This story first appeared in the July 20, 2016 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
While no one’s confirming it, the rumor has been close to accepted fact for months. Even Calvin Klein himself addressed it in an interview on Sirius XM radio recently: “They won’t announce [who it is] publicly because it’s under contract. But the whole industry knows.”
Klein predicted the official appointment would be revealed no later than early August — likely timing given that Simons’ non-compete contract with Christian Dior is said to expire at the end of July.
When Emanuel Chirico, chief executive officer of PVH Corp., Klein’s parent company, was asked at the firm’s annual meeting in June when Simons would be coming aboard, he declined to confirm the designer’s appointment, but said, “We would hope that a decision will be made in the near future and as events unfold, we’ll be sure everyone’s brought up to speed.” He added, “The plan would be that there would be one creative visionary for the brand, similar to when Calvin ran the business directly.” Chirico declined further comment for this story, as did Klein and Barry Schwartz, cofounders of the brand.
In moving to Calvin, Simons would be taking on a role even larger and more complex than the one he held at Dior, stretching from men’s and women’s underwear to fragrance to jeans, accessories and women’s and men’s Collections. In addition, it is understood Simons will have responsibility for all of Klein’s advertising and other creative. In exchange, sources say the designer will be paid up to $20 million annually.
The irony is that he left Dior in October questioning the entire fashion system, and expressing fatigue at the endless grind. “I’m questioning a lot,” Simons said just before the Dior show that month, wondering if the overheated runway system had reached its tipping point. “I feel a lot of people are questioning. We have a lot of conversation about it: Where is it going? It’s not only the clothes. It’s the clothes, it’s everything, the Internet.”
Sources said at the time that Simons’ departure from Dior was amicable, and his decision not to renew his contract stemmed partially from his desire to have a more balanced personal life.
So now that he’s about to take on the job of reinventing one of the premier names in American fashion — after doing the same with legendary brands in the Italian and French fashion worlds — the question is: What will Raf’s Calvin look like?
Retailers, creative directors and other fashion insiders surveyed ranged from supportive to hopeful to wildly enthusiastic, believing that Simons is up to leading the reinvention of Calvin Klein — and that the brand definitely needs it. Given his minimalistic leanings, art and cultural references in his work, and directional and youth-oriented men’s wear collections, they believe Simons will bring fresh eyes to the business, which generates $8 billion in global sales, with the goal of taking it to $10 billion.
At this point, the skeptics are distinctly in the minority — or unwilling to go on the record. Privately, there are reservations whether an artistic sensibility such as Simons’ can effectively steer a broad-based commercial behemoth. The biggest question marks: the advertising and commodity engines of the business, two areas where Simons is unproven.
Calvin Klein, the man, was known as the consummate minimalist and brilliant and provocative marketer of fashion as sex and sex as fashion. Who could ever forget 15-year-old Brooke Shields in the ad campaign for Calvin Klein Jeans, purring, “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” And there have been the blockbuster fragrances such as Obsession, Eternity and CK One — fronted by models such as Kate Moss and Christy Turlington — and indelible images such as Marky Mark posing in his Calvin Klein Underwear, Moss in CK Jeans, or Turlington as the face of Calvin Klein’s Eternity fragrance. Those three businesses — jeans, underwear and fragrance — are arguably what Klein is most known for.
He walked away from the business a pop-culture icon — in 2003, he and his partner Schwartz sold the company to PVH Corp. for $400 million in cash, split between Klein and Schwartz, plus another $30 million in stock and up to $300 million in royalties, linked 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 — not so for Schwartz, whose part of the agreement was centered on the cash and stock portion of the purchase.
But rather than attempt to replace Calvin with a single designer, PVH set up an at-times odd multiple-creative director model. Francisco Costa was named creative director of women’s Collection; Italo Zucchelli, creative director of men’s; Kevin Carrigan was tapped as global creative director of CK Calvin Klein, Calvin Klein Jeans and Calvin Klein White Label, responsible for the lion’s share of the business; Ulrich Grimm, creative director of Calvin Klein men’s and women’s shoes and accessories, and Amy Mellen, creative director of home. Costa and Zucchelli abruptly exited the firm this past spring, while Carrigan, Grimm and Mellen are all staying on — although they will report to the new, overall creative director.
While the Brazilian-born Costa had a strong red-carpet following, dressing stars such as Jennifer Lawrence, Rooney Mara and Saoirse Ronan in the house’s modernist aesthetic and was praised for evolving women’s Collection, his designs didn’t ignite the business nor propel it forward. During his tenure, Costa retained the Calvinisms — the slipdresses, the sensuality of the Seventies, the street vibe of the Nineties. He also expanded and deepened that aesthetic, raising the fashion daring. For his part, Zucchelli’s men’s Collections retained the brand’s minimalistic aesthetic as he focused on fabric experimentation. But his designs didn’t really boost sales of the high-end men’s line either.
Even Klein himself — who was long rumored not to be a fan of Costa’s work, while Schwartz was — thought the multiple creative-director arrangement was an odd one, saying in his Sirius XM interview, “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.”
That is what the industry believes Simons will bring to the party. A self-trained men’s wear maverick whose designs are consistently tinged with youthful rebellion, he quickly made a name for himself in women’s wear as creative director of Jil Sander between 2005 and 2012, exhibiting a flare for chic and sophisticated minimalism. But he also expanded a brand known for purity and sleek tailoring into new territories, introducing dresses and eveningwear and exploring varied themes, from tribalism to midcentury couture.
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 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 darling of critics and editors, prized for his exacting silhouettes and obsession with the here and now, Simons continues to show his signature men’s Collection in Paris.
When he was tapped to succeed John Galliano as Dior’s sixth couturier in 2012, he brought a gust of modernity to the house, sweeping aside the retro-tinged glamour Galliano had plied over a stellar 15-year tenure. He frequently referenced iconic Dior designs like the Bar jacket, as well as floral motifs — but abstracted them and indulged his predilection for minimalism and futurism.
While his Dior shows fell shy of the poetry and emotion of his best Sander outings, Simons made a strong case for streamlined sportswear with a suggestion of glamour and a futuristic gloss, parading graphic catsuits and asymmetric coats during couture and astronaut-like jumpsuits, flirty pleated miniskirts and cotton sack dresses for ready-to-wear. He did bring 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, and staging fast-paced shows to booming techno in impressive bespoke pavilions constructed in the gardens of the Museé Rodin.