By Lisa Lockwood
with contributions from Vicki M. Young
 on August 2, 2016

It was the worst-kept secret in fashion, and now it’s finally confirmed: Raf Simons is the new chief creative officer of Calvin Klein Inc.

Ending nine long months of speculation, Klein said Simons would start immediately — indeed, some sources said he actually started meeting company executives outside the office last week — and that his first collections will be shown in February for fall 2017.

The appointment is a big step for Calvin Klein and its parent PVH Corp., putting one of America’s most iconic – and successful – fashion brands into the hands of a Belgian who never trained as a fashion designer and has never previously worked in the U.S. An indication of what is at stake is that PVH chairman and chief executive officer Emanuel Chirico has said the goal is to grow Klein into a $10 billion brand at retail, up from the current $8 billion.

Wall Street seemed to have its doubts about Simons’ appointment, sending PVH’s shares down 3.41 percent to close at $96.51 Tuesday.

For Simons, it is a role larger than that he had as artistic director of Christian Dior for women’s haute couture, ready-to-wear and accessories, which he exited in October — he’s since been under a non-compete contract with LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton. Speculation that Simons was in talks about joining Calvin Klein surfaced last summer and WWD was the first to report in November that he was in discussions with the American company.

At Klein, he will oversee the creative strategy for the brand’s women’s and men’s labels, including Calvin Klein Collection, Calvin Klein Platinum, Calvin Klein, Calvin Klein Jeans, Calvin Klein Underwear and Calvin Klein Home. Simons also will oversee all aspects of global marketing and communications and visual creative services — giving him control of the imagery for a brand that has created some of the most memorable advertising campaigns in fashion history.

“I wish Raf great success. I believe the company is taking a positive direction for the future of the brand,” said Calvin Klein on Tuesday.

Simons reports to Steve Shiffman, Klein’s ceo.

Calvin Klein confirmed Simons’ appointment Tuesday morning via its own social media. Neither Simons nor Shiffman was available for comment on the appointment, while Emanuel Chirico, chairman and ceo of Klein parent PVH Corp., was said to be on vacation and not available for comment.

An indication that Simons’ appointment has been in the works for some time is that the designer has already started building his team at the house. Also on Tuesday, Calvin Klein appointed Pieter Mulier as creative director, reporting to Simons. Mulier will be responsible for executing Simons’ creative and design vision for women’s and men’s rtw, as well as the bridge and better apparel lines and accessories. He will also manage all men’s and women’s design teams within the Calvin Klein brand, under Simons’ leadership.

Mulier has long been Simons’ right-hand man, serving as head designer of women’s and men’s accessories at Jil Sander and a designer at Simons’ men’s wear business. It is understood that Simons will continue to design his own label while performing his work at Calvin Klein.

Sources indicated that Mulier’s new role could significantly impact the future of Kevin Carrigan, global creative director of CK Calvin Klein, Calvin Klein Jeans and Calvin Klein White Label, which represents the lion’s share of Klein’s apparel business. Klein’s management is reportedly eager for Carrigan to stay, said sources.

Sources also said the position of Melisa Goldie, chief marketing officer, could be in jeopardy, with Simons having complete autonomy over the marketing and advertising campaigns. Sources indicated employees inside the company are feeling nervous about their roles since it is widely believed the designer is eager to “wipe the slate clean” and create a whole new look for the brand and its advertising.

Simons — who, sources said, has been eager to work and live in the U.S. for the last several years — is reportedly being paid handsomely for his new role, with some estimates up to $20 million a year.

His appointment marks the implementation of Calvin Klein’s new global creative strategy, unveiled in April, to unify all company brands under one creative vision. At that time, Francisco Costa, creative director of women’s Collection, and Italo Zucchelli, creative director of men’s, were let go.

Since PVH’s acquisition of Calvin Klein in 2003, the company has operated with a multiple-creative director models, without one clear voice and singular creative direction. In an interview with Sirius XM radio in June, Klein himself said, “They just finally made changes in the design staff. They are doing something that I had hoped they would have done, which is replace me. Find someone who can with a singular vision oversee everything that is creative.”

The new strategy is part of Klein’s global evolution, which began with the reacquisition of the Calvin Klein Jeans and Calvin Klein Underwear businesses in 2013. In the drive to reach the goal of $10 billion, the new leadership seeks to strengthen the brand’s premium positioning worldwide.

“The arrival of Raf Simons as chief creative officer signifies a momentous new chapter for Calvin Klein,” said Shiffman in a statement. “Not since Mr. Klein himself was at the company has it been led by one creative visionary, and I am confident that this decision will drive the Calvin Klein brand and have a significant impact on its future. Raf’s exceptional contributions have shaped and modernized fashion as we see it today, and under his direction, Calvin Klein will further solidify its position as a leading global lifestyle brand.” Shiffman was unavailable Tuesday for further comment.

