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Lisa Armstrong: 'Raf Simons will bring a fascinating new sensibility to the old debate about what it means to look feminine in the 21st century at Dior.'
BY Lisa Armstrong | 10 April 2012
Long-satin ball skirts and T-shirts (think Tilda Swinton on the red carpet), neon, paisley…Raf Simons may have begun his fashion career in menswear, but, at Jil Sander, he learned how to fuse his instinct for minimalism and austerity with a delicate femininity. When he left Sander after seven years this February, he wielded an influence that reached all the way to M&S and Primark.
That's what makes Simons's appointment as successor to John Galliano at Dior such good news. Under Galliano, the label chased Christian Dior's post-war nostalgia for a Gone With The Wind romanticism to a kind of reductio ad absurdum . Simons, if his recent collections at Sander, with their full skirts, sweeping hemlines and gorgeous command of a pastel palette that seemed anything but sickly, are anything to go by, will bring a fascinating new sensibility to the old debate about what it means to look feminine in the 21st century.
What makes the appointment all the more intriguing is that Simons has said he'll be focussing initially on the first ten years of Dior, from 1947 until 1957 (the year Dior died of a heart attack, the precise causes of which remain clouded).
This places Simons's next few seasons firmly in New Look territory; the padded hips, cinched waists, soft shoulders that seemed so revolutionary when Dior introduced them in '47, but which were already looking a little heavy a decade later. (Yves Saint Laurent, Dior's prodigy apprentice who took the reins on his death was ecstatically reviewed for making the Dior new look much lighter in his first collection.)
Superficially, Dior - the bourgeois, Normandy-born arch romantic whose patrician family wanted him to be a diplomat - and Simons (raised listening to Kraftwerk and Joy Division in Neerpelt, in Flemish Belgium by a father who worked as a watchman and a mother who was a cleaner) seem to be cut from entirely different cloths.
But there are parallels. Equally shy, both used fashion as escape.
Dior fled the conventional expectations of his parents, while Simons, strained against both Catholicism and the conventional expectations of the student lawyers and doctors with whom he lived after leaving home. Coincidentally, Simons studied industrial design while Dior originally wanted to be an architect. Both are fastidious - Dior wouldn't not receive men visitors unless they were wearing ties. Simons's house in Antwerp, glimpsed in a rare interview last year in the Wall Street Journal is an homage to meticulous housekeeping as much as to his lovingly curated (for once that really is the word), perfectly spaced collection of mid-century classic furniture. Only the art - prominent pictures of skulls and a giant phallus - indicate a more turbulent sensuality. Dior might be shocked. But probably not surprised.