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What to Expect from Raf Simons Debut at Calvin Klein

By Jackie Mallon

Jan 23, 2017

New York - This New York Fashion Week boasts the season’s most happening event: Raf Simons’s debut for Calvin Klein. Almost universally recognized as a perfect match––at a time when pairing designers with houses has become increasingly risky as more often than not they don't work out––it is one of the highest profile creative/corporate match-ups ever.

The Ultimate Designer

The Belgian who considers himself a self-taught menswear designer, having graduated in industrial and furniture design, celebrated his eponymous company’s twentieth anniversary last year. He has built a reputation on an eternally youthfully aesthetic––despite the fact that Simons is approaching fifty––by diffusing clothing with the rebellious spirit of teenage subcultures, underground punk, techno and New Wave music, along with contemporary art influences.

His highly successful tenure at Jil Sander was the first time he designed womenswear. It worked like a charm. His most recent role at Christian Dior loosened the house’s ties to the fussy opulence associated with old Parisian couture houses and instilled a bracing freshness, and a painter’s exacting employment of color and surface decoration that became instantly recognizable. Each turn has shown that Simons with an almost curatorial eye can assemble the house’s motifs into a new pleasing arrangement while never losing his own signature. Therefore hopes are already sky-high for his latest, as Chief Creative Officer of Calvin Klein overseeing all aspects of design, including licenses, global marketing and communication. Here’s what he’s in for…

The Ultimate Brand

Calvin Klein is a monolithic name in American fashion, one of the late twentieth century’s big three, together with Donna Karan and Ralph Lauren. While the name still commands enormous respect, it hasn’t actually stood for any agenda-setting fashion for a long time. The runway collections have not been covetable and revenue comes from the sales of jeans, a vast difficult-to-define White Label business, underwear and fragrances, areas under the purview of former Creative Director, Kevin Carrigan, who had been with the company for eighteen years but who resigned two days after Simons’s appointment. Calvin Klein’s multiple tentacles hit just about every price point imaginable and, according to the PVH website, the company has “65 licensing and similar arrangements worldwide.” How Simons manages these will put him to the test like never before.

In the 90s Klein’s commanding catwalk visions of understated tailoring and refreshing slip dresses in a restrained palette were the epitome of American luxury and confidence. Always a master of advertising, Klein launched the naked waif, Kate Moss, sprawled on a couch with Mark Wahlberg on billboards all over the world and shot her to fame. In the mid-90s, his advertising videos for jeans and fragrances captured the zeitgeist. Runway and advertising will be two areas to almost certainly benefit from Simons’s Midas touch. We have seen a glimpse in the just-released ad campaign for his new By Appointment line featuring among others Milly Bobby Brown from hit Netflix show Stranger Things.

The Ultimate Challenge

Raf Simons’s website states, “The most important message Raf Simons wants to communicate is: Pride in Individuality.” Respect for his singular vision will certainly propel every editor and journalist to descend on New York this fashion week in giddy anticipation. Although a city brimming with wealth, with a fashion calendar that seems to grow every season, New York is still haunted by the shadow of being too commercial to be truly exciting. It lacks the hot new trailblazing talent at work in Europe, say, Paris’s Demna Gvasalia, who was hired at Balenciaga, or London’s Jonathan Anderson, at Loewe. We know that Simons will combine his men’s and women’s ready-to-wear in one show, something the house has never done before. As fashion week preparations begin, the heated expectation for this single show threatens to burn up the Manhattan grid.

To use the words of Steve Shiffman, Calvin Klein’s CEO, “The arrival of Raf Simons as Chief Creative Officer signifies a momentous new chapter for Calvin Klein. Not since Mr. Klein himself was at the company has it been led by one creative visionary. Raf’s exceptional contributions have shaped and modernized fashion as we see it today and, under his direction, Calvin Klein will further solidify its position as a leading global lifestyle brand.”

The stripping away of the inessential, the precision of cut and color at the heart of Klein’s vision will surely appeal to the industrial designer in Simons. And with his eternal inspirations of boy scouts and school uniforms and youth culture, he might even save the all-but-perished American prep aesthetic which has lost its once-untouchable iconic stature and commercial appeal. But how Simons’s thoughtful approach will synch with the commercial dynamo of parent company PVH remains to be seen. He famously cited the pace and pressure of the fashion calendar as a reason he left Dior.

His new role will be that on steroids.

Photos from: Raf Simons Facebook, Calvinklein.us and Millie Bob Brown's Facebook page

By contributing guest editor Jackie Mallon, who is on the teaching faculty of several NYC fashion programmes and is the author of Silk for the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.