Raf Simons and the Flemish Masters

The creative director speaks on “forbidden fruit.”

Raf Simons thinks in Flemish—Flemish is his first language, while Flanders is where he lives and where he is from. Unlike many Belgian people, Raf Simons’ second language is not French, but English—the language of pop culture for the designer, learned largely by listening to songs and watching films. French is Simons’ third language, the language of high fashion and, at times, the language of art. It is an amalgam of all of those languages that can be seen in the latest Fall/Winter 2015 Christian Dior Haute Couture collection—with a heavy Flemish accent.

“I was intrigued by the idea of forbidden fruit, and what that meant now,” says Raf Simons. “The idea of purity and innocence versus luxury and decadence and how that is encapsulated by the idea of Dior’s garden—no longer a flower garden but a sexual one. I wanted a sense of extravagance and wealth in the collection. There is a concentration on the drapery of fabric; the idea of drapery and gesture came from Flemish painting. It led to the cape coats with the concentration on one sleeve, an idea that is often seen in portraiture. At the same time the sleeve might be from Dior, with his gestures, his details.”

The Garden Of Earthly Delights, the triptych painted by Hieronymus Bosch between 1590 and 1610, might have been the starting point for Raf Simons’ present Dior Couture, but there are other influences from Flanders to be seen too. From van Eyck to van Dyck, the great Flemish portraiture of the past is summoned up in the current collection, images that Raf Simons grew up with. At the same time, French masters are there too—particularly the pointillist Seurat and, of course, Christian Dior. It is they that provide the inspiration for abstraction, detail, something more feminine, and some of the iconic silhouettes—but it is the Flemish who hold sway, with the drama, the attitude, and the perversity.

“I have asked myself repeatedly why I started in fashion and it always comes down to the first fashion show I saw in 1990, when I saw Martin’s third collection, the ‘White Collection.’”

“The collection is a tribute to the Flemish masters of art,” explains Raf Simons. “But it is also about the Flemish master of fashion: Martin Margiela.”

Without Martin Margiela, Raf Simons would not have become a fashion designer.

“I have asked myself repeatedly why I started in fashion and it always comes down to the first fashion show I saw in 1990, when I saw Martin’s third collection, the ‘White Collection,’” he explains. “That was the moment when I understood what fashion could be and understood what could attract me to fashion. At the end of the day, that was the real moment of deciding it. I was so far away from being properly involved in the industry then, it looked so out of reach, and yet I thought this is what I am going to do—although I didn’t tell anyone—and voilà.”

This is the ultimate Flemish inheritance of Raf Simons, and what makes the latest couture collection a significant one. It shows why he became a fashion designer in the first place, the new attitude he has brought to the couture inherited from “the realists” of the 90s and why that attitude matters in the 21st century in keeping the couture a living, breathing craft—the supreme craft in fashion. Perhaps most strangely of all, while the spirit of Martin Margiela metamorphoses at his own Maison, his real inheritance may now be at the house of Christian Dior.

This article first appeared in Document’s Fall/Winter 2015 issue.