Saturday 9th July 2011, 17 hundred hours, 59 minutes and 59 seconds: we call Raf Simons in Antwerp to talk about Transmission 1, a 3 day multi-disciplinary festival taking place in Berlin on 15-17th July

A quick chat with Raf
Fashion | 13 July 2011
Interview Dean Mayo Davies

Raf is hard at work on the project when he answers – after all it is less than a week to go. If his clothes could talk, they’d have a speaking voice like his: no-nonsense, engaging and authoritative. “I’m curating an event in collaboration with Mercedes-Benz, which is titled by myself, Transmission 1,” Simons begins, needing not elaborate on the Joy Division reference (fans know). “And I’ve invited people from various different creative fields to express themselves. It’s very free, an experiment. We will see, next weekend. I want to have it quite energetic…”

Simons is the Belgian who well and truly kick-started the menswear revolution that’s taken place over the last 15 years. During the time of grunge, which was about the rejection of ideal, and catalysed by the excitement of rebellious womenswear from the likes of Martin Margiela, Simons, in 1995, began showing his slim clothes cut for youth, rejecting the outmoded, boring standard of 80s buff and speaking to real boys. His label would become a cross-collaboratory think tank, proof that men’s fashion could think bigger than clothes, building a universe alluring for its blend of sublime tailoring, anarchy, art and technology. It’s no surprise he’d be approached for a project such as this, which is a space to play with ideas. Why Berlin? Well, there’s a moth/flame attraction – look at the references to Germany throughout his oeuvre: Bowie’s Berlin period; Christiane F; Kraftwerk; and cool, teutonic, aesthetic precision.

Peter Saville, he of the Joy Division/New Order sleeves and the finest Factory graphics is a landmark in British culture. Paid tribute to for A/W 03-04, German military parkas, flat caps, knitwear and more featured, with visuals – some never seen – from the Saville’s archive, selected by Simons. The collection nodded to vintage British looks, dedicated to the man who has done so much for music and visual art, as well as reflecting on the process of growing up – childhood dress codes and formal business looks contrast each other. Handworked parkas from Closer were included in the Peter Saville exhibit at London’s Design Museum, 2003.

Participating in Transmission 1 are friends of Raf Simons, both the house and the man – there’s no separation. They identify with his preoccupations and explore elements of them within their own individual practices. You have Peter Saville, the iconic artist and godlike art director (paid tribute to in A/W 03-04); artist and collaborator Peter De Potter; writer, editor and creative director Jo-Ann Furniss; industrial designer Konstantin Grcic (a reminder that, before fashion, Simons studied graphic design) and Michael Clark, who redefined contemporary dance and for whom David Bowie is also an obsession. Plus there’s Dutch artist Germaine Kruip, who worked on Jil Sander’s SoHo flagship; DJ Hell; Fischerspooner, These New Puritans and bloggers Hapsical and Dandy Gum.

“It’s emotional for me,” Raf confesses in particular of Peter De Potter, who will present a huge series of his work The Image Machine in a site-specific context. “I’m very pleased I’m the one that can offer his first public appearance.” Peter Saville is bringing a ready-made, his own car, to Transmission 1. “That will be juxtaposed with a new car Mercedes are doing. He is crazy about it, a very particular model,” Raf explains. Saville’s wheels, fact fans, are a 4th-generation, 90s Mercedes-Benz SL, R129.

Yes, Raf was invited to realise this project by Mercedes-Benz, but they didn’t have any stipulation that Transmission 1 relate to their sexy, mythical brand – they were happy to let Antwerp’s finest do whatever he wanted. But the emotional pull couldn’t be ignored and there are references to the automotive icon throughout – for starters, think of that building from Christiane F with the alluring, slowly-spinning illuminated 3-point star.


Christiane F: Wir Kinder vom Bahnhof Zoo is one of Simons’ favourite movies. The true story of a teenager in West Berlin in the 1970s, Christiane meets love interest Detlef at a club, Sound, she’s too young to be at and falls into the excesses of drug abuse. The film features some of the best nightclub scenes on celluloid, with David Bowie in cameo as well as releasing the official soundtrack, composed of songs from his Berlin period. Christiane F imagery appears as patches on garments from Raf Simons’ Riot, Riot, Riot collection of A/W 01-02, whilst F, Detlef and their gang appear on the roof of Berlin’s Mercedes-Benz Zentrale building early in the movie.

