Collection Deep-Dive: Raf Simons SS2004 'May The Circle Be Unbroken'
Raf Simons is one of the most important and influential designers to date. He graduated from the LUCA School of Arts in 1991 initially designing furniture, though changing his artistic focus to fashion following his exposure to Martin Margiela’s work in Paris (namely autumn 1989). His eponymous label started in 1995 and has been creatively independent since, while he’s done creative direction at Jil Sander, Dior and Calvin Klein. He’s spent a majority of his work covering youth culture, managing to capture a raw sense of beauty in the process, a beauty that is truly hard to describe. It's an attitude of sorts that maintains a quiet sense of conviction for what it looks to establish beyond itself.
He asserts his vision with direct and indirect allusions to different modes of being, all the while casting a wide net of visual references to various artists and cultural products (most notably his work with Peter de Potter, Willy Vanderperre, Peter Saville, David Sims and more recently Sterling Ruby and Brian Calvin, to name a few). Alongside visual references, Raf is able to intertwine emotional atmospheres synonymous with being young: rebellion, curiosity, addiction, triumph, independence, belonging, and self fortification (to name a few). Raf’s unique ability to capture and maintain these feelings aesthetically has kept his work relevant to youth today.
He does this effectively through curation as well, most notably his 2003 work The Fourth Sex which was co-curated with Francesco Bonami. It’s 440 pages and is seriously worth reading. The book was produced amidst arguably the best decade for Raf Simons - his early work from roughly 1995 to 2005. It’s sometimes hard to describe why, but the shows throughout these years seemed to best encapsulate the raw energy and unique attitude Raf set out to establish. Some of his most iconic individual garments were produced at this time too, notably the AW01 Riot Bomber, AW02 Nebraska and Virginia Creeper raglans and hoodies, SS03 Consumed Button Up, AW03 “Closer” Parkas, and the hand painted SS04 hoodies/pants/cloaks to name a few. All of these garments have since reached a sort of icon status and all continue to fetch absurd prices online. (Check out Raf Simons and the Economics of Archive Fashion by Art V. for a great analysis of why).
In this article, I’m going to focus on the Spring/Summer 2004 collection, “May the Circle Be Unbroken”, a pivotal moment for the label. In retrospect, it’s up there with the very best of his collections. Raf had achieved a level of creative freedom after a number of semi- successful shows and had just premiered his now critically acclaimed “Closer” collection with the help of Peter Saville. SS04 is a shining moment amidst some of his best seasons to date. As I mentioned earlier, Raf’s work is sometimes an act of curation - the process by which symbolism and concepts from seldom combined worlds culminate into wearable art. It will be hard not to be biased in writing this article, because the book Siddhartha is deeply meaningful to me, making it difficult not to break into an endless rambling of how important and substantial it is, instead of a real analysis of its themes. I would like to imagine Raf approached it the same way when conceptualizing this collection: a love letter to a book that likely aided his journey as a young person, the same way it has aided mine (and hopefully now yours too).
Siddhartha was written in 1922 by Hermann Hesse (soon approaching its 100th anniversary), and is considered to be one of the most important coming of age novels of the 20th century. It’s difficult to be brief about the themes and meanings of Siddhartha as it is packed with symbolism, allusions to ancient Hindu, Buddhist, Gnostic and Ascetic teachings, as well as metaphors of development and growth. It's surprisingly dense for such a short book at only 152 pages. The book follows a young man named Siddhartha who lives along the same timeline as The Buddha. The name Siddhartha is composed of two sanskrit words: siddha (meaning achieved) and artha (meaning goal).
It’s a fitting name for the young man in question. Siddhartha grew up quietly as a Brahmin’s son next to his friend Govinda, practicing the art of silent meditation and contemplation of the Atman (being the eternal soul or spirit). They grew up looking to achieve enlightenment together. He soon comes to find that he will not find the Atman on the path he has been given, and needs to establish himself separate from the life afforded to him. We then get to follow his pursuit of enlightenment and growth by establishing and abandoning different means of being and presenting, amidst a world of pain, malevolence and confusion. He faces self-deception, dissatisfaction, and a rapidly changing relationship with the natural and spiritual world around him, all the while looking to form a sense of internal identity in the name of something bigger.
