There were no rumours, no rumblings of discontent, no terrible reviews and no plunge in sales. Not a single sign that could have forewarned the fashion industry of yesterday’s announcement that Raf Simons would resign from Christian Dior.
In fact the opposite was true. Dior has flourished under Simons’ direction. His modernist approach to the house’s image of femininity has been a success, reflected in the brand’s 60 percent rise in sales since 2011. Last year, revenues for Christian Dior Couture climbed 18 per cent, to $1.94 billion. Financials aside, since Simons, 47, took the creative hotseat in April 2012, the relationship between the designer and his LVMH bosses appears to have been nothing but positive, on both sides. It has been widely reported that both Bernard Arnault, the chairman of LVMH and chief executive Syndey Toledano, were at pains to accommodate Simons’ working methods and take great care of their star designer, following the debacle of John Galliano’s exit. As for Simons, he thanked Arnault ‘for the incredible opportunity to work at this beautiful house surrounded by the most amazing team one could ever dream of’; he also praised Toledano for his ‘thoughtful, heartfelt and inspired management’.
So what lead to Simons’ departure? Why, with the applause still ringing in his ears after his SS16 collection shown on October 2 in Paris under a hill of flowers in the Louvre courtyard, did he decide to leave? Simons cited the desire to focus on other interests in his life, including his own menswear brand based in Antwerp.
Most critics see his departure as a red flag warning about the fashion industry moving at warp speed, questioning the necessity for its frantic output of collections. His final show was his 20th collection in a tenure that lasted only three-and-a-half years. And these were blockbuster shows befitting the global might of Dior - two of the six-a-year productions were held in ‘special’ locations, like Cannes, New York, and Tokyo. “When you do six shows a year, there’s not enough time for the whole process,’ Simons told the fashion journalist Cathy Horyn who’s interview with the designer will appear in the next issue of System magazine. ‘Technically, yes — the people who make the samples, do the stitching, they can do it. But you have no incubation time for ideas, and incubation time is very important. When you try an idea, you look at it and think, Hmm, let’s put it away for a week and think about it later. But that’s never possible when you have only one team working on all the collections.’
If his exit boils down to the sheer hellish pace of it all, then Raf Simons is the first designer of his generation to say enough is enough. He will go down in fashion history with Helmut Lang and Martin Margiela before him who walked away from their own brands at the summit of their careers – and, like them, he’ll be revered for doing so.
But I think Raf Simons’ heroism is more complex than that. Simons is an authentic ‘designer’s designer’ in a world which increasingly upholds hyper-superficiality as its greatest marker of success. Where Simons is at the forefront of pioneering fashion ideas, the world is more interested in how many Kardashian bottoms are parked on a front row. Is it any wonder then that Givenchy’s Riccardo Tisci looks like the most believable contender to take over from Simons at Dior? Tisci is the ultimate 2015 designer, a showman, as at home with the Kardashians and his own Instagramogenic celebrity as he is at producing cinematic fashion theatre. Tisci’s aesthetic is also richly romantic in keeping with Dior’s heritage. But perhaps the LVMH bosses would prefer to continue with Raf’s modernist aesthetic at Dior – given that there are 195 Dior boutiques worldwide all reflecting his ultra-modern vision - in which case, Nicolas Ghesquière currently ensconced at Louis Vuitton, might be an easier shoe-in? Ghesquière has certainly demonstrated his ability to work within the company’s mega corporate structure. He is also the ultimate fashion game-changer and influencer – just look at his entire career. Meanwhile, most women in fashion, myself included, would hire Céline’s Phoebe Philo in a hearbeat. How satisfying would it be for a woman to take over the storied French fashion behemoth for the first time in its history? Philo’s consistent track record for providing women with incredibly desirable, contemporary clothes speaks for itself. However tantalizing the idea, it’s unlikely that the ultra media-shy Philo whose Céline atelier is based in London would want to spend so much time away from her family in Paris.
Finally, what of Simons’ next move? The fashion industry being what it is, gossip already has it that he’s on his way to New York to design Calvin Klein – no matter that its designer Francisco Costa just produced his best collection for said brand. Although it’s true that it was at a smaller, more intimate brand that Raf Simons produced the best women’s ready-to-wear of his life - his final, fashion-history-making Jil Sander collection reduced his audience to tears and lead to his hire at Dior.
Whatever our fashion hero does next, you can be sure his influence will be felt. And not only because of what his exit from Dior symbolises: a revered and much loved designer saying ‘no’ to an industry producing too much, too fast in a world driven by social media ‘likes’.