“Yes,” Simons says, also illuminated at the very mention. “I had to talk in front of a film crew about this project and so, in the middle of the night a few days ago, Jo-Ann and myself went on the roof and were filmed with the Mercedes sign turning in the background. We did feel like Christiane F and Detlef that evening,” he laughs. “Terry Richardson was also in Berlin and heard about it, so he requested a visit as well. It’s a kind of shopping center and doesn’t mean a thing for Berliners, yet look at us – we felt like children in a candy shop!”

We’re daydreaming of being on that roof too, the image has been burnt into our minds since adolescence. But that fantasy is quickly dissolved as Raf carries on. “You know the band Goose?” he questions. “They’ll play on Saturday. There’s an interesting story behind the singer.”

You’ll recognise Goose’s hands-in-the-air, eyes-closed, edge-of-control beats but what you won’t know is that singer Mickael Karkousse was one of the youngest street cast faces Simons has used, debuting in his iconic Radioactivity show of A/W 98-99. “It was the first time Mickael modelled, he was 15 at the time,” Simons says. “There were 4 platforms and on each platform there were 4 boys standing, a reference to Kraftwerk. He was one of these 16 boys. It was that moment that he heard Kraftwerk for the first time and became quite obsessed with them. He did 2 or 3 shows in total and we lost touch until I heard of his band and we met again. The interesting thing is that out of his experience in my early shows he found his obsession with electronic music. He’s very intelligent, the way he is shaping his band – he loves the sleeve of Dark Side of The Moon, designed by Storm Thorgerson, who is in his late 60s now. So he approached him to create the sleeve of Goose’s second album, Synrise.”

Radioactivity was presented for A/W 98-99 at the Moulin Rouge, Paris. It is the only Raf Simons catwalk show to feature his clothes on women, albeit wearing crash helmets. Four podiums of boys were styled in the vein of German electronic pioneers Kraftwerk – uniform side partings, red shirts and black ties, whilst models walked a regular, if intimate, runway. A vision of new wave modernity set to a Laurie Anderson and Kraftwerk soundtrack, the atmosphere was at once transgressive and ceremonial.

“For me, Transmission 1 is a very exciting project as it’s unexpected and not so logical,” Raf pinpoints. “Maybe it’s not what people would want me to do and it’s what they can criticise – and that’s why I find it interesting. It’s almost more interesting at this stage [of my career] to do something like this than to curate some major art show for a respected museum. This is more challenging. And it’s supposed to entertain people.”

The most humble entertainment? An on-site cinema “where you can always see movies. Movies that are linked to me, made in 1968 when I was born. Even after everything finishes and kids aren’t ready to go home they can see horror movies or a couple of space movies, as well as a kind of grunge thing.”

Raf begins to round up after half an hour of insight. “The things I’m bringing in are linked to me in one way or another, sometimes from before I even started,” he expresses. Community is something that has been present since year dot and it’s part of Transmission 1, whether creative communities, that of those attending or new hybrids Simons is shaping for 3 days. Some of Raf’s most regarded shows are a proposal of modernity that questions not just our lives today, but addresses the direction of our future too. This event is a continuation of that desire to explore.

S/S 05’s The History of The World, is regarded as a definitive moment in Simons’ career. The style? A tough, modernist aesthetic, that touched on a Berliner-type darkness in places, as Simons’ references became abstracted into a greatest hits vocabulary and experiment with proportion. This is the show where models decended, repetitively, from escalators and walked the runway toward a new chapter – another triumph of performance. In the words of Tim Blanks: “[The models] looked like angels, in these billowing coats. The music was exquisite. It was like being in heaven.”

Models descended escalators again for S/S 12, a direct reference to the performance from S/S 05. Looks were serialised, as boys arrived in tribes – the red leather sleeveless t-shirt and slicked down hair a subliminal flashback to Radioactivity. The collection married coolness to Simons’ catalyst quality, with no didactic outcome. Just like Transmission 1, really.

We’ve got to the point where we have to bite our tongue, as we don’t want to ruin any surprises. Theory might write cheques but experience cashes them. Simons is all about experience, and Transmission 1 is going to be fun. “See you on Friday!” Raf says, cheerfully before getting back to work – on, yes, a Saturday night.


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