Is Raf Simons Archive Redux a Mistake or Masterpiece?
Is Raf Simons Archive Redux a Mistake or Masterpiece?
- Words Asaf Rotman
- Date July 14, 2020
The concept of “archive” fashion is not as straightforward as it sounds. Yes, ostensibly it refers to older seasons from a venerable label, often the work of a seasoned, retired or deceased designer who has since moved on—aesthetically or otherwise. In reality though, defining what is and is not archive is fairly difficult, largely a matter of opinion. How many years before a piece is “archive-worthy?”. Why is 15 year-old Gucci by Tom Ford so sought-after? How do you value artisanal Maison Martin Margiela by the retired genius himself?
While these questions plague the archive fashion space, one fact is universal: archive Raf Simons is sacred. Easily the most notable name in men’s archive fashion, “rare Raf” has captivated collectors and editors alike for years, so much so that the label itself has taken notice. Now, in celebration of the label’s 25th anniversary, the brand announced many of those vaunted favorites are due for a comeback. The question, though, is do people really want reproductions of Simons' now-archival signatures? If they do, is this the right way to go about selling them?
Secondhand menswear is the core of our business. Before Supreme resale exploded and the sneaker market hit unprecedented heights, Grailed began as a community that bonded over a mutual appreciation for cult–if oftentimes obscure—fashion. From Takahiro Miyashita’s Number (N)ine to Saint Laurent Paris under Hedi Slimane, menswear nerds flocked to the site to buy, sell, trade and generally geek out over menswear’s greatest hits, or “grails,” which where either far too expensive at retail or simply no longer available anywhere apart from fellow collectors' closets.
Since the site’s earliest days, the idea of “archive” has played a pivotal role, whether it be from prior eras or defunct labels. Within this ultra-specific subset, one designer stands above the rest: Raf Simons. Though Grailed has dramatically shifted over the past few years, the revered menswear designer is still amongst our most popular and easily the most sought-after. His long back catalogue boasts many of the most celebrated collections in menswear history and calling him a living legend is not an overstatement. Simons undeniably altered men’s fashion, and since his 1995 debut, few designers have been spoken of in such regard.
While today men’s fashion is equally as important as women’s, throughout the '90s and early-'00s that was far from the case. Yet, despite focusing exclusively on menswear, Simons was amongst the industry's most celebrated. He broke down barriers, refused to adhere to traditional standards and—with a near idyllic focus on "youth" and the music and culture that shaped them—arguably introduced street fashion to the runway. His eerily predictive commentary on everything from global politics (Spring/Summer 2002’s Woe Onto Those Who Spit on the Fear Generation… The Wind Will Blow It Back”—which appeared prior to the world-changing events of 9/11) to the state of contemporary art and its relationship to fashion (like Fall/Winter 2014's collection with collaborator Sterling Ruby) made fashion headlines. While not necessarily the most commercially successful label in the business, to his cult fans there was no competition.
In a fast-fashion-addled and Diet Prada-policed fashion industry, it's easy to see how many brands often flip, revisit or straight up copy the work of innovative designers. It's not an overstatement to say that Simons didn't just provide perspective on the trends we see across menswear today... he established those codes himself.
It was this frenetic fan base (and inclusion of year and season on the hang tag) that led to a small yet active community that actively hunted and traded rare Raf Simons items, often well above retail. Though collecting archival fashion is well documented—particularly in women’s couture—within menswear it was a hyper-niche community; you'd have to be someone who trawled dozens of fashion forum conversations to unearth information and thoughtful discussion.
By the early 2010s, men were buying rare Raf Simons pieces for hefty five figure sums. Of course, this obsession seeped into the early days of Grailed, with the eventual conclusion being our highest sale ever, a Raf Simons Fall/Winter 2001 “Riot, Riot, Riot” bomber selling for $47,000. (Two sales of the the same bomber came in as both the number one and number two most expensive items sold on Grailed in 2019). How archive Raf Simons reached such status isn’t exactly clear... but celebrity stylist and archivist David Casavant lending the same “Riot” bomber to Kanye West and Rihanna certainly helped. Regardless, by the time A$AP Rocky released his ode to all things Simons, “Please don’t touch my Raf” was a household expression.
At the peak of Simons fandom, the designer was on top of the fashion world, finishing his tenure as women’s creative director at Dior before moving on (and relocating to New York) to revitalize Calvin Klein. “Raf” was on top of the charts—both literally and figuratively—and was finally getting his commercial praise.
