Antwerp, Bernard Arnault, Christian Dior, Dior, Dior New Artistic Director, Fashion, Haute Couture, Jil Sander, John Galliano, Louis Vuitton, Luxury, LVMH, Marc Jacobs, Moët Hennessy, Raf Simons, Sidney Toledano, Style, Yves Saint Laurent
The Belgian designer Raf Simons was named late on Monday as the next artistic director of Christian Dior — a post that had been empty for more than a year since the dramatic departure of John Galliano in March 2011.
“I feel fantastic,” Mr. Simons said by telephone from his studio in Antwerp. “It is one of the ultimate challenges, and a dream to go to a place like Dior, which stands for absolute elegance, incredible femininity and utter luxury.”
Mr. Simons, 44, began his career in men’s wear in 1995 and went on to revitalize men’s and women’s lines at Jil Sander 10 years later.
Now he has been chosen by Bernard Arnault, chairman and chief executive of LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton to modernize Dior, the most classic of Parisian couture houses. In a statement, LVMH said that “Raf Simons’ journey with the house of Dior will propel its iconic style into the 21st century.”
Mr. Simons will be in charge of haute couture, women’s ready-to-wear and accessories, starting with the couture show in July, while keeping his eponymous men’s line.
Mr. Arnault and Sidney Toledano, Dior’s chief executive, began searching for a new designer after Mr. Galliano was removed from the post because he had made anti-Semitic slurs in a bar in Paris.
Several designers said they had turned down the house, apparently seeing a post-Galliano role as a poisoned chalice.
The front runner, the American-born Marc Jacobs, design director of Louis Vuitton, decided to stay where he was. In the meantime, design direction at Dior was in the hands of Bill Gaytten, Mr. Galliano’s former assistant. LVMH’s financial figures for 2011 show that Dior’s results were not affected.
Mr. Simons’s name had been bandied about with other supposed contestants in recent months, particularly after his on-off courtship by the house of Yves Saint Laurent ended. The Dior appointment is being made as the designer Hedi Slimane, once a men’s wear rival of Mr. Simons’s, takes on the top job at Saint Laurent, the fashion house owned by PPR, a major LVMH rival.
The Christian Dior heritage began with the romantic Mr. Dior himself, a man who brought femininity to the postwar 1950s, building the tiny waists and sweeping skirts of his voluptuous “flower women” on his obsession with the Edwardian elegance of his early memories of his mother. He died suddenly in 1957 after only 10 years at the helm, to be followed by a young unknown, Yves Saint Laurent.
Mr. Simons’s style could not be more different from that of the founder: He has a modernist vision and a spare, linear style based on fine tailoring. “My aim is a very modern Dior, but at the end of the day, I also look back,” he said, referring to what he calls “mid-century modernism.”
“I find that period between 1947 and 1957 extremely attractive, and there was a lot of modernity,” Mr. Simons said of Christian Dior’s designs. “There was the romantic appeal looking back to his mother and the belle époque, but there was also a constant evolution in shape, changing proportions and the ideas connected to the World War were revolutionary.”
Mr. Simons comes from the Flemish town of Neerpelt, the only son of a modest family. His mother worked as a house cleaner and his father was on military night watch. Some of that uniform severity may have been worked into the spare lines of early men’s collections, where the obsessive focus was the angst and tension of youth culture and the beat of the Belgian music movement.
“But my father was not a strict man, it was a warm nest,” Mr. Simons said, adding that his interest in fashion was more about escaping from a Catholic background and a rigorous college full of students aspiring to become lawyers or doctors.
While Christian Dior embraced flower gardens and the decorative stage sets of his artist friend Christian Bérard, Mr. Simons trained as an industrial designer in Genk before trying men’s fashion. His world was defined by one of his earliest shows for autumn winter 1996-97. In “We Only Come Out at Night,” youths with skinny bodies, sculpted faces and sensual lips dragged on cigarettes and reveled in their adult-free world.
