There’s a certain joy to watching Raf Simons relish in creative control – and it’s one that grows increasingly rare in the fashion industry today. In a crowded environment pushed by conglomerates and bottom dollar marketeers, how rare is the brand that is willing to be led by a creative?
That is, perhaps, exactly why Calvin Klein – or 205W39NYC, its runway arm, at least – is so current and correct for today.
Loads can be said about the political climate that the United States is wrapped up in, which quite automatically makes Calvin Klein’s influences and standing as an almost institutional name in American fashion intrinsic. Just as you would immediately associate names like Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Oscar de la Renta, Carolina Herrera and the like. Except Calvin Klein occupies a special position as a brand that penetrated and managed to work its way into mainstream popular culture. Which is to say that the work of the brand has an influence farther reaching than the gowns and daywear at Oscar de la Renta could ever hope to achieve.
Take, for instance, its underwear line. Ubiquitous today as a go-to for tasteful and, yes, sexy intimates. On the brand’s Instagram page, nearly all of its tagged pictures are of everyday people posing, posting and inevitably hashtagging #mycalvins. It’s hard to find any other fashion campaign that has had as lasting an effect as this since Brooke Shields first uttered those words.
But that’s beating around one of the many bushes that makes up Calvin Klein today. Most notably, Raf Simons introduced a new runway line – the syntactical nightmare of its New York headquarter address – and a “By Appointment” line, what is essentially American haute couture – fodder for the red carpets. But it’s at 205W39NYC where things really come out to play, as has been shown in its sophomore outing at NYFW.
The question I find myself asking the most after viewing Mr Simons’ collection for Calvin Klein is: what does being American mean? This line of thought pressingly urgent with regards to America’s current status and position as – and I hate to say this – the leading democracy in the free world. That it affects countless people in the world who look to the USA as a cultural hallmark – think of the incomparable influence of Hollywood, American television, music and pop culture – is to understate the position America has held in the wider global spirit since, perhaps, the 1920s.
Scarily, the decision was made to recast the American dream as a nightmare. To that end, tropes of horror movies and the strange American fixation on violence and brutality were mined and contrasted against classic 50s silhouettes. Graphic depictions of car crashes by Andy Warhol, rubber as fabric, film evocations, high school band camps, the like. There is a palpable tension to the prettiness of splotchy black and red coats and dresses meant to evince, perhaps, the bloodiness of Stephen King’s Carrie.
It’s an unflinching recasting of the country back at itself, a mirror without a soothsaying voice to continue hollow promises of the American dream that we today cannot continue to pretend still exists. Here is Simons scouring through the blood and dirt of America’s psyche and synthesising it with its underbelly of beauty. That beauty itself lies in the simplicity of his designs – precisely the kind of grace that is American sportswear’s signature.
The references Simons uses are obvious: Warhol is perhaps the most accessible of all American artists, high schools occupy a shared position of regrettable memory, etc. As much as Simons allies himself with art to convey a point, the resulting clothes tend to borrow a veneer of intellectualism. That’s not to say that the message itself loses any effect or intent. Happily, it opens up the doors for a wider audience to partake of and lean into a kind of intelligent fashion.
Most importantly, Calvin Klein 205W39NYC is making beautiful clothing that won’t just be bound to magazine pages. It absolutely has the potential to nudge fashion into a mode of critical thinking beyond reductive slogan t-shirts and the shameless commodification of feminism. That’s exactly why it is so important and holds a sort of cultural currency. Here is a designer and a brand who are primed to ask the right questions and offer stimulating possibilities – and if we were to respond, well then wouldn’t that be a party in the USA?