Reinventing a well-established brand or historical fashion house and presenting a collection that wins the favour of the press and of the buyers is no mean feat, especially in the confusing, fast and chaotic times we are living in. But then, maybe, there are designers that can do it, such as Raf Simons.
The current Chief Creative Officer of Calvin Klein showcased his first collection for the quintessential American brand yesterday morning during New York Fashion Week, at the brand's West 39th Street headquarters, located in the former Garment District.
The invitation for the event included a white bandana: the latter has already been spotted on runways such as Tommy Hilfiger's and it is part of a Business of Fashion (BoF) campaign called #tiedtogether, organised in reaction to the current political climate (BoF is encouraging readers to wear the piece, but also to actively support the ACLU and UNHCR).
While the bandana was a way to tie people together on a physical level, Simons employed art as a unifying intangible metaphor: guests - with a front row including CK Jeans icon Brooke Shields, artist Cindy Sherman, current Calvin Klein Made-to-Measure muse Millie Bobby Brown from Stranger Things, model Lauren Hutton and director Sofia Coppola - became part of a Sterling Ruby artwork, as announced in the show notes.
A collaborator of Simons (remember his Autumn/Winter 2014 collection?), Ruby was given free rein and came up with a piece entitled "Sterling Ruby Imagined America".
The total-room installation - comprising mop heads (impossible not to think about American success stories such as Joy Mangano's and her self-wringing mop), patches of faded denim, aluminum buckets, and other assorted objects - was actually part of a trilogy by Ruby for CK (part two was revealed yesterday on the 12th floor of the building, and another part will be unveiled in May).
This collage of bits and pieces - modern debris of our society - hinted at consumerism, waste and decadence, but also introduced the main themes of Simons' hotly-anticipated collection for Calvin Klein.
Starting (and ending) with David Bowie's "This Is Not America" (as performed by Sophia Anne Caruso and taken from Bowie's musical Lazarus, followed by the 1984 version of the same song by Bowie and the Pat Metheny), the collection was a tribute by Simons all-American things, through designs that combined together various inspirations, representing different styles, influences, moods and dress codes from the past and the present.
The collection opened with buttoned up Western-pocket shirts and mismatched pants with stripes down the sides that called to mind band or rodeo uniforms; denim combos included instead trousers with waistband leather labels emblazoned with the silhouette of Brooke Shields as seen in the iconic CK ad.
The runway then featured draped asymmetric stars-and-stripes skirts, dresses that revealed the currently trendy underboob area, desirable coats made with a classic patchwork quilting techniques (that will maybe prompt crafty fashionistas to reach out for their "how to make a quilt" manuals...) and a sort of uncanny tribute to the American plastic couch cover via marabou feather dresses (inspired by the house archive) or faux fur yellow-gold and Prince of Wales check coats sandwiched in transparent plastic sheets.
Some of the designs - see the sheer tops with thick knitted sleeves (the arm warmers appeared a few days ago in Raf Simons' A/W 17 menswear collection) - called to mind Miuccia Prada's passion for perversity, combined with a touch of Martin Margiela. Accessories included metal-tipped cowboy boots, sci-fi transparent vinyl sandals with coloured details, box bags and vinyl purses.
Simons managed to tick off all the main points on the list of "to do things", from offering an interesting visual impact to celebrating the brand and its heritage, while disrupting it in a respectful way and creating commercial desire while sending out subtle political messages wrapped in a modern art package.
The designer's strength at the moment is the fact that he is an outsider: he relocated from Belgium (a beautiful city, according to Donald Trump...) to Manhattan, taking with him Pieter Mulier, now the creative director of Calvin Klein (at the end of the show Simons took a bow with him).
In many ways Simons & Co can see things clearer than Americans: as outsiders it is easier for them to take a step back and look at American art, culture, history and politics with passion, but with a healthy dose of detachment as well.
Will Simons manage to revamp CK on a commercial level? So far he has generated a lot of media revenue with the newly created CK couture collection called "By Appointment", and with the arty CK campaign featuring, among the other images, a picture of models in their underpants, photographed at the Rubell Family Collection in Miami as they stare at an artwork by Sterling Ruby.
Surely, though Simons stated American youth was a big inspiration for this collection, the designs included will appeal to more mature consumers as well. That said, CK's business mainly revolves around denim, underwear and fragrances, new sectors for Simons, who has now oversight on everything, including the CK home goods.
As it usually happens in these cases, time will tell. Yet, for now, Simons has managed to attract more critics to the New York fashion shows and to generate a bit more excitement around the local fashion week that has lost a few runways since some brands and houses decamped to Los Angeles (Tommy Hilfiger among the others) and Paris (Rodarte and Hood by Air this season; Proenza Schouler next season).
There is actually something else that Simons has done: while he may not be able to lead the global revolution (as stated in a previous post), he has subtly reminded the fashion crowds that migrants (technically he is a migrant as well...) are an asset and that American history is a tale of many styles and, above all, of many cultures.