Discussing Change With Raf Simons

Today, the redefinition of the designer’s role and the new skillset required to meet the demands of a rapidly evolving industry are disturbing to most couturiers and fashion designers. Designers often feel that the brands they work for are operating at the expense of their authenticity and creativity — and sometimes even at the cost of their mental health.

“The period of the designer being isolated in a creative bubble, like the one we have witnessed throughout the 20th century, is practically over,” Raf Simons stated during the 2019 edition of the Belgian Fashion Awards. Prior to the award ceremony that took place on November 21st, the Belgian designer was interviewed by fashion critic Alexander Fury during the event’s Fashion Talks session. Together with Fury, Raf Simons discussed the state of fashion today, from a designer point of view.

“The digital explosion put a lot of pressure on designers. To quote Peter De Potter, a close friend who graduated from the Royal Academy of Fine Arts Antwerp, ‘fashion is the new pop’ — and I think it’s true. Fashion became pop in the general meaning of the word,” Raf Simons stated.

“Pop in the sense that a lot of people from the pop music industry have become fashion designers these days, but also pop in the modern sense, meaning ‘popular’. Fashion used to be way more niche when I started out. A lot of people were almost scared to become fashion designers, as it was not seen as something respectable.”

And there are no signs that this pressure will ease. According to an official study released by French tech company Lectra and the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), the fashion industry is predicted to change rapidly over the next ten years, as it has over the the duration of the last 100. The study further noted that consolidation, computerization and globalization are today's significant challenges, and will continue to be as they morph and change — with fashion designers at the forefront of these disruptions. "Speed-to-market; facing a confident consumer with revised expectations and shopping habits; diminishing trends and brand loyalty; a changed interplay, play between exclusivity and transparency — all these themes point to a leveled-out playing field where the idea of value is being redefined," the study added.

"Big brands who work with creative directors, work in constant flux — and the tenure of a designer at the helm of a brand has become shorter and shorter. I didn't realize this when I was working at Jil [Sander]. It occurred to me when I started at Dior that most of the big brands today are driven by marketing and growth," Raf Simons said during the interview, adding that independence is essential to him.

"The different positions I’ve held as a creative director taught me much more about my own brand than one would think — and also taught me how dangerous it could be when you marry in business," Raf Simons added, citing the example of John Galliano, who lost his namesake brand to LVMH like a cautionary tale, and also adding that the independent spirit of Belgian designers — namely the one of the Antwerp Six and his former mentor Walter Van Beirendonck — has helped to shape his creative vision.  Simons said, this example showed him how important it is to be independent.

“All I care about fighting for is safeguarding my brand for myself and even more so, the people I work with.”

So how will the role of tomorrow's designer be different from today's? And how will it change and impact the future of our luxury and fashion industries? According to Lectra's report, the designer of tomorrow is a central link in an interdependent supply chain, along which digital data flows. Manufacturers, marketers, merchandisers, and even consumers have become integral parts of fashion design. "New forms of communication via social media platforms, combined with a market where everything is available to everyone, have empowered a once passive consumer," the company explained. "As a consequence, designing has become more an interpretation of — rather than a suggestion of — consumer desires."

Moreover, the role of the fiercely independent couturier tailoring garments at his own pace and shunning demands of a grueling industry, has been shattered and replaced by the phenomenon of the Creative Director for whom retail trends and industry collaborations are an integral part of the new frameworks. And it is precisely the designer's role in driving sales and marketing strategies that, according to Raf Simons, is damaging to the designer's creative process as a whole. The more a designer is required to split himself between his actual design process and other brand development segments, such as sales, communication, and marketing, the more his designs are at risk to become disembodied and devoid of meaning — soulless, almost, Simons explained.

"When you read a fashion review, they often judge a designer's collection from an economic point of view. I find this very frustrating for everybody, and I don't think it's right. Sometimes I see a very shitty collection. Yet, it is praised just because the brand's business is going very well," Raf Simons added, stating that financial growth is no criterium a designer should be judged upon and that creative legitimacy should not be tied to commerce.

"Being a designer has nothing to do with the amount of audience you have or the number of stores you are selling your collections to. The fashion designer's role is solely to create... to create desire, to create a landscape for yourself where you can dialogue with an audience that can relate to this desire. It's a constant non-physical dialogue," he concluded, adding that the new guard of designers should not be afraid to revolutionize the current system. "Designers should not fear the younger generation. Designers should promote younger generations because that's what activates, stimulates, and keeps the fashion industry going."

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