The fashion designer discusses collaboration, the creative responsibility for innovation and how to stay punk at the top.
Alessio Ascari As you know, Sterling is playing the role of the guest editor for this issue. Within this frame, he selected a group of people to represent his influences and collaborations—you, of course, being one of them. But let’s start from the beginning. Your connection with art goes way back, well before the collaborations with Sterling. I recall the exhibition and book “The Fourth Sex,” co-curated with Francesco Bonami, as well as your 2003 collabo with Peter Saville. You are also an art collector. Tell me more about it.
RAF SIMONS I’m always out for work that I don’t understand right away—not necessarily eye-pleasing, but work that I look at and for some reason can’t get rid of, that just stays in my mind. Sometimes it takes a lot of time before I buy a work, even years. But once I start collecting an artist, especially in the last couple of years, more and more I focus on buying it in depth. Examples include Mark Manders, Anne Collier, Mark Leckey, Evan Holloway, Sanya Kantarovsky, and Brian Calvin—a very quiet, calm painter with whom I collaborated on a fashion line. Lately, though, especially as young artists start reaching very high quotations very early, I decided to start collecting artists from the generation that awakened my interest in art—people like Cindy Sherman, Mike Kelley and Charlie Ray. And of course, I am one of the main collectors of Sterling’s work.
AA Was this how you guys first met? And later on, how did the idea of a collaboration come about?
RS We met eleven, almost twelve years ago. I initially began collecting Sterling’s early work through Marc Foxx gallery in Los Angeles, who were his first representation and happened to be close friends of mine. I had already bought two or three pieces when Marc told me one day, “I have to go and see Sterling for a studio visit—why don’t you join us?” So that’s how we met. I didn’t yet know about his Dutch background—his mom is from a region in Holland that is very close to where I grew up and my parents still live. Sterling still has part of his family there and visits often; he even speaks a little bit of Dutch. So there was this connection, and we instantly started a dialogue. We kept in touch, and very soon we became friends—each time I would be in LA, I would visit him, and every time he would be in Europe, he would stay at my house in Antwerp. I got to know his family, and through time, it became a really deep friendship, almost like family. At one point along the way, he became a really big artist. As two friends who are both creative animals, we used to talk a lot about all the responsibility and pressure, as well as the freedom, entailed in our work. We also had a strong interest in each other’s practices, and at one point, we both started to feel that we should do something together.
AA Your first official collaborative output was Sterling’s massive intervention in the Tokyo store in 2008, right? How did it go?
RS Well, basically, I just gave him the key to the door! (laughs) I had complete trust in him. I just told him, “You know my body of work—do what you feel you should do.” My only regret is that it doesn’t exist anymore, because the store closed. But it was a fantastic project, and it might happen again.
AA Then, of course, in the fall of 2014, you released your collaborative fashion collection, which was a breakout. Your approach to the collaboration was very open and generous: after all, Raf Simons is not only you, it’s also a brand, and you offered it as a platform for an artist to express himself. And in turn, Sterling generously applied his art to this new platform, this new medium.
RS A couple of years ago, I was visiting his atelier, and we just decided to do it. It was very easy and natural. We started elaborating on how the collaboration would be structured, with one of us being in LA, the other in Antwerp; one being a fashion designer, the other an artist… We decided that if we were going to do it, we should do it all the way. It should be a new format, showing Sterling’s work in the shadow of my work. From the first moment, it was important to us that it not be my label, but the label of two people who started something together.
Even if my format is making garments and his is making artworks, if you look beyond the effective material practice, we have a lot of shared interests; there are just so many things we have in common, in terms of how we look at things. For example, the idea of punk—we both have this kind of reactive, anti-establishment attitude. We talk about it often, because once your work comes to succeed, you can find yourself becoming the establishment yourself. In order to fight this, we both keep thinking how we can do things in different ways, reacting against our own work and our own thinking. That’s why the collaboration was so fascinating: I was fascinated to see how he would approach things. In fashion, you have to constantly innovate shapes and language. You have a big responsibility for innovation. Sterling, on the other hand, would sometimes say, “We could also just do a normal shirt”—and after some initial doubt, I’d say, “You know what? You’re right!” You can go back to a very simple approach and realize it used to be part of your practice as well.
