Genuine provocation — there’s not enough of it in fashion. Raf Simons is determined to show us what we’ve been missing. He arrived at 205 West 39th Street, Calvin Klein’s longtime address and recently renamed, at his behest, Collection label, determined to tackle large questions of cultural resonance via the fashion genre. After two collections, it’s clear that Simons’ approach is to mine broad-stroke aspects of American culture, whether out of respect, curiosity or a yen to telegraph to skeptics (if any exist), his appropriateness for the creative helm of one of the great bastions of American fashion.
On Thursday night, the room was abuzz. Guests milled about, some in states of anticipatory glee, others in confused pursuit of their seats, as numerous tablet-wielding staffers had no clue about the room’s alphabetical arrangement. “Do you know where D is?” one guest asked a third floor guide. The answer: “No, but I’ll try to find it.”
Hence, a prolonged stroll under Sterling Ruby’s latest collaboration with Simons, the rafters now hung with colorful, exaggerated pompoms and banners representing the cheery high school life, but with grim sightings — an axe here or there — interrupting the frivolity. Sinister forces have a way of infiltrating the most apple-pie of demographics, the sophomore class included.
That provided the setting for the show, “Sweet Dreams,” inspired, Simons’ show notes informed, by the Hollywood horror genre and “its depictions of both an American nightmare, and the all-powerful American dream.” An interesting premise that could have gone in several directions — fun, deep, eerie. “Deep” most suits Simons’ vernacular, and so it was, a thoughtful juxtaposition of pleasant facade and disturbing underbelly, realized via a collaboration with the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts; Simons used graphics from the artist’s “Death and Disaster” series to recontextualize clothes that ranged from ethereal (ghostly, billowing nightgowns) to cool (coed denim). Compelling, definitely — maybe too much so. Who wouldn’t feel creeped out if a Tinder date showed up wearing a car crash? (Not so a portrait of the glorious Sandy Brant, who sat front row, or Dennis Hopper, whose likenesses Simons also used.)
Within the social-commentary context, Simons mused broadly and brilliantly on silhouette and materials. He presented Take Two on several very American motifs introduced in his debut collection — the denim, quilts and the color-blocked Western shirts with which he opened. While the point was clear — new house standards! — these made an odd kickoff to a show brimming with ideas: modernist nylon redos of full-skirted Fifties frocks, madcap dresses made from miles of yarn fringe, and, for men, lean-cut plaid suits that worked the chic side of geek.
The clothes were often inventive and always impeccable. Yet it all felt a little hollow, observational rather than immersive. Perhaps it’s the difference between an intellectual and emotional approach. Simons falls in the former camp, and masterfully so. Yet horror is an emotional motif. When Alexander McQueen did a Hitchcock-themed collection, you felt the chills. Here, you felt the intended instruction. The show notes indicated “a corporeality that speaks of both sexuality and mortality.” That’s a lot to put on a dress — even one with Warhol knives on it.