This initial principle is, to me, similar in ways to the persistent struggle of the youth to establish identity and pursue their own enlightenment by their own means of action. It bridges a connection to the youth of our century, who face the same dissatisfaction, self deception, and confusion towards the world around them, all while chasing enlightenment. Raf’s work has always been contingent on this moment, the moment that a young person decides to forgo the life familiar to them in chase of something more.
There are a lot of visual and graphic references to the themes of the book in the SS04 collection. I see this as a sort of “setting of the scene”. The original book itself relies heavily on depictions of the natural world, and paints a beautiful picture in the mind of the reader that lays out the importance of nature as a theme. The environment of the 2003 show was anything but conventional for Paris fashion, taking place in the Parc Floral de Paris, an area almost entirely covered in forest and greenery (making the primarily light color palette stand out). The clothing plays heavily into themes of nature as well. Most accessories resemble traditional beadwork and incorporate semi precious stones and sticks along with small charms and pendants referencing Gautama Buddha and other religious symbology. The models also walk barefoot through the grass and some of them are seen only wearing pants with no shirt. To me both of these assert a statement about nature in that the models bodies are less tethered to material items and more directly connected to the natural, potentially a statement on Siddhartha’s time with the Samanas.
The color palette is difficult to contend with for me. It’s obvious that a lighter palette is used because it’s a Spring/Summer show, but it’s hard for me to directly attach meaning to it. Descriptions of the characters in the book don’t do much to help understand what Siddhartha was wearing, as it generally was not a and in some looks are shown wearing as little as a single garment on their bodies. This seems to assert something about our connection to nature, by removal of material barriers to the environment. It depicts the clothes we wear as both a removal from and simultaneous connection to the natural world around us. The most direct references are the graphics with abstract depictions and quotes from the 1962 edition of the book seen on standout pieces and most prominently on the printed/patchwork blankets and cloaks. There are graphic references to events in the book’s timeline and concepts such as skulls (likely referencing Siddhartha’s near suicide), meditative poses, abstract schematic-like depictions of what, to me, are modern components of connecting object to spirituality and identity (see the back of the hand painted hoodie and embroidered on button down iterations), as well as black and white depictions of characters in different periods of the book.
The color palette is a bit difficult to contend with. It is easy just to say that a lighter palette was used in keeping with it being a Spring/Summer show, but I think it’s more conscious than that. In an abstract sense, I associate the muted, quiet color palette with the act of meditation and contemplation. There isn't any reference to this specific color in the book, but a core principle of Siddhartha’s self development and eventual self discovery comes from the act of quiet internal action, and I tend to picture the garments Siddhartha wears all the while being light and airy seeing as Indian summers are hot and humid. In some practices, traditional Brahmin garbs are primarily white color palettes with small accents of color, in the same way that the primarily all white looks for this show have small accents of similar colors.
The cuts are very different though as Raf follows suit with his more typical silhouettes (like all-white iterations of the bomber and perfecto jacket, as well as hoodies and loungewear). This fact would call into question cultural appropriation (especially considering it was customary for Raf to use predominantly white models, as was typical at the time), but with the cuts being different and no confirmation of traditional Brahmin garments being the direct inspiration point, it’s hard to say (along with this show taking place before cultural appropriation was a factor often considered by major fashion houses). Raf seems to create an indescribable atmosphere. It’s in some senses bold and stark in contrast to its environment but also seems quiet and contemplative. As if each person walking is on the brink of actualization; part of their own story.
