Interview by Laura Praet
Capturing the nineties moment as a young, skinny, intimidatingly cool, raw, isolated, and underground night rider, Robbie Snelders was in the right place at the right time.
Some 20 years ago his life took a dramatic turn and landed him in the then-emerging menswear brand, Raf Simons. He represented then, and still does now, the essence of that era and everything that the brand stood for in its early days. Fashion being the mirror of the zeitgeist and of tendencies within society, Snelders’ style became a trademark for youth culture around the world.
We meet with him at the Royal Academy in Antwerp. At the end of the hallway, a bomber-jacket-clad grunge. Wearing Walter Van Beirendonck paint- marked jeans with that bomber jacket, he’s still rocking his signature rebellious look.
Laura Praet: Robbie Snelders, it’s a pleasure to meet you. Could you give us an idea of what your life was like before your encounter with Raf Simons?
Robbie Snelders: I was a normal, struggling teenager with no prospects for the future, living day by day. I had just got kicked out of Antwerp’s Sint Lucas Academy, so there was a possibility for a new turning point.
L.P: In 1998, at the age of 20, you got in touch with Simons for the first time, when you showed up spontaneously after a street casting for the Spring/ Summer “Black Palms” presentation. What convinced you to try it out and how did you experience it?
R.S: I was working part time in a little shop, living in ignorance. A guy came up to me and asked if I wanted to model in Paris. First I thought, no way. When I arrived home that day I said to my then-girlfiend: “Can you believe they asked me to model for a designer in Paris?” I had never heard of Raf Simons before. I had nothing to lose. So I went to the telephone cabin and rang up the guy who had approached me. He asked me to come by the offices of Raf to introduce myself. I remember that I was wearing combat boots and army pants. I felt a bit awkward. They took some Polaroids of me and that was it. Before I even realized it, I was on a bus to Paris with 50 skinny male youngsters. The toilet was worse than in “Trainspotting,” but it was so much fun. A lot of nerves. Apart from a few, nobody had ever walked for a big designer in Paris before. From that point on I became Raf’s loyal fitting model.
L.P: What were the things that kept you busy at the age of 20? As we recall, Simons was deeply intrigued by you as a young, self-destructive individual. What was it that he was attracted to? Also, what did you talk about? Have these conversations taken you anywhere unexpected?
R.S: Raf was the guy with a shirt and a blazer. He always has been and always will be that guy. He thinks in terms of beauty. He can get a certain energy out of somebody. He took inspiration in me, but it’s not that I gave him things to work with. He just read it in my face and saw it through my eyes. I only thought of what I liked and Raf took what he thought was relevant and inspirational for him. I represented what I was interested in and that was just what was happening on the street. I could give him an idea of what is was like being 20 years old and struggling in the streets. It was a very bizarre chemistry. Everything came from a feeling. We did plenty of research, we had polystyrene walls covered with research material, where all the creatives could go wild. Music was my everything. I loved the electronic, industrial music of Front 242 or Skinny Puppy, but we talked about all sorts of music. I never limited myself to only one genre. I could easily listen just as well to the Clash or the Ramones and Motörhead. Others listened to gothic music; we were the electronic gang, so we always had these confrontations when showing up somewhere. All this has been lost. The effort we had to go through in order to find and gather useful information for research 15 years ago was reflected in the collections. People still worked very closely with one another and influenced each other much more than today.
L.P: Would you do it all over again?
R.S: Sure, but I’d do it differently. I think I was too easygoing. I should have spoken up a bit more. I loved everybody at the firm so badly. I tried to do good, but sometimes did a bit bad. It got a bit frustrating by the end. My health suffered a lot. It was not a nine-to-five job. At 11 P.M. at night, they were still working on their things. And I always stayed, even if I wasn’t doing anything. I just couldn’t leave. I was always worried. I wanted them to have everything they needed, so I often went for food and beverages. I couldn’t let it go, I knew perfectly what Raf wanted and therefore wanted to take care of it myself so it would be ok for him, and ensure that he was in a good mood. At a certain point there were a few interns who could have taken on these tasks, but like I said, I just couldn’t let it go. Raf repeatedly said, “If you need a break, tell me,” but I couldn’t. So yeah, I wouldn’t make these same mistakes. I’m repeating myself… I’m so happy to have met so many great people, who I still see today.
L.P: Do designers today still have an alter-ego or a muse, like you were for Simons?
R.S: Muses really meant something back then and I think they still do, although their role is less intense these days. Now with the internet you can get all the information you want with just a click of the mouse. We used to go and buy books, went to Guerrisol in Paris for vintage clothes, and so on. All of this has been lost. It has all become so hasty and accessible, an overflow of everything.