The upcoming spring 2017 Calvin Klein women’s Collection is being designed by a team of designers, and the company plans to have appointments on Sept. 15 from 10 a.m. to noon.

Calvin Klein, the man, was known as the consummate minimalist and brilliant provocative marketer of fashion as sex and sex as fashion. The self-trained Simons is known for his minimalist aesthetic, sleek tailoring and art and cultural references in his work, as well as his directional and youth-oriented men’s wear collections. Starting with his own men’s wear label, he quickly made a name for himself in women’s wear as creative director of Jil Sander between 2005 and 2012. He expanded that brand known for purity and sleek tailoring into new territories, introducing dresses and eveningwear and exploring a variety of themes ranging from tribalism to midcentury couture.

Born in Neerpelt, Belgium, Simons received a degree in industrial and furniture design in 1991. He segued from furniture into fashion and launched his street-inspired collection of men’s wear in 1995. He began showing it in Paris two years later.

When he was tapped to succeed John Galliano as Dior’s sixth couturier in 2012, he brought modernity to the house, sweeping aside the retro-tinged glamour Galliano had delivered over his 15-year tenure. Simons frequently referenced iconic Dior designs like the Bar jacket, a well as floral motifs — but abstracted them and indulged his fondness for minimalism and futurism. He brought jolts of excitement to Dior and proved himself capable of theatrical statements, wallpapering a Paris mansion with thousands of fresh-cut flowers for his couture debut in July 2012.

While most retailers and market observers were enthusiastic about the Simons hire, a few skeptics have privately questioned whether an artistic sensibility like his can effectively steer a broad-based commercial behemoth, which is known more for its jeans, underwear and fragrance than its designer collection.

Klein walked away from the business a pop culture icon. He and his partner Barry Schwartz sold the brand to PVH in 2003 for $400 million in cash, split between them, plus another $30 million in stock and up to $300 million in royalties, liked to revenues, over the next 15 years (an agreement that is set to expire in 2018). The royalty deal was particularly lucrative for Klein over the years, but not so for Schwartz, whose part of the agreement was centered on the cash and stock portion of the purchase.

Industry executives seemed elated Tuesday with the news.

“Hallelujah! The rumor of Raf is finally confirmed! It’s a new era of excitement for Calvin Klein under the refined and rarified eye of Raf Simons, this is a fashion moment!” said Ken Downing, senior vice president and fashion director of Neiman Marcus.

Daniella Vitale, chief operating officer, senior executive vice president of Barneys New York, said, “We are thrilled about his appointment and partnering with them to re-launch this iconic American brand.  This was a very intuitive, strategic and bold move by Michele Kessler-Sanders and bringing the legendary aesthetic of Raf Simons to Calvin is beautifully aligned.  We will be big launch partners for them.”

“I cannot imagine a better idea,” said Diane von Furstenberg, who is chairman of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. “To welcome Raf at Calvin is great news for American fashion.”

Roopal Patel, senior vice president, fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue, said Tuesday, “I’m very excited about Raf being the creative director of Calvin Klein. There’s been so much speculation the last few months. It’s a big moment for Calvin Klein, it’s a big moment for American fashion, and it’s an incredible moment for New York Fashion Week. We’re very excited about what Raf is able to bring to Calvin Klein. Calvin Klein was an iconic house in the Eighties and Nineties, and what Francisco and Italo did really evolved it. I think it’s perfect timing for Raf to step in and take Calvin Klein to the next level.”

Asked what he should do first, Patel said, “These days it’s very difficult for any of us to step into the mind-set of any creative director and say what they should do first. I’m confident in Raf’s track record and what he will do is deliver a very cohesive and comprehensive vision of what Calvin Klein means in today’s world. Change is good. Raf really exemplified in his previous roles at Jil Sander and Dior that he’s able to bring new vision to the brand. We just can’t wait to see what he has in store for us. The show will be on everyone’s list in February.”

Morris Goldfarb, chairman and ceo of G-III Apparel Corp., which contributes the bulk of the volume to  Calvin Klein’s apparel business, said, “I think it’s going to be great. He has a broad view of fashion, and we’ve been looking forward to his input. He’ll be a quick study,  he’ll understand our business and he’ll be a contributing factor.”

He said G-III has legions of designers who work on Calvin Klein and they design it with Calvin Klein Inc.’s review. “We understand the DNA of the brand,” said Goldfarb, noting that the Calvin Klein better business “was virtually nonexistent” until G-III took it over. He noted that ever since Carrigan has been instrumental in reviewing it and helping guide where G-III went. Goldfarb said the Calvin Klein businesses under G-III are just shy of $1 billion at wholesale. “It’s one of the most important brands in the world,” said Goldfarb, whose company signed a deal to acquire Donna Karan International last week for $650 million.

