color palette. In 2008, Raf Simons began his ongoing collaboration with Fred Perry, a British brand that was quintessential to the wardrobes of teen mods and skinheads in the ‘60s and ‘70s, which is why the partnership makes sense.
Art has also played a major role in Simons’ work. He often enlisted his longtime friend Willy Vanderperre to shoot for him. This includes a cover and editorial in i-D’s 206th issue, which Simons guest-edited; along with Simons’ first ad campaign for the Fall/Winter 2009 collection. Contemporary artist Sterling Ruby, one of Simons’ favorite artists, has had his work tapped for inspiration and collaboration.
Ruby designed the interior for Simons’ first store in 2007. The two also had a super-limited denim capsule collection in 2010 using Ruby’s splatter paint style. Simons sampled Ruby’s art again for his premiere Dior couture collection. Last year, Simons turned his fall collection into a wearable art show.
Standout pieces from the Raf Simons x Sterling Ruby collection include a limited run of paint-splattered trench coats that retailed for $30,000, and super skinny jeans with Latin words like “Abus Lang” on the knee. As O.G. fashion critic Tim Blanks wrote in his review of the show, it was a collection that was inspired by much of the young, punk aesthetics that have informed both Ruby and Simons throughout their careers. By having a collection in recent history that was able to have the same youthful spirit that made Simons so iconic in the ‘90s, it would spark contemporary interest in Simons’ designs. The only difference is that now, instead of new wave and Gabba, the driving musical force is hip-hop.
Sneakerheads have also become ardent Raf Simons fans, too. One of Simons’ most iconic shoes comes in the form of his hiking boot-sneaker hybrid, which was an homage to the Dutch “De Stijl” art style, which showed up in 2013 on the feet of A$AP Rocky. This was one of Simons earliest conceptual sneaker designs, with the Fall/Winter 2010 collection incorporating the 20-holed Multi-Lace, the hyper rare Nike-inspired Vandals, and the grail-status Astronaut sneakers.
In 2013, Raf Simons began his collaboration with adidas, adding crazy color combinations, materials and patterns to silhouettes like the Ozweego 2, Bounce, and Response Trail Runner, while drawing equal parts ire and respect by leaving the Stan Smith practically untouched—changing nothing except replacing adidas’ three stripes with a perforated “R”.
Simons’ inherent desire is to accurately recreate the cacophony of influences that inspire young adults. “The past is not romantic to me. The future is romantic to me,” he says in a 032c profile. It’s this mentality that allows him to channel the frustrations of youth season after season—long after Simons, and many of his fans, have left adolescence behind. “I like creating something that is not only about me, it’s about people who can relate to that thing and all together it becomes an environment.”