“How will Raf Simons change Calvin Klein?” was the question on everyone’s lips after Simons was appointed as Creative Creative Officer last year. The answer, we now know, is that Simons would change everything. The Belgian-born designer has jolted the American brand back to life with a series of almost revolutionary changes. Here, we take a closer look at how Simons propelled Calvin Klein back to the forefront of fashion.
In the pre-Raf times, Calvin Klein’s family of labels was supervised by creative director Kevin Carrigan, who left the brand shortly after Simons’ appointment. Now, Simons is responsible for crafting the creative strategy for the whole company. Explaining the momentous impact of this decision, Calvin Klein CEO Steve Shiffman stated:
“Not since Mr. Klein himself was at the company has it been led by one creative visionary, and I am confident that this decision will drive the Calvin Klein brand and have a significant impact on its future.”
The monochrome designs and clear-cut silhouettes of previous Creative Director Francisco Costa’s collections couldn’t be further from Simons’ colourful designs, adorned with instantly recognisable block prints. As a European designer hired to revive an all-American brand, Simons brought with him a clichéd perspective on Americana. His America is the land of pop art, but also the land of the macabre. The recent SS18 collection notably drew inspiration from Hollywood’s famous horror films, and is full of unsettling elements – prints from Andy Warhol’s “Death and Disaster” series, imitations of Amish quilts, rubber-like fabrics and uncanny blood-red hues.
Simons has never been afraid of building collections around gruesome themes – just think of his AW2001 “Riot, Riot, Riot” collection, inspired by the enigmatic disappearance of musician Richey Edwards. “Riot, Riot, Riot” only becomes more chilling when you consider that the tragedy of 9/11 struck mere months after the show. Yet however far removed Raf’s ideas seem from the sexy, carefree aesthetic of Calvin Klein, they do, in fact, resonate with the DNA of the brand. Calvin Klein (the man, not the label) designed with a younger generation in mind. His campaigns, featuring the baby-faced Brooke Shields and the adolescent Sasha Mitchell, idolised youth and vulnerability – and hasn’t admiration for the youth always been at the core of Simons’ design philosophy?
From the Warhol-printed leather totes to macabre handbags that look like shrunken pompoms, Simons’ accessory designs mark a bold departure from Calvin Klein’s usual lineup of reasonably priced bags. Brimming with the subversive energy, so characteristic of Simons’ works, they have a serious claim on “It bag” status.
Shortly after Simons’ joined Calvin Klein, the brand’s ready-to-wear line, was renamed. Goodbye Calvin Klein Collection, hello Calvin Klein 205W39NYC. Not only does the new name canonise the address of the label’s NYC headquarters, but there’s also something specifically Belgian about the new unpronounceable title.
The reinvented Calvin Klein has also parted with the old logo in favour of sleek, capitalised letters. The creative mind behind the re-design is Peter Saville, one of Raf Simons’ favourite artists and his long-time collaborator. Simons and Saville have enjoyed a close working partnership for almost two decades.
Peter Saville is not the only artist Simons has tapped for CK. The recent dreamy ad campaigns were shot by Willy Vanderperre, a friend and collaborator of Simons’ since the early 1990s. The two met at Antwerp’s bohemian bar Witzli Poetzli back in the days when Simons was dating Veronique Branquinho, and have been creative partners ever since.
“What I want to express in photography is what Raf Simons does in fashion”, remarked Vanderperre in one of his interviews. Equally fascinated with the idea of youthful rebellion, Simons and Vanderperre have reminded us what Calvin Klein is quintessentially all about – exciting fashion for young people.
Sterling Ruby, another long-time Simons associate, is responsible for the dramatic renovation of Calvin Klein’s flagship store in Madison Avenue, where the walls have been painted sunshine-yellow and a gigantic scaffolding-like structure has been installed. It is also Ruby who created the unsettling set design for the recent SS18 show, that was an eerie combination of axes and scarlet pompoms.