It takes a lot to impress the jaded fashion flock — even at the beginning of the biannual show circus. But the run-up to Calvin Klein’s fall runway show saw the preeners and the posers, the buyers and the bon vivants happily standing on line on a frigid February morning waiting to be ushered into the company’s nondescript show space in the Garment District.
The reason for their excitement? The first glimpse of Raf Simons’ interpretation of the Calvin Klein Collection. Would the Belgian designer lean toward the underground edge of his signature men’s wear line, which he launched in 1995 and which over the years has gained a cult following for its streetwear-inspired style? Would he go starkly minimal like he did while at Jil Sander? Or would he opt more for his Christian Dior days, where as artistic director he interpreted the famed French house’s codes in a romantic yet modern manner?
The suspense had been building since August when PVH Corp., parent company of Calvin, finally ended nine months of speculation and confirmed that the designer had been appointed creative director of all its men’s and women’s brands. He is also charged with overseeing all global marketing and communications, visual creative services and store designs as the brand moves toward its goal of reaching $10 billion in sales, up from $8 billion now.
In the end, Simons’ triumphant debut for Calvin blended all of his experience — with a heartfelt ode to his new hometown.
He’d already expressed his appreciation for America 10 days earlier during the show for his men’s line, which he had transferred to New York from its usual location of Paris. The show was complete with riffs on the I Love New York slogan on T-shirts and oversize blazers styles with strips of duct tape that read: I Love You.
“I see this as a city with incredible energy, incredible inspiration, incredible people,” he said. “I always pick up [inspiration] from where I live and there is an incredible freedom in the street here.”
Although the Raf Simons collection showed a new direction in terms of clean tailoring, there were clear references from the past, proving that Simons continues to be Simons.
Then came Calvin.
For the show set, Simons commissioned longtime collaborator, the artist Sterling Ruby, to imagine America in an art installation. The artist strung up an assortment of motley, colorful items — mops, a tin pail, a big denim square. He also made a political statement, starting and ending the show with David Bowie’s “This Is Not America” on his soundtrack.
His inspiration was all about the U.S. “American youth,” he said backstage post-show. “I keep thinking of all the beauty here; you have to focus on that now. And I think American youth is the future for this country. It’s about gathering. It’s intelligent, honest, powerful, beautiful. It sounds almost simplistic, maybe.”
The clothes were far from that and focused mainly on the Calvin signatures of the Nineties. His-and-her versions of shirts tucked into hip-riding trousers with bright athletic stripes down the sides; denim, of course, and fantastic coats, perfectly cut suits — either vibrantly colored or in checks, and for women, plastic sheathed feather dresses.
The reaction to his inaugural collection was universally positive as critics applauded his smart and powerful lineup for men and women and its homage to America and its youth.
But while Simons is bringing a fresh perspective to the iconic brand, questions remain as to whether he can steer what is, after all, a broad-based commercial behemoth centered on jeans and underwear into a new phase of cool. He faces stiff competition from a new generation of streetwear designers who are capturing Millennials’ attention.
There’s no doubt Simons is one of the most creative, innovative designers in fashion today. And one season in at Calvin, he’s already begun to make his mark.