Following his departure from home, Siddhartha embarks on a path of extremes in pursuit of the Atman. Alongside Govinda, he renounces material comforts as a travelling Ascetic who practices fasting and assimilation into nature and solitude. He suffers all the pain brought on by the natural world in order to conquer it and all of its severity, but is still discontent. They then follow that by pursuing the teachings of The Buddha, where he finds the teachings unsatisfactory, leaving Govinda to stay and him to start anew. He then crosses the river of his youth into the city with the help of a kind and simple Ferryman, who practices perception of life through the lens of nature. In the city he transforms his life of non-possession into a life of materialism and opulence in pursuit of love from a courtesan named Kamala, with whom he learns about love and unknowingly births a son. Over years, his love and internal spirit are corrupted by greed and an affliction with alcohol and gambling. When realizing the state of his life, he abandons Kamala and his possessions and returns to the river basin to commit suicide, where he is greeted and saved by a now older Govinda, who is still a follower of the Buddha, yet to achieve enlightenment. Govinda goes on to continue his journey and Siddhartha assumes a life next to the Ferryman who helped him in the first place, to learn to study the river and examine the events of his life.
Through the river, Siddhartha learns of the interweaving, persistent continuity of life as an unbroken chain, and of his place in it. Years later, Kamala and her son approach to cross the river and Kamala is killed, leaving Siddhartha to his son. His son then abandons him and forges a path of his own, forgoing the care and teachings of his father in pursuit of his own enlightenment. This breaks Siddhartha’s heart, but through the river learns to accept it as part of the cycle in which he belongs. The novel finishes with Govinda visiting Siddhartha, who is now the Ferryman, and is seen by many as having been enlightened. Siddhartha explains that enlightenment is not taught, but communicated through unity and compassion, along the continuous unbreaking flow of life, like that of a river. Govinda then kisses Siddhartha’s forehead, and they both share enlightenment together.
In some practices, traditional Brahmin garments are primarily white in color palette with small accents of color, in the same way that the primarily all white looks for this show have small accents of similar colors. The cuts are very different though as Raf follows suit with his more typical silhouettes (like all-white iterations of the bomber and perfecto jacket, as well as hoodies and loungewear). This fact would call into question cultural appropriation (especially considering it was customary for Raf to use predominantly white models, as was typical at the time), but with the cuts being different and no confirmation of traditional Brahmin garments being the direct inspiration point, it’s hard to say (along with this show taking place before cultural appropriation was a factor often considered by major fashion houses). Raf seems to create an indescribable atmosphere. It’s in some senses bold and stark in contrast to its environment but also seems quiet and contemplative. As if each person walking is on the brink of actualization; part of their own story.
“May The Circle Be Unbroken” is a fitting name for a tribute to Siddhartha. I see the circle in question as a return or cycle. Siddhartha begins the book by the riverside with his companion Govinda, quietly mastering the process of meditation, listening, and contemplation. This quiet listening is the action that prompts him to embark on his own in the first place, to question the ideals and processes he’s been afforded, to leave and seek his own enlightenment. By the end he has come to understand the extremes of the human condition. He has persisted through self deception, the severity of nature, opulence, and internal suffering all to find that the initial action, the perception and contemplation of the world around him next to the river as a child, was the action of enlightenment, and that he is a part of an unbroken, ever flowing life.
He learns that the process of enlightenment is not to be taught or learned, but to be communicated through experience and compassion; to be radiated unto others. That, to me, is the circle to be unbroken. The path that youth now (and forever) will inevitably follow: a calling to find themselves in the world, and to embark on a journey. All to find that enlightenment will not be taught to them (nor will they teach it), but uniquely experienced along the flow of events of their lives. It is an emission through being: and through unity it is shared. In an abstract way, that seems to me to be the source of inspiration for Raf Simons’ attempts over decades to communicate through young people. It’s the monolithic spirit that art looks to portray and capture, generation after generation. It looks to come as close as possible to describing an atmosphere, a unique radiating energy that is not to be communicated in the first place. It is the feeling of paths not yet embarked upon, circles not yet closed and extremes waiting to be lived. It is the essence of life through youth.
Writer: Cal D.