Heralded as the saviour of American Fashion, has Raf Simons arrival in the U.S. made an impact?
Quite a stir was caused when it was announced after months of speculation that famed designer Raf Simons had been confirmed as chief creative officer of global fashion brand Calvin Klein. Upon leaving his previous post as head of couture at Dior, Simons had commented on the hyper-kinetic pace of the fashion industry; he bemoaned the loss of 'incubation' for ideas, to be able to take ones time and set something aside to come back later to re-examine it in a different light. This being said, Simons new post as the head of one of the largest commercial fashion brands in the world seems odd at first glance.
New York mens week is often cited as a rather lacklustre affair on the menswear schedule of fashion month, this is not to say that there isn't still good working coming out of the big Apple. Robert Geller, John Elliott and Siki Im to name a few are consistently producing fantastic clothes - however New York seems to miss something special. The boundary pushing creations of London, the youthful energy of Paris, or the storied luxury heritage of Milan. Something is missing - that something might just be Raf.
Calvin Klein is a multi-billion dollar company comprised of multiple product lines and sub brands. It's all very confusing, and not the most coherent business model, however Calvin Klein still manages to produce huge sales numbers year on year - although this could be attributed largely to the revenues and brand power held by the famous underwear line sported by various celebrities. Implementing Raf as chief creative officer of the business, alongside his trusted partner Peter Mullier as creative director marks a shift in strategy for Calvin Klein - it's clear someone realised that their multi brand business model was incoherent for the consumer, and therefore they must unify under one singular vision.
The day of the show of Raf's eponymous menswear line arrives, with a decorated who's who of fashion press and celebrities descending upon his setting, eager to see what the acclaimed designer would churn out on his debut in a distinctly foreign setting to his usual dwelling of Paris. What came down the runway was a more mature Raf Simons aesthetic, laced with idiosyncratic motifs one would only run into in New York, such as Raf's signature oversized knits adorned with 'NY' evocative of 'I Love NY' tourist merch found on street corners; a slightly overt reference if not a heartfelt gesture of respect for his new home. Raf has consistently been a designer that has celebrated youth culture, it has taken centre stage in his work however this collection saw a toned down use of these sentiments such as styling the more formal ensembles of wool city coats and slightly baggy tailored trousers with shiny tape belts containing slogans such as 'Youth Project'. The codes of Raf Simons were ever present, such as oversized knits harkening to school uniforms, or work wear style shirts that could be compared to Boy Scout uniforms - familiar yet slightly incongruous in terms of the proportion utilised.
This subversion of a garments purpose and setting is signature Raf through and through; however there was still something decidedly grown up about this collection. Maybe this signals a new chapter for Simons. The designer turned 49 this year, and perhaps as he reaches this sign post for middle-life he is retrospectively viewing his archive of obsession with the concept of Youth, and what it means to him now as a more mature man as opposed to his earlier collections. Perhaps his appointment to such a powerful position at the helm of a multi-billion dollar fashion company has affected his consideration of clothing and what he wants to say with his designs. The responsibility on him to grow Calvin Klein's already monolithic business through creativity and execution is of huge magnitude, and maybe this weight of responsibility has inspired a new lens of maturity with which he views life through.
In the run up to Raf's New York at Calvin Klein debut there was much debate over what would become of this new iteration of the label. Advertisements began to appear sporting the moniker 'Calvin Klein - By Appointment Only' adding an air of luxurious mystery to the massive debut. The smallest part of Calvin Klein's business at present is their high-end runway offerings, being sold only at their flagship store in New York and in a very limited selection of stockists. Had Raf's experience in couture at Dior driven him to want to expand Calvin Klein's offering beyond ready to wear and produce some stunning pseudo-couture style pieces? This would be highly off-brand in terms of the offerings Calvin Klein currently sports, however Raf's ideals of modern beauty shaped his approach to couture at Dior and could be just what Calvin Klein needs to enthuse a new luxury customer to spend their money with Calvin Klein. However Calvin Klein has a storied history and is an iconic American institution, containing a strong DNA that goes back to the very first designs offered by the man Klein himself. Calvin Klein has something distinctly American about it, yet it's a minimal approach as opposed to America's perceived relationship with over-zealousness that is often cited as one of its defining factors. This tied with a penchant for sensuality is the main identifier for the brand.
