The European men’s shows are in full-throttle. Ditto, Hollywood awards season, and couture, just around the corner. Yet fashion’s biggest ongoing curiosity is what’s next at Calvin Klein Inc. as the brand and its parent PVH Corp. try fervently to erase the effects of their brief, rapturous affair with Raf Simons. The most recent development: the sudden availability of Kevin Carrigan after his departure from Ralph Lauren Corp.
Carrigan is the designer who, for 18 years, held the title of global director at Calvin Klein Inc., with responsibility for CK Calvin Klein, Calvin Klein Jeans and Calvin Klein White Label, always big moneymakers for the brand. Two days after Simons’ appointment at Calvin Klein, Carrigan resigned, though he stayed on long enough to complete several seasons’ worth of collections. He was quickly hired by Ralph Lauren Corp. as senior vice president, creative director of the women’s Lauren and Chaps brands. His departure from that post was reported by WWD exclusively on Monday. The obvious speculation: Is Carrigan headed back to Calvin Klein? While both sides insist there has been zero conversation about a possible return, recent history tells that one should take Calvin Klein denials with a grain of salt, and Carrigan’s departure from Lauren certainly seems more than coincidental. If in fact, talks commence (or continue) he certainly should have a great deal of bargaining power.
Hiring Carrigan back would make all the sense in the world. It could go one of two ways — solo, should execs conclude that a sparkly “halo” designer isn’t necessary to front the brand. (In that camp: G-III Apparel Corp. chief executive officer Morris Goldfarb, whose company produces numerous better-priced Calvin Klein lines to the tune of what market estimates anticipated as $1.2 billion last year.) Or the company could make a dual move, enlisting Carrigan to do what he did before — design the clothes that sell, while a glossier name gets the nod for runway and red carpet. A third approach would be to once again bring in a high-profile creative director, but with less control than Simons had, and, for the money collections, either promote from within or hire someone not as associated with past success as Carrigan, thus eliminating the possibility of a turf war. Whichever way they lean, the Calvin-PVH brass should do some considerable front-end soul-searching.
Another rapturous affair gone bad would prove damaging and embarrassing. Such liaisons are often ill-considered and burdened with the albatross of unrealistic expectations, and the Raf experience checked both boxes. While Simons pushed his design vision to the fullest, and, if rumors are even a little bit accurate, was at times aloof with some previously in-place staff, his cards were on the table and in his contract: full creative control, up, down and sideways, inclusive of all product design as well as advertising, marketing and retail.
That it didn’t work is due, obviously, to the fact that Simons’ fashion didn’t click with the brand’s consumer base with the passion anticipated by the PVH-Calvin brass. But whose fault is that? With the relationship over and both sides moving on, assignation of blame may seem pointless. But for PVH and Calvin Klein — and other behemoths looking to upgrade their sizzle index with a high-profile, highly regarded, ubercool designer — examining the reasons it didn’t work is essential, lest the debacle be repeated. When a major-brand creative director/chief designer position opens up, what is the hiring objective of the brand execs? What do they expect in terms of product and image? Are they looking to retain or broaden their customer base, or to go full-speed-ahead with out-with-the-old-in-with-the-new-and-cool bravado? If the desired social media frenzy happens but sales don’t immediately escalate along with it, how long a window does the designer have? Will the brand be satisfied with anything less than Alessandro Michele out-of-the-gate euphoria? In thinking through such basic questions, one would think that (barring a major ethical debacle) any designer hired would be given at least one full contract period to prove his or her performance. Especially in a case such as this, in which the designer demanded and was given total leeway to shift the brand status-quo to his liking.
At the time of Simons’ hiring, while the parameters seemed extreme, the creative match felt right: famed European minimalist assuming the mantle of iconic American minimalist. The Stateside glee was palpable, both within the Calvin Klein c-suite and well beyond. After Simons’ first season, the American industry breathlessly awarded him dual CFDA Awards, for women’s and men’s, even though according to a strict reading of its rules, he wasn’t eligible for either. But who cared? New York had a real, live European designer in its midst!
In retrospect, the joy over Simons’ arrival ignored a reality that many in fashion, particularly Americans, choose to ignore, even if we’re just kidding ourselves — that of cultural divide. Europe and the U.S. are not on equal footing fashion-wise, period. Maybe Simons was just too Euro-cool to have been given complete creative oversight for what is at its core a mass American brand, the bread-and-butter of which is casual basics — Jeans! Underwear! — marketed from the Seventies get-go as sexy stuff. Simons’ heady, intellectual spin played down the sex quotient with clothes that were interesting but incongruous with consumer expectations. Or at least too incongruous relative to the patience level within PVH/Calvin Klein, which ultimately preferred to cut its losses with eight months remaining on Simons’ contract, sparing niceties along the way.
