Growing up in the unassuming Belgian town of Neerpelt and attending a strict religious school, as a teenager Mr Raf Simons often escaped to the local record store - the only cultural outlet nearby. There, he bought LPs by Kraftwerk, New Order and Joy Division, bands that influence the designer even today. And since founding his eponymous menswear label in Antwerp in 1995, Mr Simons, 44, has produced a diverse and noteworthy body of work. His early collections, typically shown on motorway overpasses and in abandoned warehouses to thumping techno music, kick-started the revival of skinny tailoring, while his work would later reflect and redefine the way a whole generation of young men dress in terms of both silhouette and attitude - for example, by pairing hooded sweaters with tailored jackets, or suits with sneakers, before the mainstream followed.
Fashion critics regard Mr Simons as one of the most influential designers today. He served as the creative director of Jil Sander from 2005 until earlier this year, and recently took up the reins at Dior, although his name is largely unknown beyond the fashion world. The reason for this is that he eschews the sort of publicity that surrounds most leading designers, instead approaching life in an uncomplicated way and surrounded by a small group of friends and collaborators. No more than five people are permanently employed by the Raf Simons label.
Mr Simons didn't intend to be a fashion designer and studied industrial design at university. "Sometimes I hear stories such as, 'I was playing with my mother's dresses as a child and blah blah blah'," he says dismissively, before explaining that it was an internship with Mr Walter Van Beirendonck that drew him to fashion. Mr Simons' cultural interests are broad, spanning music, contemporary art and youth subcultures, and in his fashion collections he combines elements of these with faultless construction and sharp tailoring. "My inspiration is endless, I can't define it," the designer reveals. The resulting clothes are timeless, unerringly modern and loaded with cultural depth. Hinting at the self-referential, intellectual side of his work, Mr Simons concludes: "I want [my brand] to be about the psychology and perception of menswear, and how men see themselves and their clothes."