When a young man from the tiny village of Neerpelt in northern Belgium plucked up the courage to ring the imposing door before him in a Paris street, little did he know that moment would change his life, and the aesthetic and sensibility of the international fashion world, forever. Raf Simons had made his way to the studio of cult designer Walter Van Beirendonck with nothing but a portfolio of industrial designs to recommend him. The student, who was studying industrial design at university, had begun to yearn to break into the fashion world and, entranced by the images of Van Beirendonck’s clothes in a magazine, managed to track down the address of the revered, avant-garde designer and present himself.
Years later, Simons recalls: ‘I knocked on his door and I was super-scared because I had nothing to do with fashion. But he was interested. He had absolutely zero interest in all of the fashion work I had faked to impress him. He just went straight to my industrial design stuff. He said: “I really want you to come because, next to the fact that I am a fashion designer, I have this presentation in Paris and objects to make. I’m not a traditional designer.”’
Almost 20 years on, neither is Simons. From these tentative beginnings, Simons has quietly crept onto the international fashion radar and the Belgian designer is now regarded as a titanic force. His reputation as a menswear designer is unparallelled and he has built a brand which has become a byword for stark, directional modernity, offering men streetwear and sportswear repackaged in a luxurious format with the finest of fabrics. As creative director of Jil Sander, a position he has held since 2005, his innovative cuts, striking colourways and silhouettes have come to define key trends and redefine how women regard themselves.
Simons cites watching an early Maison Martin Margiela show as a seminal moment that brought tears to his eyes and, as an apprentice to Van Beirendonck, confirmed his approach to design: quiet, left-field and non-conformist. To Simons, the clothes and fabrics are paramount. He is fascinated – some would say obsessed – with how fabrics mould around the body, which has drawn comparisons with the revered Azzedine Alaïa.
Although Simons was already respected in the world of menswear, his appointment at Jil Sander raised more than a few eyebrows. Could this spotlight-shunning, ever-so-slightly geeky fashion renegade pick up the mantle of the great Sander? The answer, proved two years after he took the job, was a resounding yes. Sander had sold the eponymous brand she had built up to define minimalism and a purist aesthetic to the Prada group. Shortly afterwards, she left the company entirely. When Miuccia Prada began quietly shopping for a new head for the label, she eschewed the familiar faces in Paris and Milan, insisting that she wanted someone, like Sander, from a northern European background, with a cool head and an interest in intelligent design, rather than someone who preferred dressing women as vamps or screen goddesses.
Since then, Simons has harnessed the power of the Jil Sander woman and reshaped her for the 21st century. The purist aesthetic has stayed true, but Simons has pushed an agenda of creating pin-sharp, intelligent offerings for the high-flying working woman. Precision-cut suits and crisp shifts feature season after season, with a new emphasis on colour that has developed the brand beyond its founding ethos. As Simons has proved, the future is a lime green, floor-length skirt.