PVH chairman and ceo Emanuel Chirico’s November earnings call is now the stuff of cautionary legend. He cited disappointment in “the lack of return on our investments in our Calvin Klein 205W39NYC halo business,” and, about Calvin Klein Jeans, said, “From a product perspective, we went too far, too fast on both fashion and price. We are working on fixing this fashion miss.” Kudos for owning up to a mistake. But what does going “too far, too fast on both fashion and price” say about the brand’s apparent big-time misread of its customer base? And about the zeal to hire a highly advanced, luxury-level designer, with virtually no experience at (or documented interest in) the mass-product level?
Given the ongoing Calvin-Raf scuttlebutt that had been around for months and that escalated after the Chirico call, the brand’s press release at 6:17 p.m. on Dec. 21, confirming the “amicable” end to the designer’s tenure after a day of bob-and-weave, came as no surprise. Then, last week, Calvin Klein Inc. ceo Steve Shiffman noted that the brand is actively engaged in its “go-forward” plan. It includes shuttering of the Madison Avenue flagship, opened in 1995 and redone by Sterling Ruby at Simons’ behest as a head-spinning yellow oddity, as well as renaming the Collection business, which Simons rechristened 205W39NYC, in recognition of an address with emotional resonance to almost no one, save perhaps house founders Calvin Klein and Barry Schwartz. (Here’s an idea: How about Calvin Klein Collection?)
While the store and 205W39NYC moves were hardly surprising, some of Shiffman’s “go-forward” comments were, offering curious contradictions. “Calvin Klein has long been driven by its ability to balance art and commerce in a culturally relevant way — one that has often defied the status quo,” he said. No one with a sliver of knowledge of the brand history would argue. But then: “Now, more than ever, we must double down on meeting consumer demands by creating culturally relevant products and experiences that engage communities by pushing fashion and culture forward.” Those two statements are not necessarily in sync with each other, nor with Chirico’s that the company went “too far, too fast on both fashion and price.”
At the heart of that dichotomy: the fierce desire to thrive in business while being perceived as the coolest version of cool, as woke. Like in middle school, only multibillion-dollar corporate. Pushing fashion and the culture forward has become a widely held aspiration for major fashion brands. But is it achievable for most? Is the drive to do so borne of social responsibility, ego or envy of those who genuinely make such an impact? Is it realistic for a company to assume that it can move the culture by sheer force of will and marketing? Conversely, why is there no perceived nobility — and savvy — in the notion of a company merely turning out attractive, well-made merch that people want to buy, wear and look attractive in (not to mention if it helps to push its parent group toward $10 billion in revenue)?
Once upon a time, Calvin Klein the brand did move the cultural needle, but that was largely on the foresight, power and guts of Calvin Klein the man. Seriously impacting the culture via fashion is a near-impossible trait for which to hire — it happens or it doesn’t. Today, the holy-grail example is Michele at Gucci. As a goal, why not shoot for the stars? But as a standard for success, no. In any field, that level of impact has an inexplicable magic to it — an alchemy of personality, talent, the cultural moment and a healthy dose of kismet. The only recent cultural parallel that comes to mind is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. Before AOC-loving knickers get all twisted at the thought of a fashion comparison, within his milieu and beyond it, Michele rocked the culture instantly and even profoundly with his stunning debut — a men’s show — that beautifully and boldly addressed the issue of gender identity, a topic then still left-of-center of mainstream conversation. That kind of reaction doesn’t happen on demand. That Michele’s industry-leading luster has lasted a full four years and counting in today’s easily bored reality speaks to his talent. Still, his emergence from nowhere heightened the initial frenzy; it’s unlikely that any designer with a known résumé could similarly stun. It’s called the shock of the new.
That said, hiring “cool” is possible. But today, cool is often a short-lived commodity; once it tempers, as it usually does, a designer must have something more in his or her wheelhouse that speaks to a brand’s ethos. Certainly, in hiring designers, brand ceo’s must consider the cool factor — in this marketing-driven age, who wouldn’t? But they should focus in as well on whether what’s beneath the glossy designer facade — the aesthetic and skill — is right for the customer, or if one or the other can make a speedy enough shift. In the case of Calvin Klein and Raf Simons, the answer was a resounding “no.”
The question now: What’s next for both? Simons will likely focus solely (at least for the foreseeable future) on his eponymous men’s collection, which he’ll show tonight in Paris, albeit from a position of greater comfort than most nine-at-night types. Given that he seems to have acted within the terms of his contract, he’s likely to be paid in full.
For Calvin Klein, the split from Simons is fashion-biblical, with the brand shaking the popcorn from its sandals while moving to erase all things Raf from its reality. As for the identity of its next designer or designers — whomever they might be — only time will tell if they prove fashion messiahs or corporate misfits.