Born to an army night watchman and a house cleaner, on January 12, 1968 in Neerpult, Belgium, Raf graduated from a Genk college in 1991 after studying Industrial Design and Furniture Design. From there he interned at the design studio of Walter Van Beirendonck.
Simons admits his spare time was spent with his then-girlfriend, Veronique Branquinho, and their friends, Olivier Rizzo, Willy Vanderperre and David Vandewal at Antwerp cafe, Witzli-Poetzli, where the group would discuss Helmut Lang and Martin Margiela. His career path changed when Van Beirendonck invited him to attend Paris Fashion Week. It was Margiela’s all-white show of 1991 that inspired Simons to leave the world of furniture design and take up fashion professionally.
By 1995, a self-trained Simons, encouraged by Linda Loppa, the then head of the fashion department at the Antwerp Royal Academy, and now director of Italy’s Polimoda fashion school, had launched his own menswear label.
Ground-breaking from the off-set, Simons’ debut AW’95 runway show featured two street models in a video presentation. This set the tone for his shows until SS’97, with each collection shown either via video or presentation. Simons’ first Paris show was his AW’97 collection. It was during these shows, that Raf revealed what has become one of his signature styles, the skinny, slim-cut suit. It wasn’t just the cut, however, that made the fashion world take notice, rather his presentation of it. Raf passed on agency models, instead using boys from his homeland of Belgium, all of whom had a similar physicality to him: small build, narrow-shoulders. It was a move Cathy Horyn at The NY Times said, “introduced the idea that a young man’s physical size was not at variance with his sense of isolation, a feeling that would have been ordinary to anyone who had grown up in Antwerp – or Rotterdam, or Manchester – in isolated apartment towers built since the war, and who had spent a lot of time listening to bands like Joy Division.” The minimalist silhouette became an iconic 90s look, but remains a staple, some twenty years later.
In 2005 Simons entered in fashion history with his nomination as creative director of Jil Sander, and received industry-wide acclaim for his minimalist work at the German label. During his tenure, Simons transformed the brand's aesthetic from its austere minimalism by adding feminine accents and fluid silhouettes. In 2008, two flagship Raf Simons standalone stores opened in Tokyo and Osaka, Japan, in collaboration with the artists Sterling Ruby and Roger Hiorns. Since 2008, Simons has created collections in collaboration with Fred Perry, Asics and Adidas, and collections of sunglasses with Linda Farrow.
Simons left Jil Sander in time for his appointment to Dior in April 2012, replacing Bill Gaytten as creative director and ending a period of transition after John Galliano's dismissal from the role. During his time at Dior, Simons offered modern couture and demi-couture ready-to-wear collections, featuring contemporary art and new-age materials and creating a elegant and modern take on Dior’s archive of classic silhouettes. Simons’ homages and updates of the Dior archives placed the previously minimalist designer at the forefront of Parisian fashion, building on his established reputation from his work at his own label and Jil Sander.
The multi-talented fashion visionary brought storied fashion house Dior to the forefront of modernity with his innovative approaches to design, across ready-to-wear, accessories and haute couture. In 2015, Simons cast Rihanna as the first black face of the house. In the same year, Dior & I — a documentary by Frédéric Tcheng exploring the house's couture atelier and the creation of Simon's first Haute Couture collection at Dior — was released to rave reviews. In late 2015, Simons officially stepped down from his role at Dior to develop his own label.
Today he has shifted his focus to his eponymous label, which have been shown at Pitti Uomo in Florence in June 2016, although many in the industry continue to speculate that an announcement regarding Simons’ appointment as creative director of Calvin Klein is imminent. The designer, albeit currently unaffiliated with a brand other than his own, continues to receive critical acclaim for his lasting creative influence that has prompted many at the helms of historic fashion brands to re-examine their roles in contemporary fashion.