Tracing Raf Simons's Influence on Modern Menswear

We took a look at the recent collections from New York Fashion Week: Men's to highlight the Belgian designer's ever-present impact on style.

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Feb 10 2017, 8:30am

Raf Simons is arguably the most influential menswear designer in the world, and it has been like that way for quite sometime. Back in 2004, New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn said that it was Simons who had made Hedi Slimane, former creative director of Dior Homme and Yves Saint Laurent, "possible." Even Kanye West humbled his fashion ego for Simons, hailing the designer as his "idol" in 2008. In 2012, Vogue's Anna Wintour called him a "rock star in his own right." And just last month, style icon A$AP Rocky tweeted that the Belgian designer is "our fashion god," going on to claim that everyone "bites" his ideas.

Simons acknowledged the long shadow he casts on menswear in a interview he did with GQ Style last month, where he placed himself alongside Miuccia Prada, Marc Jacobs, and Phoebe Philo, calling this elite group of designers "the activators" and musing that "fashion doesn't exist if we don't exist." Simons even went on to throw what some took as shade at Virgil Abloh of Off-White for not creating more original designs. Abloh is a talented young designer who might take the reins at Givenchy. He's also so obsessed with Simons's work, he once did an entire interview with Vogue on the topic of his vintage Raf Simons collection. And of course, there have been times when Abloh's designs have looked like carbon copies of Simons's

The reverence shown by people like Abloh, West, and Wintour for Simons isn't that surprising. Simons has spent more than 22 years pioneering new trends and serving up boundary-pushing ideas with his eponymous label, as well as his high-profile work for Dior and Jil Sander, and his collaborations with accessible brands like adidas and Fred Perry. These days, it's almost impossible not to find traces of Simons's DNA in most modern menswear collections.

During the most recent New York Fashion Week: Men's, Raf Simons's spirit seemed to be especially ever-present. That's partially because, thanks to his recent appointment as the chief creative officer of Calvin Klein, he moved the operations of his namesake label to New York for a much-discussed NYFW: Men's debut. It's also probably because, simply put, he's Raf.

Later today, Simons will debuting his first collection for Calvin Klein during New York Fashion Week. In honor of this momentous event, we decided to trace his massive influence throughout the shows and presentations we saw at last week's New York Fashion Week: Men's. Considering he's a fashion "God," it wasn't that hard at all. 

Keeping It About the Music

Photo via Grailed.com

Music has always been an important component of Simons's designs, and it makes sense given his childhood. Having grown up in the small village of Neerpelt, Belgium, to working-class parents, the designer didn't have the opportunity to visit museums or get much exposure to the arts. Music was his only connection to culture from the outside world.

"In school, creating was kept away from young people," Simons told Kanye West in a Q&A for Interview magazine from 2008, after he had taken the reins at the minimalist Jil Sander label. "The village was so small there was no outlet except for one little record store. I think that is where it started for me—just picking up records." His first LP? Bob Marley. Later, though, he got into experimental electronic music and post-punk, and these countercultural sensibilities are still with him today.

For "Radioactivity," his fall/winter 1998 collection, the designer went beyond just finding inspiration in music. He directly referenced Kraftwerk's Man Machine album cover, dressing his models in their iconic red-shirt and black-tie ensembles, and he played their music during the show at the Moulin Rouge. But that was just the beginning of his explicit nods to music.

In Simons's "Closer" collection for fall/winter 2003, he presented fishtail parkas with the iconic album artwork for New Order's Power, Corruption, and Lies and Joy Division's Unknown Pleasures on the back. This artwork was originally created by Peter Saville, a graphic designer known for his work with Factory Records, who gave Simons complete access to his archive. That collaborative relationship has been incredibly fruitful for Simons, considering Saville—who also happens to be a mentor to Virgil Abloh—recently helped Simons revamp Calvin Klein's logo.

Photo via Rochambeau

Simons's embrace of music and the culture around it set a precedent in menswear that's influenced countless young designers. During the recent NYFW: Men's shows, this was best reflected by Rochambeau. Co-founded by Laurence Chandler and Josh Cooper, Rochambeau got its start almost a decade ago as a small street-inspired luxury brand. But it has grown season after season, becoming finalists for the prestigious CFDA / Vogue Fashion Fund and winning the US regional Woolmark Prize, both in 2016. This season, the brand built its collection around a punk-rock theme. Naturally, it tapped legendary Devo frontman Mark Mothersbaugh, who's been focusing on his visual art in recent years, to give it some of his rebellious spirit. Mothersbaugh was credited with contributing the dripping-paint graphics that the designers used on several pieces and curating the music for the show. The standout pieces were the chunky corduroy top coats and pin-stripe, high-waisted pants.

Bringing Streetwear into High Fashion

While streetwear was historically looked down upon by the high-end fashion industry, there was a shift in the early aughts. That change came, in large part, from Simons's embrace. "He changed the perception of things by putting streetwear on the high fashion runway," David Casavant, the owner of one of the world's largest private collection of Raf Simons archival pieces, told me over the phone. "Raf did a lot of appropriating when he started. In my archives, the bombers that are the most iconic and the most expensive are ironically just bought from a military surplus, and he sewed graphics on them." But as time passed, that approach became more refined.

