Raf Simons has always been mesmerized by closed, secret worlds. At his own label, it was the youth tribes who coalesce around certain types of music. Since he started designing womenswear, other doors have opened for him. The beauty parlor/spa scenario of his Spring 2012 collection for Jil Sander was the most obvious expression of his wonderment at the world of women and the closed societies they create for themselves. Then came the job at Dior, and, with it, the opportunity to truly decipher the codes of haute couture and its sorority of female artisans: These are clothes that women make, by hand, for other women.
Simons is like a kid in a candy store with couture. Its combination of technique and psychology could have been tailor-made to satisfy his obsessions. So the first thing that struck one about today's show was the lightness, not only in the openness and airiness of the clothes themselves, but also in an attitude that reflected the designer's oft-stated desire to modernize couture. And if that boiled down to something as straightforward as pairing a couture dress with flower-strewn trainers (Simons painted a picture of a woman leaving the red carpet, plucking her shoes out of her bag, and spending the rest of the night in a club), then so be it. "Dior loved movement in his clothes," said Simons, "and I was wondering what would have happened if he'd been in business twenty or thirty years longer, when the sixties happened, when there was a literal movement in society." Wonder no more the collection that Simons showed today had the free spirit that you imagined he imagined Dior would have brought to couture.
The key to the code was the cutwork. Outfit after outfit was slashed or winkled open to form a lattice that veiled the female form below. Then there were actual overlays, and veils of sheer silk covering polka-dot sheaths. Everything shook or shimmied: "It's not about stillness, not about the couture pose," said Simons. It was also quite sexual, as concealment infused with the peekaboo promise of revelation often is. The sole jewelry was a tiny chain that wrapped the neck and the fingers in a tiny bow. It was another way for Simons to communicate the charged intimacy of couture.
The show was a celebration of the hand—with the clothes, obviously, but also with a set that had been laboriously hand-plastered in swooping curves and columns, a bit like Bedrock carved out of lard. The result was an all-white, womblike space, inspired by the work of Valentine Schlegel, a little-known ceramist from the fifties who graduated to making "architectural suggestions" with biomorphic plaster jobs. To Simons, the interior represented "a radical, female gesture." That choice of words alone in the context of couture underscores how this man is the standard-bearer of a transformative sensibility.
And the fact that he is able to imbue his mission with the sweetness and light we saw in todays presentation makes it that more remarkable. For all the lip service that designers pay women, Simons is one who is truly dedicated to respect and celebration. A jacquard top (intended to convey the ease of a T-shirt) featured a graphic that wasn't quite clear from the audience. "It's a woman, on top of the world," the designer explained.