The setting for the show said as much for the collection as the clothes themselves in some ways. Discarding the typical proposition of a trendy gallery space and instead opting to show in the basement of the brands Manhattan headquarters, show invitations adorned proudly in bold "established 1968". A sense of sincerity on Simon's behalf to show respect to the history of the brand was certainly present, although this was not without him utilising his own creative license to assert that this was to be his interpretation - 'You are sitting in an artwork by Sterling Ruby... It is part of Simon's curatorial approach to the brand'. Simon's longstanding friendship with artist Sterling Ruby is well documented. The two have collaborated on multiple occasions including Ruby's store designs for Simons, Simons use of Sterling Ruby artworks as prints for couture dresses in his inaugural Dior collection, and the two's collaborative collection produced under Raf's label for the Fall '14 season. This assertiveness on Raf's part of forcing his audience to sit in a Sterling Ruby installation while viewing the collection speaks to his deep appreciation of Art and how this relationship with the art world seeps into his creations, one way or another.
In terms of what was sent down the runway courtesy of Simons and Mulier, there was definitely a willing compliance with Calvin Klein's iconic notions of Americanism and Sexiness. Sheer figure hugging tops were paired with brightly coloured wool trousers and metal toed cowboy boots. Some of these references are a little blatant, such as an American flag wrap-come dress type garment that lay under a coat in one look. Whether this was styling choice or an actual garment remains to be seen, however it felt a little forced. Alternatively there was some subtle, playful references that definitely deserve credit. Peeking out from the inner of the men's parkas were what looked to be quilted patchwork liners, perhaps a reference to America's native culture of quilt making. Subtext aside, they look to be beautiful additions to some already extraordinary pieces of outerwear. There was also a staggered use of a clear shiny fabric that wrapped garments or full looks from the tailored jackets to overcoats to dresses. This subtle reference to the American obsession with plastic wrapped furniture was a nice self-aware gesture to what could be considered an institution of the American household. The highlight of this use was definitely the use of the 'plastic covering' over the plaid printed, business-like double breasted city coats. This subversion of classic American uniform pieces typically seen on Wall Street bankers with another classically American object in the furniture covering is both thought provoking and visually interesting. Martin Margiela's use of semi-sheer lycra style fabric wrappings over herringbone wool coats particularly springs to mind with these pieces, however Simons and Mulier have executed the style in a much more coherent aesthetic with the Calvin Klein identity. Whether pieces such as these will attract commercial success is another musing that is up for discussion. Pieces such as the floral print dresses, the printed coats, the denim and the parkas are all easy and beautiful clothes that will surely be successful, however the more maximalist offerings such as the plastic wrapped brightly coloured furry coats and the head turning feather dresses that resemble something from a carnival dance troupe may be a step too far for the conservative Calvin Klein customer who have the money to spend on these pieces. The bottom line of this collection is that although the response overall on a commercial level may be mixed, there is no denying that these clothes are simply charming and make you want to own and wear them. Their sincerity and sensuality is enticing at best, and perhaps in places a minor step too far for some at worst. The offering on a whole definitely wasn't perfect, however it was a pleasant glimpse of what Simons and Mulier want Calvin Klein to be; modern, sensual, desirable, and unapologetically American.
Raf Simon's arrival in New York was heralded as the saving grace of American Fashion. Raf & co arrived at a tumultuous time of uncertainty, however it seems like they have embraced their new home with open arms and minds. If something is to be taken away from both showings from the Simons camp it is a sense of optimism, which right now if nothing else is highly valued in the land of the free.
Words by Chris Harrison
Images by Voguerunway.com