Then, things changed. Simons’ was unceremoniously dismissed from Calvin Klein, his tenure considered a commercial disaster. Recent collections failed to resonate like those from the early-2000s and 2010s. If anything, the runway shows created for all of Simons' designs during his tenure in New York City (Simons also showed and worked on his eponymous label in New York City while he was overseeing Calvin Klein) felt more like a retread of his "greatest hits". His work for Calvin Klein—while exciting tapped into familiar work with Sterling Ruby. His work on his eponymous label (as seen in his Spring/Summer 2018 collection) recalled oft-used Simons cultural references, including nods to Peter Saville and New Order album artwork.
Still, the designer persisted. As fashion is wont to do, however, resale on several coveted pieces began falling, and critics set their gazes on other, younger voices. Considering that many of Simons' recent collections—especially those aforementioned ones shown in New York—already revisited his visual and aesthetic archive, it feels both fitting, but also a little beguiling, to see the designer digging up his archive in the way "Raf Simons Archive Redux" has chosen to do.
If anything it's not a "revisit" Simons is after: He's now literally just reproducing the hits.
Set to be released in December, the 100-piece collection, four pieces of which will hit shelves in the initial drop, is a re-release and retrospective of the designer’s greatest hits over the past 25 years. While a good concept in theory, it clearly is an attempt to capitalize on the coveted nature of "rare Raf." Unfortunately, the effect is likely going to dilute the effect and desirability of the archival pieces that have kept Raf Simons a cult label over so many years.
The campaign is eerily reminiscent of another hallmark '90s label, and the only other to hold a candle to Simons as far as collectible archives are concerned: Helmut Lang.
In 2017, Helmut Lang (the brand) launched Re-Edition, a series of designs from the late-'90s and early-'00s, the period when Helmut Lang (the designer) still oversaw and had a stake in the label bearing his name. Like Simons today, these Lang-designed pieces are clearly influential to the modern men's fashion space, and are coveted both as pieces of menswear history, as well as "if you know you know" archivist collectors items. Fittingly, the creative connection between Lang's work in the 1990s and its influence on what Simons would design in the decades to follow is clear and well-documented.
Since Lang departed his eponymous label, the brand changed hands a couple of times, first owned by the Prada group before being sold off to Fast Retailing (the umbrella organization that owns Uniqlo). In the 15 years since Lang left the label, any vestiges of prestige have pretty much dwindled under the Helmut Lang brand; it's the designer’s original collections at the turn of the century that keep it within the wider fashion conversation and are still the stuff of legend.
Attempting to harness that same energy for modern audiences who either missed the old pieces or simply weren't able (or alive) to appreciate them during their original production, Helmut Lang (the brand) re-made some of the designer's most iconic pieces. The problem? Like Simons, demand for archive Lang was waning. But beyond that, sudden availability destroyed the novelty of owning the originals. Forget that they were cheap imitations—the original Lang pieces were painstakingly produced in Italy to near-military standards of quality, the new collection was produced haphazardly in China—the context behind the re-edition meant that they lacked any of the OGs' creative soul.
Now, unlike Helmut Lang, Simons still owns and designs his eponymous label. However, given his recent appointment as co-creative director at Prada alongside Miuccia Prada herself, and massive commercial success, it's unclear if Raf Simons Archive Redux is an attempt to recapture past glory or a much needed injection of cash. More than likely, it’s a simple acknowledgement of the unofficial aftermarket for his work (in other words, the lusted-after OG items on the archival market aren't being sold by Simons' brand directly).
That said, Simons’ himself has acknowledged in various interviews he does not endorse the high aftermarket value of his early oeuvre. In the the introduction to his fashion tome, Raf Simons Redux—no doubt the inspiration for the name of the capsule—Simons explains his work and label is not about himself, but rather “has always been, and will always continue to be, about us, about we, about you.”
Perhaps that is truly the case, and Simons genuinely wants to offer new fans an opportunity to purchase his most lauded designs at a somewhat more reasonable price point. Perhaps Simons is recognizing that—as seen on forums for decades now—the best way to stabilize and introduce audiences to his designs is to... well, *re*introduce them to his deeper catalog.
As for quantity and actual price point, only time will tell—but keep in mind that Raf Simons, like any luxury brand, has never been cheap. Quality, scarcity and execution will determine whether or not Raf Simons Archive Redux will raise the value of the originals—similar to a lackluster Jordan retro release adding value to the originals—or destroy the secondhand archive market entirely.
Whatever the result, as we see it, this whole exercise may be too little, too late.
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