Raf Simons’s Brand Changed the Way We Value Fashion

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Raf Simons Changed the Way We Value FashionVictor VIRGILE - Getty Images

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

I’ve gotten an Alaia sweater for $300 and a never-produced Hood By Air jacket for $150, but these are the pieces that are most special to me. Such is the magic of the chilly, intense, and appealingly raw Raf Simons brand.

Simons shocked the fashion industry yesterday when he announced that his brand, which he launched 27 years ago, would shutter. There will be no fancy fanfare or finale collection; the Spring 2023 show that he staged in London in October (rescheduled from London Fashion Week after the Queen’s death) will simply be his last. “I lack the words to share how proud I am of all that we have achieved,” the Instagram announcement read.

When I called David Casavant, a Simons-ologist and one of menswear’s most avid archivists, he was surprised, although admitted, “I’ve really given up on being surprised or putting too much emotion [into] things that happen with fashion ‘cause it’s always changing.” And anyways, “He’s still basically an artist, so who knows what happens, but at least it’s a good body of work to end on.”

He’s right—Simons will remain in his role as co-creative director at Prada, where his influence is only stronger with each collection. But Simons’s brand represents a lot of fashion firsts, especially for menswear, where larger industry shifts increasingly start. (Simons himself charted the menswear insider-to-womenswear disruptor pipeline: he was plugged in at Jil Sander, then Christian Dior, then took over at Calvin Klein, and now, of course, is installed at Prada.) His first collections, in the mid-90s, marked the introduction of skinny tailoring, and he was remarkable from the beginning for his focus on menswear alone. The clothes were not just for men, but about them. They were chilly and precise in their lines, but they were so much about feelings—the kind of misplaced, inarticulable anger that often seems to accompany young manhood. You could always sense emotion prickling or trudging beneath those clean and tight silhouettes. He made the case that designing menswear, without the buoy of a women’s business, was important.

Simons was also the designer who, along with Helmut Lang and Hedi Slimane, inspired the idea of treating clothing as collectible objects. 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 archival fashion movement currently sweeping the women’s side of the business—without Simons’s designs.

And Simons remains the archival designer in hot demand on the men’s market. That was true even before this announcement, Casavant told me: “When I was first collecting, Dior men [by Hedi Slimane] would resell for really high, and it wasn’t affordable to buy retail, and Raf was. And now it’s flipped. Raf is way more expensive.” Casavant recently started selling a small selection of his archive at Dover Street Market in New York, which is the first time his collection, which is mostly utilized by editorial and celebrity clients, has been “available” or accessible to the public. What he’s noticed is that Simons’s designs have only garnered more and more demand. 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’s clothing.

This wasn’t by Simons’s design, of course, though he said in a 2018 talk at Harvard University that he loved the way Grailed users treated shopping and acquiring his clothing. In 2020, he re-released a number of his archival pieces (which, as Casavant pointed out to me, only made the original pieces more valuable). So what has made them so collectible? Casavant speculates that it has something to do with how Simons’s career developed. Whereas it may have helped a designer like Slimane to have the Dior brand name behind him, “so it already had that history and cache,” Simons’s increasing profile, with major appointments at European and American houses, led fashion fans to discover his back catalog of pieces that, for the first decade or so of the brand’s existence, spoke mostly to a small audience of menswear cognoscenti.

I doubt a designer can have that kind of trajectory anymore. Simons built his business up as a cult one, and it wasn’t until he started making women’s clothing that he was introduced more widely to the world. Increasingly, designers launch their own brand with a major house appointment as their goal; they often say it’s crucial to their own brand’s financial survival.

Probably, too, his extremely emotional clothes appeal to young men who only feel more and more the things behind Simons’s early 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 the development of real ideas. When he left Dior, for example, he stated that he wanted to focus on his own brand. Now, working with Mrs. Prada, it seems that for the first time his own ideas can be more firmly articulated in his big brand appointment. “It’s not like he died,” as Casavant told me.

Maybe he could have appointed a Kiko Kostadinov or a Samuel Ross to take over the brand. But it’s more Simons—more punk, more decisive, more capricious, more artistic—to simply say goodbye rather than attempt to Frankenstein a young new designer into the role. Once again, he’s leading us to think about how we might look at things another way; what’s the value of a super personal brand if the person who poured their heart into it isn’t there to do it anymore?

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