Raf Simons’ SS21 collection fails at meaningfully reinterpreting the ’60s

Raf Simons has an obsession with youth culture. Usually it’s the culture of his own youth – to be specific, the post-punk and New Wave scene in Europe in the ’80s– but for his Spring Summer 2021 collection, it’s the youth of the ’60s and early ’70s. The flared cut on nearly all the pants, the midcentury psychedelia fonts and patterns, Beatles haircuts for men, long straight hippie hair for women, big pins with slogans like “Midnight Wild Flower Souls” and “Question Everything.” Aptly titled “Teenage Dreams,” Simons explores the era’s idealism and how the contrivances, failures and sociopolitical factors of then mirror those of now. However, though Simons may have set those lofty goals for himself, the message doesn’t quite land because he is still working with many of the same aesthetics as he did before. Simons is trying to translate his austere Belgian design language onto zany ’60s Americana, and the result is as conflicting as it sounds. 

That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of looks that are beautiful or interesting or evocative, because there are. The motif of the suit jacket with the sleeves bunched up to reveal a hallucinogenic undershirt is a great metaphor for the kind of vast re-incorporation into sober society that Woodstock attendees had to experience. The same goes for the tight transparent plastic suit vests that reveal rebellious denim and twill jackets fitted underneath. The set design is gorgeous and elaborately decorated, an interpretation of “Alice in Wonderland” inside a warehouse. Other pieces that stood out included the fascinating hoodie-skirt-cape combinations. And even though I know I have a penchant for all or mostly black looks, it must be said that the way the final leg of the show is shrouded in darkness is a poignant end to something called “Teenage Dreams.”

But even with a new focus, a new topic, Simons can’t help but interject his masturbatory love for Joy Division: We cannot even get to the second look here without a slim cut long sleeve t-shirt emblazoned several times over with the word “Disorder.” Fitting for the moment, but not interesting. The graphics are played with in a clean, distinctly Peter Saville-esque style, the same that they’ve been since the beginning of Simons’ work. The patchwork imagery is classic, applied in an identically esoteric way as he did for his seminal Autumn Winter “Riot! Riot! Riot!” show back in 2001. The turtlenecks are stamped on the left side of the neck with a cursive “R,” as they were a little less than a decade ago. The overarching problem with “Teenage Dreams” is that it does very little in the way of actually dreaming outside the narrow comfort zone that Simons has made for himself. Fundamental to youth culture in the ’60s were experimentation and progression, neither of which Simons has ideologically ascribed to. All he has done is mimic the movement’s aesthetic conclusions. 

Many people in the fashion industry demand a new theme and narrative every six months—this is not what I am demanding. Just to compare, Rick Owens sits staunchly within his gothic kingdom, but with every collection there is at least one new concept or technique being applied, and his influences change. Indeed, many of Owens’ avant-garde darkwear contemporaries do nothing but produce within their own bubble. However, the difference between these and the stale nature of Simons’ “Teenage Dreams” is that the concept presented in the former is futuristic and experimental, while the latter has been thoroughly digested, regurgitated and commonly sold for half a century at this point. 

In an interview with The Cut, Simons said that “the nature of a revolution in fashion is that it comes from someone we don’t know.” It is interesting that he should be so aware of this fact, and yet continue to pretend as though it is appropriate to open his show with a t-shirt that literally reads “Welcome Home Children Of The Revolution.” If this is irony, there’s no hint of it. And the possibility that he may be trying to draw a connection between the Black Lives Matter protests and the civil rights movement of the ’60s is so obvious, and so commercialized, that it borders on being offensive. Were he to strip every blatant reference to the ’60s, it would stop being annoying—but it would also stop being interesting. This is a problem that I’ve always had with Simons’ work, which is that if you take away his ability to shove another person’s art into his own, I’m not sure that it means much: a jacket, a sweater, a t-shirt. Perhaps their cut is slightly oversized, but nonetheless they’re simple patterns. Again, taken on their own, much of this is a solid mixture of highly wearable and highly fashionable; if I were to be gifted any of these pieces I would wear them. But as a whole artistic effort, it leaves a lot to be desired, because the pretenses of the presentation simply aren’t fulfilled.

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