By the time Simons designed his fall 2014 collection, he completely immersed his work in graphics and art with a graffiti spirit. Sterling Ruby, an artist who favors spray paint on canvas, collaborated with him on the collection. The two turned out a range with paint and bleach-splashed prints formed into boxy, oversize jackets and dress shirts. Elsewhere, striking graphic images of sharks and feminine hands along with words like "Father" and "Abus Lang" were printed onto pieces like camel trench coats and sweatshirts. This idea of plastering images onto pieces is an ongoing theme for the designer, turning up again in his spring 2015 collection, where he put his own personal photos of his parents on garments and his spring 2017 collection where he covered his garments in portraits by famed photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.

Simons's willingness to bridge high and low and mix graphics and street-inspired art with fashion has been taken on by most of the exciting menswear brands today. Steve Aoki followed in this tradition, putting two half-pipe skate ramps in Skylight Clarkson for the NYFW: Men's debut of his Dim Mak fashion line, which he has been developing in Japan for four seasons. With a cast of 20 skateboarders as models, the DJ-turned-designer used the graphics of controversial graffiti artist David Choe on the backs of trench coats and sweatshirts. 

Photo via Stampd

The LA-based Stampd also elevated traditional streetwear to high fashion. "Stay in your lane" was written across the back of one shirt. The former Fashion Fund nominee and Puma collaborator is known for its smart approach to sportswear. Titled "Asphalt Wave," the brand's latest collection, highlighted its usage of color (yellow, orange, and dark green), and showcased everything from graffitied sweatpants to shearling coats and plaid shirts. 

At Represent's NYFW: Men's runway debut at Cadillac House, the brand presented hoodies that said, "If you're going through hell, keep going." Titled the "New Breed," the British grunge themed show encompassed everything from ripped denim and combat boots to a velour suit and some standout tartan outerwear.

Clothes Fit for a Rebellion

One of Simons's most referenced collections is the one from spring 2002 titled "Woe Unto Those Who Spit on the Fear Generation… The Wind Will Blow It Back." In that collection, along with the "Riot, Riot, Riot" collection that preceded it, Simons plunged into a militant, rebellious spirit of youth. In "Riot," he showed camouflage bombers patched with printed newspaper quiltings. In "Fear Generation," he wrapped models in balaclavas and hoodies. The color palette was mostly red, white, and black, but the vibe was punctuated with some models holding flares, and appearing barefoot on the runway. In case those messages weren't enough, a hand grenade was used as a motif in some of the designs. The guerrilla warfare, insurgent aesthetic was personified with the phrase "we will not be ignored" printed on a sweatshirt in French. Conceived before the 9/11 attacks and the subsequent war on terror, and pre-dating the murder of Carlo Giuliani at the G8 Summit, the collection was apt for a time of international unrest and angst.

Photo via By Robert James

It seems appropriate that designers would mine this approach today, considering a former reality TV star who grabs women "by the pussy" is the leader of the free world and we're in the midst of the gravest global refugee crisis since World War II. At By Robert James, models held signs that said things like "#resist," which was an obvious shot directed at President Donald Trump. Another sign read "#refugeeswelcome, likely in opposition to Trump's travel ban. Although the spirit of this show aligned with Simons's "Fear Generation," the Ohio-born, Fashion Institute of Technology-trained designer's collection featured sharper silhouettes with business-like attire like tailored blazers in camo, styled with black hoodies and fingerless gloves.

This political spirit wasn't just isolated to By Robert James. In fact, it ran through several shows at NYFW: Men's. Willy Chavarria, a queer Latino who used to design for Ralph Lauren, cast a diverse lineup of models and dressed them in pieces featuring statements "hate is fed" and "it is a luxury." The brand Private Policy also wrote messages—but not on it's clothing, on the faces of their models with words like "refugee," "drug dealer," and "terrorist" in references to some of Trump's most inflammatory statements. Though the aesthetic of the collection included slick, luxury takes on military staples like the A-1 Bomber, it bore Simons's spirit of capturing the political climate through fashion.

Photo via Raf Simons

But this season, for his own collection, Simons didn't seem militant at all. As a somewhat oblique address of the political situation, at his Gagosian Gallery–hosted runway show, the designer sent out models wearing garments bearing the phrase "I [heart] New York" standing in contrast to the hate that had been propagated by the current president. He also cinched overcoats with duct tape bearing phrases like "walk with me" and "youth project." While that styling trick felt fresh, it didn't distract from the most covetable looks: satin overcoats paired with luxurious oversize trousers. 

With Raf Simons's typical team-minded mentality, the designer collaborated with the Woolmark Company on the sweaters of the collection, which came cropped and slung over long graphic tees, and the striped arm bands that were styled on top of boxy overcoats. While the sweaters are already primed to be some of the most coveted items from the collection, on further inspection, they appear to be a clear continuation of the boxy knits he's been doing in recent years, most spectacularly in his previous fall 2016 collection. I guess sometimes even Raf has to reference Raf.

Photo via Raf Simons

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