It’s rare when one of the most anticipated shows of the season happens so early. On the front end of New York? Almost unheard of. Until Friday morning, that is, when Raf Simons initiated his reign as chief creative officer at Calvin Klein with a Collection show that thrilled with its smart, powerful clothes for women and men. Everything surrounding the clothes — the 10 a.m. time slot; the location, at the brand’s longtime West 39th Street headquarters in the former Garment District — telegraphed a message of efficiency and pragmatism that plays into the reevaluation and restraint that’s percolating but has yet to triumph across fashion’s show spectrum.
Simons did so without sacrificing visual impact, having commissioned 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. Within that space, Simons, a foreigner now at the creative helm of one of the iconic names of American fashion, also imagined America. Along the way, he made a political statement, beginning and ending the show with David Bowie’s “This Is Not America,” on his soundtrack.
Yet 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.”
It wasn’t. Nor was it minimalist in the traditional sense. It was, as is Simons’ MO, controlled to a T, and packed with American references both general and Calvinist. The former category covered workwear and How to Make an American Quilt Parka. And one had to smile at Simons’ audacity at employing Western tropes, belonging as they do to the vernacular of another American icon, albeit handled quite differently here.
As the show approached, you wondered — or those into wondering about such things, wondered — how if at all, Simons would integrate references to the house. Apart from jeans and underwear, Klein’s strongest sartorial imagery hails from the Seventies and Nineties. In between, in 1980, the teenaged Brooke Shields slipped into her first pair of Calvins, catapulting the house and designer into legend as leaders of a fashion sexual identity rooted in basics. (Shields was among the numerous celebrities at the show. She said she’s collaborating with the house on some projects, and an image of her pubescent self appeared on the tab of a pair of men’s jeans.)
As it turned out, Simons didn’t go near the Seventies, preferring the cool draw of Klein’s tailored Nineties, when he embraced the urban street beat with plenty of attitude. Despite the stated inspiration of young America, the collection wasn’t all that young, and should find favor across a broad swath of the designer demographic (give or take a few transparent second-skin Ts with knitted sleeves and some peekaboo action under the busts of dresses). The clothes will appeal, too, across gender; throughout, Simons showed his-and-hers versions of like concepts, some nearly identical. There were buttoned-up shirts tucked into hip-slung trousers with bright athletic stripes down the sides; matching denim; those sheer Ts over men’s wear fabrics — his, pants, hers, a trouser skirt; spectacular mannish coats under a layer of slick plastic. The tailoring continued in perfectly cut men’s suits, some in vibrant colors; others, classic checks. For women, he also showed vibrant ribbed knit skirts and plastic-sheathed feathered dresses, their silhouette inspired by the house archive (let’s just say it, from Calvin’s Helmut Lang moment) and their bravado targeting adventurous young Oscar attendees.
It was a great debut. Of course, how Simons’ tenure plays out remains to be seen. While this industry has lauded the concept of high-low for decades — yes, it is the way people really dress — no single brand has really made it work on the fashion level in a major way, at least not if you extract jeans and skivvies. And it’s a quantum leap from plasticated runway feathers to G-III shifts. Pull up a chair. There’s fascinating viewing ahead.