L.P: At the end of the nineties, the Belgian new beat music, rave culture, and techno were at their height. What was your involvement in these subcultures? Could you describe the most important musical moments in your life? And did Raf ever join you in the dark side of the night?
R.S: The Sisters of Mercy: I’ve seen them perform like 98 times. I took the Interrail to Poland, Germany, wherever, on several occasions. The day after, I would never arrive at the studio at a decent time so I’d ask someone to cover for me. We slept in stations, we had just enough money for the Interrail and luckily we managed to sneak in for free many times. Raf rarely joined us, and if he did, he observed the dark mystical wasted atmosphere from the back of the audience while we were all pushing each other. We jumped on each other’s necks [smiles, shyly]. But Raf evolved and also suddenly started smoking. I have a massive collection of original T-shirts from all these gigs: Joy Division, Nitzer Ebb, The Jesus and Mary Chain, The Sisters of Mercy and many more. I find it sad that today you can just buy a T-shirt of a band at any moment. Back in the day you had to be at the concert to be able to buy them. Only if you were really there you had one. Now everybody just pretends.
L.P: In 2000 Simons announced he was leaving fashion due to personal reasons after the presentation of the Fall/Winter collection called Confusion. He came back a year later. You came into the picture when all this happened. Why did Simons suddenly stop? And why did he return so quickly?
R.S: The pressure is so high. That was the hard reality back then, and still is today. You suddenly sell a lot, and a few years later the sales go down again, it’s emotionally too much to handle, even for Raf. He wanted to dedicate all of his energy to the creation and not have to think about the financial side. All of this misery made him love his brand a little less for a moment I think, and resulted in putting down the flag for a while.
L.P: What was the atmosphere like in the studio while you worked together?
R.S: There was always music playing, we could laugh, smoke like hell. We made croque monsieurs together, nobody ate alone. We were a family. After the studio hours we even went to the cinema together, we celebrated New Years together. Our work was our life, the boundaries faded.
L.P: Could you share some unforgettable moments of this decade-long companionship?
R.S: I remember very well that in those beginnings getting financial help was much easier. We showed in great locations, threw big events and sometimes the collections were even not that visible, but the main goal was to create an atmosphere, a feeling, to evoke a certain emotion rather than thinking about the commercial result and bringing the pieces to the noses of the ones watching. We dared much more. Now with the fashion shows being streamed live, all the information is on your computer screen. Back in the days if you weren’t at the show, you had no idea of what was presented. I remember we used to copy show invitations to try to get in, even Raf. Linda Loppa would receive an invitation and we’d all run to the copy center. I also remember that Raf only wore two designers before Jil Sander: his own clothes and Helmut Lang. Also, everybody was so anxious about being at his shows in Paris, that the police had to come to calm down the people who couldn’t enter. People were so creative to get into Raf Simons shows; I remember two young people who had cut an invitation in two halves, and placed each half in a different envelope. Just because of the effort and creativity I let them inside. I loved seeing those. The Japanese were the most creative.
One day, Raf was invited for dinner somewhere fancy with Cathy Horyn and Tim Blanks. Raf and Cathy were talking fashion. I suggested Tim to go for a beer. He agreed because before becoming a fashion journalist he was a music reporter and knew Motörhead, so we had something to talk about, which I found much more interesting. As for my memories with Walter [Van Beirendonck], he threw parties where you got a black, white or red invitation and you had to dress by the color of your personal invitation. Imagine the visual inspiration this resulted in. I recall wearing a Nazi uniform, to provoke a bit. At that time people could laugh with it, nobody found it offensive, if you tried this today they’d throw you in prison. It was purely to stand out. Everything was just more fun and daring.
L.P: You met and worked with some of the most highly respected individuals in fashion when they were very young: of course Simons but also stylist Olivier Rizzo, makeup artist Peter Phillips, and photographer Willy Vanderperre. Did you have any idea what the future would bring to them? Did you share a dream?
R.S: Not really. They all had a similar dream. And they have all achieved it. I’m very happy for all of them that their dreams became reality. But I never had that ambition. In my eyes, Raf now doing Haute Couture for Dior in Paris, I would say he has become the biggest designer in the world. Willy and Olivier are shooting campaigns for Prada, Miu Miu, Jil Sander, Dior, the whole thing. Last time I did a shoot with Olivier and Willy was in Paris; it was the first time we worked together in a real studio, with big lights and cameras, big preview screens, and for me the magic was lost a bit. I preferred the randomness of shooting in our own living room. For me that was where the magic happened.
L.P: Spring/Summer 2010 was where the two of you had your last collaboration. Could you tell us a bit about the reason for the ending?
