Calvin Klein’s creative director, the inimitable Raf Simons, loves movies.
So when models poured out onto the runway last Tuesday, many armed with bags of popcorn, he naturally conjured some metaphysical moment: The audience — perhaps representative of a dystopian, contemporary America — transformed into a horror movie, and the models, our anxious viewers.
The night before Valentine’s Day, the American Stock Exchange building was an immersive art exhibit. Renovated by artist Sterling Ruby (a well-known Simons favourite), the space became an apocalyptic prairie, populated by weathered barns painted in macabre Warhol graphics.
And like military troops, or winter veterans, or perhaps criminals, models filed out onto the popcorn-covered runway, their faces wrapped in balaclavas.
— Vanessa Friedman (@VVFriedman) February 14, 2018
Simons’s third collection with Calvin Klein is a love letter to the American middle class; a refreshing deviation from the wealth and glamour that take centre stage in the grand spectacle of fashion week. Women, fitted in boxy coats atop sweeping lawn skirts, or hand-knit sweaters, or prairie dresses, stormed the runway as though they were marching into a battleground. Others, fitted in material odes to firemen, sported neon orange uniforms reimagined as cropped jackets and parkas.
The presentation, which was definitively more avant-garde than any other Klein collection, also boasted the signature Simons oversized pieces. Massive ski sweaters featuring Looney Toons protagonists were paired with elbow-length silver gloves, reminiscent of NASA attire. Deep-V sweater vests sat against tailored suits.
And aside from these centrepiece items — the reflective strip, a design element native to work uniforms, governed much of the collection — the experience culminated into a sprawling range of flawless American references and ephemera.
With this collection, it seems Mr. Simons has begun to truly establish his own design lexicon. Here, we see him conversing with himself and his prior collections — those two-tone marching band shirts and placket trousers have been on his runway before. This storytelling, which is both nostalgist and futurist, seems to indicate the designer is far less interested in building on top of the ancient Klein legacy than he is completely reinventing it.
A decade ago, the Calvin Klein sales pitch was fairly conservative, with an unexpansive jurisdiction offering blockbuster blue jeans and flagship underwear. But under Simons’s directive, the brand has graduated beyond that, centering itself in a conversation about art, politics, identity and, often times, survival.
When he took the helm of Calvin Klein two summers ago, triumphantly migrating from a three-year tenure at a prestigious Dior, Raf’s presence indicated a momentous new chapter in the story of a beloved American label. “Klein,” a name once neatly positioned in a pantheon of Western creative visionaries, had dejectedly fallen out of vogue. What was once known as an essential American brand had been reduced to a ghost of its former self. So it seemed, like a poorly-kept secret, Simons’s codified duty would be to rocket the brand back into the stratosphere of cultural relevancy.
And with his third collection at the label, the designer has done just that, tenaciously rewriting how Calvin Klein exists in the American imagination.