Also, as a fashion designer, you have these responsibilities of making turnover, taking care of your clients, all kinds of commerce-related things. To be honest, sometimes, when I was working with Sterling on the collection, I thought some of the work we were doing would have zero commercial impact. But once the show was done and we started showroom sales, it turned out completely different: against all my expectations, it was the best-selling collection in twenty years of my brand. The unexpected behavior of clients, buyers and people in the streets is fascinating; it keeps me thinking positively about the environment that I chose to work in. When you break your own rules, things can have an unexpected impact.
Sterling had an almost opposite process of thinking than mine in relation to commerce. As an artist, he was interested in ensuring access to the work, to making things that lots of people could buy. It reminded me of other artists who used to think like that. For example, Picasso, who decided to make editions and vases and whatever and just sell them to people who liked them. At the end of the day, his idea was to reach out to as many people as possible.
AA Of course. And if you go back to the Bauhaus, for example, which is a major inspiration for both of you, there was also this idea that creativity can apply to every format, from fashion and craft to art and design. Or even going back to the Renaissance, Leonardo da Vinci was an engineer who worked in hydraulics and architecture, while at the same time being the painter of the Gioconda! He wasn’t afraid of liberating his creative genius in every possible format.
And so we’re back to this idea of generosity, which I think is really key here. Sterling just has this unadulterated desire to get his work out there. It’s quite uncommon today—artists are increasingly insecure about how to frame and distribute their work. I firmly believe we need more generosity and exuberance in the art world!
RS What I find very interesting is that there is an ongoing debate about the amount of Sterling’s practice. Some people criticize artists who produce a lot of work. Sterling is very punk because he doesn’t care—he is an artist who naturally needs to produce a lot. Actually, most people would be surprised by how much of his work passes through his own hands. I have been at his atelier many, many times, and Sterling is always there, handling each piece—whether it’s collages, paintings, ceramics or sculptures, it all goes through him. He has assistants, of course, but at the end of the day, his team is not that big. He just has that urge to produce: it’s his life, his nature, his persona, and to galleries and collectors, he just says, “You know what, I do what I need to do, and if it’s a lot, then you have to deal with it.” In that sense, I think it’s very punk of him. He has no fear. A lot of artists feel like they should adapt to the systematic behavior of the system that surrounds them, just as a lot of collectors, when they start to buy in the order of the hundreds of thousands, start to get afraid. These collectors buy a work of Sterling’s, for example, and when they see there is much more work going around, they go, “Oh my God, he shouldn’t produce so much, it’s going to collapse.” They only care about their investment. But I care deeply about Sterling’s career. He is an artist, and he should be free to produce as much as he likes. It’s great work if it reaches out to the world, no matter the quantity.
AA I agree 100%. And it’s not even just about quantity, but also about formats. Sometimes people in the industry are suspicious of artists who experiment a lot with different media. Choosing a single medium is safer, more recognizable—whereas if you work with different materials—ceramics, paintings, sculptures, video—some critics will say it’s impossible to do it all well. But Sterling is an artist who seems not to care about those limitations. I think it’s refreshing, and I feel that the synergy between you and him is based a lot on this idea of freedom.
Lately, I have been extremely fascinated by the topic of super collaborations between creative minds coming together from different fields—like you and Sterling, but also think of Dalí and Walt Disney, Kanye West and Vanessa Beecroft, Irving Penn and Issey Miyake, Arca and Jesse Kanda, and so on. How do you view liaisons between creative minds? Do you have any favorite examples?
RS I don’t think of collaborations any differently than I think of individuals. Just as there are individuals doing great work, and individuals doing bad work, there are collaborations that are more or less successful. But I do find some collaborations particularly inspiring. You mentioned the Bauhaus earlier, which of course was an era that promoted collaboration between creative people from various fields. But one of my favorite examples is Le Corbusier and Pierre Jeanneret’s massive Chandigarh project, an entire city in Northern India. Le Corbusier designed the architecture, and Jeanneret did all the furniture and accessories. They were close and connected to each other, they shared a vision, and their work is at its strongest here, probably because they were also criticizing each other. That’s what I find most interesting. Collaboration is not only about being best friends and doing things together, it’s about questioning yourselves.
Raf Simons (Belgian, b. 1968) is a fashion designer who lives and works in Antwerp. He is the founder and designer of his own menswear brand. Previously, he was Creative Director of Jil Sander (menswear and womenswear) from 2005–2012 and Dior (womenswear) from 2012–2015.
Alessio Ascari is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of KALEIDOSCOPE.
Photos by Melanie Schiff
Portrait by Willy Vanderperre