Raf Simons’ brand has changed the way we evaluate fashion

If you’re under 40, chances are your first Raf Simons piece was also your first grail (or vice versa). I remember mine: I was shopping in a very preppy, now closed, thrift store in Soho in 2016 when I found two (TWO!!!) Raf Simons tunics from the Spring 2014 collection, when it went super pop and printed wavy, upbeat phrases that looked like they were lifted from 1950s magazine ads on polyester tunics and T-shirts. They were on sale for $50 (clearly, no one at the store knew what they were holding; I’ve seen the pieces on Grailed for $400). I remember the specific thrill of the finds and the excitement I felt in owning these pieces of menswear history that might only be recognizable to a very few.

I got an Alaia sweater for $300 and a never-before-made Hood By Air jacket for $150, but these are the pieces that are most special to me. Such is the magic of the cool, intense and captivating Raf Simons brand.

Simons shocked the fashion industry yesterday when he announced that his brand, which he launched 27 years ago, would be shutting down. There will be no fancy fanfares or final collections; the spring 2023 show she staged in London in October (rescheduled by London Fashion Week following the Queen’s death) will simply be her last. “Words fail me to share how proud I am of all that we have achieved,” she reads the Instagram announcement.

When I called David Casavant, a Simons-ologist and one of menswear’s most avid archivists, he was surprised, though he admitted: “I’ve really given up on being surprised or putting too much emotion [into] things that happen with fashion because it is constantly changing. And by the way, “he’s still basically an artist, so he who knows what happens, but at least it’s a good work to wrap up.”

She’s right: Simons will remain in his role as co-creative director of Prada, where his influence is only stronger with each collection. But Simons’ brand represents a lot of new things in fashion, especially for menswear, where the broader industry changes increasingly begin. (Simons himself has traced the disruptive pipeline from insider to womenswear: He’s been linked to Jil Sander, then Christian Dior, then took over at Calvin Klein, and now, of course, he’s installed at Prada.) His premieres collections, in the mid-1990s, marked the introduction of skinny tailoring, and was notable from the outset for its focus on menswear only. The clothes weren’t just for men, but about them. They were cold and precise in their banter, but they were so much about feelings—the kind of inarticulate, inarticulate rage that often seems to accompany youth. You could always feel the emotion tingling or trudging under those clean, tight silhouettes. He argued that designing menswear, without the buoy of a women’s business, was important.

Simons was also the designer who, together with Helmut Lang and Hedi Slimane, inspired the idea of ​​treating clothes as collector’s items. It’s hard to imagine Grailed or the transformation of fashion into a pop cultural phenomenon at the hands of rappers like A$AP Rocky and Kendrick Lamar—or even the archive fashion movement currently sweeping the female side of the business—without the models of Simons.

And Simons remains the in-demand archival designer in the menswear market. This was true even before this announcement, Casavant told me: “When I was first collecting, Dior men [by Hedi Slimane] he was going to resell for a really high price, and it wasn’t cheap to buy retail, and Raf was. And now he’s upside down. Raf is much more expensive.” Casavant recently began selling a small selection of his archive at New York’s Dover Street Market, which is the first time his collection, used primarily by editorial clients and celebrities, has been “available” or accessible to the public. What he has noticed is that Simons’ projects have only garnered more and more requests. Casavant said his doctor recently asked during an appointment if his teenage nephew could come to Casavant’s office and see his archive of Simons clothes.

This wasn’t Simons’ project, obviously, though he said in a 2018 speech at Harvard University who loved the way Grailed users treated shopping and acquiring her clothes. In 2020, she re-released some of her archival pieces by her (which, as Casavant pointed out to me, only made the original pieces more valuable). So what made them so collectable? Casavant speculates that she has something to do with the development of Simons’ career. Whereas it may have helped a designer like Slimane to have the Dior brand behind him, “so he already had that history and that cachet”, Simons’ growing profile, with major appointments at European and American houses, has led fashion fans to discover his back catalog of pieces that, for the first decade or so of the brand’s existence, spoke primarily to a small audience of menswear connoisseurs.

I doubt a designer can have that kind of trajectory anymore. Simons built his business into a cult following, and it wasn’t until she started making womenswear that it was presented more widely to the world. Increasingly, designers are launching their brand with an important appointment in the house as a goal; they often say it is critical to the financial survival of their brand.

You could always feel the emotion tingling or trudging under those clean, tight silhouettes.

His extremely emotional outfits probably also appeal to young people who feel more and more the things behind Simons’ first collections, fueled by the music of bands like INXS and Joy Division. Simons has been a frequent critic of the fashion system, suggesting in several interviews over the years that the fashion calendar leaves little time for real ideas to develop. When he left Dior, for example, he said he wanted to focus on his own brand. Now, working with Ms. Prada, it seems that for the first time his ideas can be articulated more firmly in his appointment with the big brand. “It’s not like he’s dead,” as Casavant told me.

Perhaps he could have appointed a Kiko Kostadinov or a Samuel Ross to take over the brand. But it’s more Simons—more punk, more assertive, more whimsical, more artistic—to simply say goodbye rather than attempt to insert Frankenstein, a young and new designer, into the role. Again, he is leading us to think about how we might look at things another way; what is the value of a super personal brand if the person who put their heart into it is no longer there to do it?

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