‘This is not America,’ announced David Bowie on the soundtrack. But oh, yes – it was! Almost every piece of the Calvin Klein collection, reconfigured and relaunched by Raf Simons, was an ode to the country where the Belgian designer now lives.
There were dark blue skinny jeans – not quite as tight as Calvin’s original sexpot denims from the 1980s – with ideas from the Big Country including cowboy shirts and early settlers’ quilting. All this was reinforced by an installation of hanging fringes, flags and sheets of denim produced as a stage set by Los Angeles-based artist Sterling Ruby, who had previously collaborated with Simons.
One of those dangling decorations included a bra – which I deciphered as a reference to the worldwide success of Calvin Klein underwear and to the infamous claim by a young Brooke Shields in 1980: “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvin’s? Nothing.” The actress sat front row, proving that beauty is eternal, while other celebrities were generous in their praise for this Autumn/Winter 2017 show that effectively kicked off the new international season.
“Brilliant,” said Gwyneth Paltrow, wearing a classic tailored camel coat that was very Calvin – and very different from the experimental fabrics produced by designer Francisco Costa, who took over from Calvin Klein in 2003.
Julianne Moore said of Raf’s show, “I loved it – I nearly cried. As a show, it was very commercial. But it is hard to make clothes mean something – and I think he did.”
This was a fine and interesting show that gave promise of much more. But Simons has to decide whether he wants to follow his skill as a masculine tailor, which he showed both with male and female examples in the show. This first attempt seemed – as it should have done – to be an homage to Calvin Klein in the years his style was defined as “Calvin Clean,” with streamlined camel coats and a sense of a rangy, uptown American woman.
But that was then, when Calvin was a design lion in the 1980s, before grunge and the ugly aesthetic and other fashion disruptions. Simons brought the Calvin cut into the new millennium with plastic encasing tailored coats and dresses; it was sometimes streamlined and glamorous, but often reminiscent of Helmut Lang, especially when wafting feathers were trapped inside the transparent plastic.
Backstage, I asked about the focus on America, while Raf was introducing his team, including creative director, and formerly long-time assistant, Peter Mulier, who took a joint bow with the designer at the end of the show.
“I’ve always been thinking of America,” Raf said. “Now is the moment to focus on it. Energy and youth! You have to think about youth now, they are the future.”
Color was one of those prongs of youthfulness. Bright color-blocking appeared from the deep blue shirt shown with ruby red trousers at the start, to shades of yellow, orange and of purple – say in the arms of knitted sleeves, while the front was of barely veiled transparency. Shoes with see-through fronts and wings at the back of the ankle seemed more convincing.
The sexuality of the original Calvin Klein is undisputed. After his explosively successful launch of skin-tight jeans in 1978 he announced, “Jeans are sex – the tighter they are, the better they sell.” The Raf Simons version of semi-nudity and plastic transparency seemed more forced, especially with cropped tops designed to rise up to expose the curve of the lower bust.
The fact that the show took place in the garment district headquarters of Calvin Klein shows the commitment of the vast company to its high fashion, the seed bed of its identity. While in the recent past, the shows had seemed almost irrelevant to the progress of image and sales. Now Raf and Pieter Mulier hold a strategic position to direct all the CK products including the high-earning fragrance and underwear. This would seem an impossible task to achieve in the first six months, but it has the promise of a wide commercial platform.
In this collection, the Raf Simons menswear – always his strength – looked good and so did the streamlined tailoring for women, such as a trouser suit in Prince of Wales check with a modern shaping and a purposeful attitude. This concept of a female closet may not be new. But in this era of female force in America, when a disappointed community of women has given an aggressive response to their new president, the idea of the tailored suit, so beloved by Hillary Clinton, is not a foolish offering.
Yet the Raf Simons period, like that of President Trump, is just beginning in America. And after this reasonably successful start, time will tell whether this designer ‘gets’ the dis-United States and can re-create a fashion empire for Calvin Klein.