What does all that — or even the sharp, precise tailoring in the minimalist Jil Sander mode — have to do with the haute couture collection that Mr. Simon will show in July, followed by his first Dior ready-to-wear collection in the autumn?
In fact, the designer’s recent women’s collections for Jil Sander seemed to have walked away from the sleek severity of Ms. Sander, who is returning (and not for the first time) to her own house.
Taking a role as couture architect rather than decorator, Mr. Simons has shown ball-gown skirts, albeit with stark white blouses, elegant day dresses in paisley patterns and splashes of Picasso. For his winter 2012 show, there were tailored coats clutched over soft dresses in the powdery, pastel shades that suggest a modernist romance.
The problem for Mr. Arnault has been to replace the boudoir glamour and fantastical imagination of Mr. Galliano. The executive needed a designer who could tip Dior toward the 21st century.
It is generally believed that Mr. Arnault’s daughter Delphine was influential in the choice. She is a modernist with a penchant for the streamlined, feminist clothes from the LVMH-owned Celine brand. Ms. Arnault updated Dior’s iconic bags in a collaboration with the Berlin graphic artist Anselm Reyle.
Mr. Simons, often spotted at the Frieze Art Fair in London and a collector of contemporary art, seems to fit that groove. The crazy days of Galliano shows, offering couture as theater, belong to another era. Yet Mr. Simons too has a history of imaginative presentations. A “Kinetic Youth” men’s wear show in 1999, with David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” playing, while street-sourced models appeared on concrete walkways under a vast mirrored globe, was topped only by the 2005 “History of the World.” That show expressed the futuristic modernity of streamlined tailoring against a backdrop of moving escalators, from which Mr. Simons, for the first time, showed his face at the finale. He says an escalator’s malfunction forced him to appear.
Far from a performer or a designer comfortable with public display, how will Dior’s new star handle the meet-and-greet of American trunk shows and the bows taken after major presentations made throughout Asia, especially China? “I have learned that the audience likes that,” he said. “I wouldn’t say that I am a public person, but when you have a voice, people want to listen.” He said his early resistance to appearing in public came from his shyness “that I overcame slowly but surely.”
The most crucial thing for a designer in any art form is to be relevant. In that, the Raf Simons shows seem to be eerily prescient. In an abrupt switch from the “isolated heroes” in their slim-fit schoolboy sweaters in 1999, the new millennium brought a show of anarchic figures in baggy hooded jackets, Arabic scarves and camouflage coats staging a riot on a bare, scaffolded set. It was two months before the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
A 2004 show staged outdoors as a group of wandering hippies was in stark contrast to a 2009 runway of conservative tailoring, strong on formal elements, that seemed to abandon youth culture. In retrospect, it seemed to foretell the banking crisis.
Mr. Simons’s skinny, moody youths set a style for men’s wear that also was taken up by Mr. Slimane. His Dior homme collections with thin, androgynous models created the hottest look in town, the shows pulling in a mighty audience, headed by a transfixed Karl Lagerfeld.
Mr. Slimane left fashion abruptly in 2007 to concentrate on photography. His debut at YSL in October will be his first stab at women’s design. The designer Kris Van Assche remains in his role at Dior Homme.
All this must have been in Mr. Arnault’s mind; he has always insisted that creativity is paramount in keeping a heritage house alive.
Next season, when Mr. Simons pits his vision against Mr. Slimane’s, it will be one of those epic standoffs that fashion has seen many times before — not least when Christian Dior’s romantic elegance faced the lofty sculptures of Cristóbal Balenciaga.
But why should Mr. Simons, with his history of creating streetwise clothes, be interested in the endangered species of haute couture?
“It is not always right to judge everything in terms of commerciality,” he said. “In the art world there are collectors, curators and an audience, and they are all important. I am fascinated with what could be the relevance of the language of couture in the 21st century.”