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PARIS (Reuters) - Belgian designer Raf Simons is taking over as artistic director at Christian Dior, the Paris fashion house announced on Monday, ending months of speculation over who would replace his disgraced predecessor, John Galliano.
The top design post at Dior, the parent company of luxury conglomerate LVMH, has been vacant for more than a year after Galliano was fired after a drunken anti-Semitic outburst in Paris.
Simons, who previously worked for fashion house Jil Sander and is known for his understated looks, was long considered an unlikely candidate as Dior conducted exploratory talks with more high-profile rivals ranging from Marc Jacobs, head designer at Louis Vuitton, to Alber Elbaz of Lanvin.
In a statement, the 44-year-old Belgian paid homage to the history of Dior and said he would present his first Haute Couture collection for Dior in July 2012.
"It is with the utmost respect for its tremendous history, its unparalleled knowledge and craftsmanship that I am joining the magnificent house of Dior," he said.
For the past year, Dior Chief Executive Sidney Toledano has faced constant questioning about succession for Galliano after his shock ouster from the brand last year, to which he always responded by saying Dior would take its time.
In the absence of Galliano - who apologized for his outburst in early 2011 and has yet to resurface in a new position - his former aide Bill Gaytten took over as Dior's artistic director and presented several pret-a-porter and Haute Couture collections.
But Gaytten's work came under criticism in fashion circles for lacking his predecessor's flair, and Dior never hid its intention of filling the top position with a designer of equal or greater stature to Galliano.
Simons developed a strong international reputation at Jil Sander, which is majority owned by the Prada Group, earning credit for a trend toward bright colors that permeated more modestly priced markets.
"I'm someone who takes responsibility," Simons told the New York Times, which first reported his hiring. "I'm not an isolated person. The more I connect to people, the more I have the feeling that things work."
Reporting by Nicholas Vinocur; Editing by Karolina Tagaris