Susan Sokol, president and founder of Susan Sokol Consultancy, worked at Calvin Klein for 22 years, and served as president of Calvin Klein women’s Collection from 1983 to 1995, taking the Collection business from $2 million to more than $60 million. “I think Raf will bring a new, exciting and needed energy to the house of Calvin Klein as well as a singular creative vision, which is so important when you have a powerhouse brand like Calvin Klein with so many product extensions,” she said. “Importantly, Raf will breathe new life into the Collection business, which is the umbrella for the entire brand and their jewel in the crown. Strategically, I think this will be very important for the business going forward.”

She said since the acquisition by PVH, the Collection business has been smoke and mirrors, a marketing expense for the company, with little or no strategy to build it. “The first step was the hire of Michelle Kessler-Sanders [as president of Calvin Klein Collection]. And now, Raf.  It’s very exciting to imagine what the Collection opportunity could be across rtw and accessories with Raf at the helm. And if that business can become meaningful on a global basis, I believe it will help to further drive the overall Calvin Klein image and business,” said Sokol.

Sam Shahid, who headed CRK Advertising, Calvin Klein’s in-house ad agency from 1981 to 1992, said about Simons: “It’s great. I’m just curious to see what comes of it. Everybody’s curious. I wonder if he’ll meet Calvin and they’ll get to know one another and he’ll learn about Calvin’s philosophy and see how Calvin lives. You know Calvin once you see his environment. I hope he respects what Calvin Klein himself created in design and advertising and the whole aura about Calvin, and I hope he respects that and we’ll see what happens. That first show, that first ad campaign, I don’t think anyone can guess it. We’re all waiting.”

Elizabeth Elder, research associate at digital benchmarking firm L2, said, “From a digital standpoint, this is very exciting, and having Simons onboard is a very strong move for the Calvin Klein brand. In terms of the brand’s digital footprint, the My Calvin campaign is mature and successful, but the upper-tier items have not been doing well. It does well in social media with Justin Bieber and Kendall Jenner, but that has not been translating throughout the brand. There has been no ripple effect.”

Elder isn’t sure why there’s a disconnect, except perhaps because there are two audience groups buying the brand at different price points. “For teens, it makes sense that they would buy underwear, but they’re not going to go online and buy a $4,000 suit. That means that the brand needs to talk to two different groups and two different voices,” Elder said.

She added that digital has to be in step with what Simons’ plan is for the common vision. “It can’t be executed just on the clothing. It needs to radiate out….Raf had success in building Dior out from a stagnant brand to a viable breathing component. It comes down to making sure everyone working together is adopting the new strategy and that it doesn’t mean something else is falling to the wayside,” Edler said, adding that whatever moves are made, there will need to be some liaisoning with the brand’s licensees to ensure that they are in step with the message as well.

Elder pointed to Burberry as an example of a company’s digital strategy that combined production, combination of two runway shows into one and partnerships with Apple music, as well as broadcasting campaigns with Snapchat. One question she raised is whether Simons would create new partnerships to refresh the brand, noting that Bieber and Jenner aren’t his typical muses. In fact, Simons rarely mingled with celebrities when he was at Dior.

Hana Ben-Shabat, partner in the retail practice of global strategy and management consulting firm A.T. Kearney, said, “It’s great news for PVH and Calvin Klein that were able to attract Raf Simons. He is undoubtedly one of the most talented designers these days. The real opportunity here is building the high end part of Calvin Klein brand, which was not invested in for years and presents a significant opportunity for PVH. That’s why it makes great sense to have Raf Simons, someone with strong luxury background, on board.”

Andrew Jassin, managing director of Jassin Consulting Group, said, “I’ve found that it is important to have somebody [in charge of the] global vision for the top brand, the collection brand that speaks to the audience of potential consumers and the press to be socially relevant. But the brand also needs designers in the trenches in the market to be responsible for the secondary brands.”

According to Jassin, brands live in multiple zones today, and people who are buying something that is design-right for one zone might not be trend-right for another zone. One concern he had is ensuring that someone also shares the vision with licensees such as G-III. “When you get to the reality of the marketplace, Calvin Klein’s market is Macy’s and Lord & Taylor and stores like that. The secondary lines are what’s relevant to the average consumer, and what’s done at the couture level may not be relevant to the consumer who shops at the department stores,” he said.

In May, Chirico said, “We see dramatic growth to the Calvin Klein brand continuing to come out of Asia and coming out of Europe as those markets really can provide us upside growth as we move forward.”

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