Fashion

04.09.12

Raf Simons to Take Over at Christian Dior

The fashion industry’s most obsessive guessing game has ended: the former Jil Sander designer will debut his first collection for Dior in July. By Robin Givhan.

Raf Simons is the new creative director at Christian Dior.

The announcement in The New York Times ostensibly ends one of the fashion industry’s most obsessive parlor games, rumor mills, and Twitter fests.

According to the Paris-based fashion house, Simons’s first collection is expected at the July couture shows.

“It is with the utmost respect for its tremendous history, its unparalleled knowledge and craftsmanship that I am joining the magnificent house of Dior. Mr. Christian Dior has always been for me the most inspiring couturier,” Simons said in a statement. “I am truly humbled and honored to become artistic director of the most celebrated French house in the world.”

Simons takes over the reigns of a luxury-good company that was thrown into turmoil last year when its longtime creative director, John Galliano, was fired following anti-Semitic comments. Since his departure, the brand has been under the guidance of Galliano’s former right-hand man, Bill Gaytten. And a laundry list of prospective successors has been dissected and discarded in the public sphere. The list of names ranged from Marc Jacobs to Haider Ackermann and Riccardo Tisci to Alber Elbaz.

As months passed, Dior posted double-digit revenue gains. It maintained its high-profile presence on the red carpet with glamorous appearances by Natalie Portman and Charlize Theron. And Gaytten’s collections garnered critical praise. It seemed possible that the house—which had been so wed to a flamboyant personality and outré presentations—might embrace a more reserved sensibility going forward. Indeed, during an interview with Newsweek last year, Bernard Arnault, who controls Christian Dior along with the many labels under the LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton banner, touted the success and popularity of the wholly understated and restrained Céline. “My daughter Delphine, she’s working at Dior, but she wears Céline,” Arnault said.

In choosing Simons, Arnault selects a designer who was wildly championed by critics and praised by retailers during his tenure at Jil Sander. Simons left the minimalist sportswear brand less than two months ago and it was announced that the company’s namesake would be returning to the helm.

While at Jil Sander, Simons established a vocabulary of bold color and provocative shapes, along with a refreshing understanding of fashion’s role in the lives of professional women. His work was both functional and eclectic. His is a far cry from the lush romanticism of Galliano.

“I think what [Raf] has done over the last couple of years at Jil Sander is exactly what’s needed to bring Dior into the present moment,” says Valerie Steele, director and chief curator for the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. “He’s shown that he can do things with a couture sensibility, but there’s also a real modernity … to his work.”

Indeed, Simons’s spring 2012 collection seemed—to some eyes—a kind of audition for Dior. It was refined and feminine with echoes of a New Look silhouette. But it was also spare and joyful. It studiously avoided the moniker of retro.

In choosing Simons, Arnault selects a designer who was wildly championed by critics and praised by retailers during his tenure at Jil Sander.

The history of Dior has been populated by Yves Saint Laurent, Marc Bohan, Gianfranco Ferrè, and of course, Galliano. But only Galliano made an overwhelming and deliberate connection with the past, Steele says. Such a connection is not a prerequisite for success.

“It’s much less important to look for a designer who will continue specific references than a designer who can take different elements and make them modern,” Steele says. “Dior was a master of silhouette. I think that’s something Raf has shown he’s really good at. And it doesn’t have to be that cinched-waist silhouette.”

As Christian Dior celebrates its 65th anniversary, Simons will be charged with keeping the brand relevant in the feverishly competitive high-end market. He will have to make a case for couture’s ongoing relevance in a world entranced by fast and cheap fashion. And he will have to speak to a customer base that is increasingly dominated by China rather than Western capitals.

Simons has already begun to tackle his task.