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Simons joins an elite team of publicized designers at Dior. In addition to Van Assche, Dior Joaillerie’s creative director is Victoire de Castellane, while Camille Miceli oversees costume jewelry, and has also given design input on handbags.
According to sources, discussions with Simons reached a boiling point around Christmas, and then cooled off suddenly as Dior pursued talks with Simoens, a French wunderkind whose career story has uncanny echoes of Saint Laurent’s, who famously succeeded Dior at age 21. Simoens also shares a physical resemblance — a reed-thin physique and prominent eyeglasses — to Saint Laurent.
Simoens has repeatedly denied to WWD he had any contact with Dior. He recently wrapped up a one-season stint as creative director at Leonard.
One source on Monday suggested Slimane’s appointment at YSL might have compelled Dior to reconsider hiring a minimalist master of its own.
Simons’ appointment at Dior is likely to shunt aside Bill Gaytten, a key deputy of Galliano who helmed Dior’s design studio in the wake of Galliano’s ouster, earning some praise for recent collections faithful to Dior’s Fifties-flavored elegance.
Gaytten’s name was not mentioned in Monday’s announcement. He had previously been named creative director at the John Galliano fashion house, which is majority-owned by Dior.
Despite the public relations crisis surrounding the Galliano scandal, Dior has continued its strong business trajectory. Sales in its own boutiques rose 28 percent in 2011, reflecting strength across ready-to-wear, leather goods and watches. Operating profits more than doubled last year to 85 million euros, or $118.4 million.
Simons is sure to bring a jolt of excitement to Dior and to Paris fashion weeks. The September shows should be especially electrifying since that is when Slimane is expected to unveil his full vision for women’s and men’s at YSL, and Philo should be back on the runway after downscaling her March presentation due to expecting her third child.
Simons is expected to continue showing his signature men’s wear collection in Paris, and maintain ownership of his own fashion house. Dior, for example, does not have any equity stake in Van Assche’s company.
There was no mention of Simons’ label in Monday’s brief announcement.
Simons has been on the radar of LVMH, sister company of Dior, for some time. When Michael Kors wrapped up his stint as the designer of LVMH’s Celine brand in 2004, Simons was among the candidates that Arnault’s advisers touted.
In recent years, Simons’ fashion star has continued to rise given a string of hit women’s shows for Jil Sander. His spring 2012 collection reimagined ideas from the Fifties into hyper-chic fashions for today, including a finale of wedding dresses with a Grace Kelly allure.
His fall swan song at Jil Sander won a standing ovation, opening with a series of roomy coats in makeup shades that the models clutched at their throats, and climaxing with prim cocktail dresses licked with Latex.
According to sources, Simons had also been approached by YSL as it quietly sought a successor to Stefano Pilati, an Italian designer who wound up a turbulent-if-fruitful eight-year tenure last month. It is understood Simons had sometimes prickly relations with Jil Sander’s Japanese owner, Onward Holdings Co. Ltd., and his job-hunting only exacerbated the situation.
Born in remote Neerpelt, Belgium, Simons moved to Genk and obtained a degree in industrial and furniture design in 1991. Drawn to the energy of the Antwerp Six, who put Belgium on the international fashion map, he segued from furniture into fashion and launched a youth-oriented, street-inspired collection of men’s wear in 1995.
He started showing it in Paris two years later, and quickly caused a sensation with his skinny tailoring, street casting and such imposing runway venues as La Grande Arche de la Défense.
A designer with an intellectual bent, Simons is also an enthusiastic fan of contemporary art — echoing Christian Dior’s earlier background as an art dealer. For his fall 2007 signature show, he had a revolving sculpture by English artist Conrad Shawcross in the middle of his runway. His men’s collections have referenced artists including Christopher Wool and Robert Ryman, and his spring women’s collection for Jil Sander included sweaters decorated with artwork by Pablo Picasso.
Simons is often present at the Prada show, and has also attracted other designers to his front row, including Riccardo Tisci, Givenchy’s couturier — also considered a contender for the Dior position.
At Jil Sander, Simons elaborated on the German brand’s aesthetic, adding dresses and eveningwear to its signature tailoring. “I knew in the long run I couldn’t only think about minimalism and purism,” he told WWD in a 2008 interview.
For his spring 2011 collection, he invoked the grandeur of couture and the extravagant style of Elisabeth of Bavaria, the iconic royal, a riposte to other designers who had muscled in on minimalism. “It almost challenged me to the opposite, to do the idea of maximalism,” he told WWD at the time.
Last year, Simons was an honoree at Fashion Group International’s Night of the Stars in New York.