Some time ago I came across a Grailed user offering a staggering $47,000 for a Raf Simons piece, the infamous “Riot Riot Riot Camo Bomber” from Raf Simons’ Fall/Winter 2001 collection. Extravagant? It depends on how you look at Raf Simons’s work. Considered one of the most influential shows of the Belgian designer and trendsetter, his Fall Winter 2002 collection became the reason I fell in love with what I call ”meaningful street wear”. It featured some of the most iconic designs of all time admired by fans and celebrities such as the hard-to-get Kanye West and Kim Kardashian amongst many others. The latter was even spotted flaunting the much-revered bomber on the street as part of her sexy-meets-cool street style. A definite sign Raf Simons’s eclectic work had gone seriously mainstream.
Make no mistake the bomber in question was no random choice. Since the creation of his own eponymous label to becoming a wild successful trendsetter, Raf Simons has been cultivating a devoted cult following that follows his every move-and purchases his designs. With a resume that counts creative direction stints at Dior and Jil Sander as well as a most recent collaboration with Miuccia Prada, the Belgian designer seemed he has done it all: streetwear innovation, progressive tailoring, sneaker design-you name it it’s there. Above all though, Simons has created a unique mental landscape of images, sounds, and cultural references that is entirely and distinctively his own. No surprise that art director Peter Saville, the well-known designer of iconic album covers (think Peter Gabriel, Pulp, New Order, Roxy Music) addressed him as “one of the great pioneers of convergence, transporting the art of sub-cultures into contemporary fashion.” In short, the very future of cool.
Inside this subversive eloquent universe of references, there are shows-cultural milestones that stand out. For me, it’s the aforementioned now iconic Fall Winter 2001 one. It was Simons’s first collection after a much-needed one-year sabbatical which he uses to expand his creative horizons past fashion exploring creative design and art. Then, the show happened. Described as “terrorist chic” by The Guardian fashion editor Charlie Porter, the collection was Simons’s take on street subcultures’ codes elevated into something fresh and new.
Set in a dark warehouse full of scaffolding, strobe lights, an eerie atmosphere of fog, and dystopic industrial sounds, the show became an instant classic and a major aesthetic influence. This was a collection from the depths of youth counter cultures galvanized into a consistent Simons’ universe of parkas, military-style jackets and bombers worn in layers, loose sweaters, and hoodies worn with balaclavas. Decorated with Marxist slogans, Manic Street Preachers photos, and cult film imagery, the collection was an iconography of youth rioting against the old establishment via the eyes of a unique fashion creator. How much more modern?
Imagine the antithesis with the high-fashion audience, their surprise being part of the contradiction set in Simons’ mind. Punk, mod, and garage influencers may have their place in today’s fashion and major street style brands, but for 2001 it was an aggressive new take on where fashion should be looking for evolution: counter cultures. From Mani Street Preachers’ images to Christiane F film stills, the collection’s iconography was of a solid, personal universe that distilled the freshest and newest of fashion experiments of the time: those of the street, in a time when streetwear was slowly entering the high fashion world. “At the flea market in Vienna, I saw youngsters from the Ukraine or Romania, who simply lay layer by layer and thus create their own volumes because of the cold,” he told the Swiss paper Neue Zürcher Zeitung at the time.
The influence of this overlayered, radical, ‘terrorist chic’ was profound to the audience and to show critics later on. Simons’ styling evoked the idea of threat expressed through dress, especially what western eyes of the time would perceive as such. Balaclavas and keffiyehs (traditional Arab headdresses) played out the audience’s ideas of unfamiliarity as a threat. It was the clothes’ volumes, the dark colors, the covered faces and the styling that referred to an intimidating world outside the western perception of safety-it was a youth riot against old establishment conventions. What else to call this collection of iconoclasts but “Riot Riot Riot”? After all, isn’t all his work a riot against the easy and the obvious?
Raf Simons’s radical take on youth culture echoes the rise of terrorist attacks throughout the world at the time. A series of coordinated terrorist attacks by the Islamist terrorist group Al-Qaeda against the United States had already marked a radical shift in almost all western world; it was the beginning of the end for the capitalistic euphoria. In his own world, Simons has been what great artists of all times were; a prophet of his own time In that sense, I will be missing his eponymous label. Then again, I can’t wait to see what he does next.