R.S: Little by little we grew apart. We were so close for so long and it was time to part ways. Raf naturally evolved and me too, but we evolved in different ways. After his experience at Jil Sander he changed even more and we had diffculties finding each other. It became all bigger, more professional and organized, there were more possibilities. I just knew it had to end and left with the key in the door. We never saw each other again. And yes, I miss him.
L.P: What are your thoughts on being an assistant?
R.S: In all sorts of arts, for me being the assistant seems like a better job than being the artist. There are two sorts of assistants: you have the ones, like me, who remain an assistant for the rest of their days, and who work in a very loyal and dedicated way. The other ones are those who eventually also want to become the artist, and climb to the top. It’s one or the other, there’s no grey area. But of course everything depends on the character. It just feels more right to me to have a tempered ego and not wanting to be in the spotlight. The perfect example of being a great assistant for me is Mathieu Blazy: he was trained at La Cambre, was an excellent assistant to Raf, then suddenly decided to leave for Maison Martin Margiela and then moved to Céline, all of this without making much noise or being disrespectful. Eventually we all learn from the masters: Raf also assisted Walter Van Beirendonck. It is a learning period!
L.P: After these 10 years with Simons you worked for Lee Jeans as a freelance marketing project manager for four years and then as a sales assistant for Paul Smith for three years in Antwerp. It seems your bond with Antwerp and its fashion is very tight?
R.S: Yes, I do love it here. I have my friends, my girlfriend, it just feels right. There was a time I thought about moving to London to work for Fred Perry. Even Berlin was on my mind: the darkness, the cold and rather industrial feel drew me towards these cities but it never happened.
L.P: Currently you are working in Brussels for another great Belgian designer, Jean-Paul Lespagnard.
R.S: Yes, we just started our collaboration; he is very ambitious, and it’s nice to work with him. It reminds me a lot of the beginning days of the Raf Simons brand: struggling with little budgets; it’s about being creative. The advantage is that I’m a bit more grown up. I recognize a lot, a designer has a goal and they go for it.
L.P: Is it different to build up a brand in Belgium nowadays?
R.S: In the golden nineties we could just go to a bank and ask for money. They had a special fund for financing the fashion designers. Nowadays there’s no more support. That chapter is closed.
L.P: What are your thoughts on contemporary art? Any particular exhibitions or unforgettable encounters?
R.S: Raf is a great admirer of art. From the beginning he was intrigued and inspired by contemporary art and had a nose for it. Thanks to him I got to know about all these artists. I remember being on holiday in LA with a friend and thanks to Raf we were invited to have an insider’s look at Sterling Ruby’s atelier. I will never forget it. He convinced me to go by Sterling’s atelier and went on to visit other galleries and studios. We saw the atelier of Jason Meadows, maybe less my style but still, seeing his shabby working space was a great experience which I owe Raf. I saw the show of Edward Lipski at the Tim van Laere Gallery recently, and I liked it a lot.
L.P: Any current obsession?
R.S: Porn? Haha, no, just joking. Shooting. I’m interested in marksmanship and weapons. I own guns at home, it interests me a lot. Also politics! And I read a lot. Mostly historical essays about wars, like in Indochina. I find it important to read these testimonials.
L.P: Could you describe your future?
R.S: I would love to work for an artist. Nobody in particular on my mind, but perhaps an artist working with sculpture. It interests me because it’s something completely different. I always had an aversion towards the impositions of the fashion industry, for example how Paris can decide when you have to show your collection. I remember very well that Raf said no, and said “I will present my collection on Saturday night, as the last one, and if it doesn’t please you I will do it off calendar.” But this attitude is lost. Nowadays, you even have to be grateful when press appears at your show. That’s why I think working for an artist could be a new and more fulfilling adventure. [Since giving th interview, Robbie has started working for an artist.]
L.P: Finally, what one piece of advice would you give to the youngsters today?
R.S: [Laughs] I do not have any advice. Although, last time I was in a bar I realized I was the only guy not growing a beard. Nothing against beards, but please! Everybody was wearing Lee jeans and a checked shirt. We don’t see any explicit expression of preferences any more. The disappearance of subcultures is a pity. Designers try to represent some of these underground styles but it has all become mainstream. Everybody is wearing the same clothes. Please, stop this, make an effort! Maybe I can inspire you: I had two grey pants at school, I took my father’s grinding wheel and pulled my pants through it, and then wore one above the other. I ripped my clothes into pieces, like pulling off the sleeves of our T-shirts. Or I painted my clothes. I mean, there are so many possible ways of expressions and creating your own style. Don’t do it for the others, but dare to express yourself.
The original version of this article was published in Assistant Magazine.
Photo by Bruno Werzinski | Styling by Brais Vilasó