Now that Calvin Klein has appointed Raf Simons to the position of chief creative officer, the Belgian designer's name is on more lips than ever. For a company that makes plenty of money selling people underwear, this is an opportunity for Raf Simons to get Calvin Klein consumers to clothe the outside of their bodies, too. Despite Simons's relatively niche appeal, his work is the type that speaks for itself. He's built a universe with a strong visual gravity that pulls people into its orbit, and we should expect the same from Calvin Klein with the cult designer at its helm.
His last big job in the fashion world was as the creative director at Dior, the storied French fashion house that revolutionized post-WWII womenswear. He left the post after just three years, burnt out by the increasingly fast pace of the industry, and has mainly focused on his own collection since. He presented his most recent Spring/Summer 2017 line as a special guest at Pitti Uomo, the world's pre-eminent menswear trade show. It was notable for its use of images by photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, whose estate actually approached Simons about working together.
To understand the significance of Simons's new position, one has to realize New York's current place in the fashion paradigm. Compared to the longstanding provenance of European fashion houses like Chanel and Louis Vuitton, NYC's luxury fashion scene is relatively young. Much of the European houses earned their cred by serving royalty and becoming beacons of upper-class aspiration. Many successful New York designers like Alexander Wang have gone on to steer the creative helm of venerated houses like Balenciaga. To have a foreign designer like Raf Simons come to America is unprecedented, because usually people leave the US to get legitimized on a global scale. Simons's flag planted at Calvin Klein could indicate that the company wants to compete at a much higher creative and cultural level.
"I think Raf is better suited at Calvin Klein than he was at Dior," says Eugene Rabkin, fashion journalist and founder of StyleZeitgeist, an online publication and forum where work from designers like Raf Simons are discussed fervently. One of the biggest challenges faced by Simons at the iconic fashion house was designing couture clothing—intricate dresses and outerwear that visually aligned with the label's long-established DNA. The road to his first couture collection for Dior is highlighted in the film Dior and I, and a small army of artisans that work at Dior's Paris atelier did most of the handwork.
While Dior is an established fashion heavyweight that makes plenty of its money from its apparel in addition to other categories like fragrance and accessories, Calvin Klein's soft power as a fashion house has waned in recent years. Under the creative direction of Italo Zuccheli, Calvin Klein's high-end menswear offerings saw some pop cultural success on the shoulders of guys like Harry Styles and even a collaborative tour collection with Drake. But it never quite caught on with the masses, though. What Simons's appointment does immediately is bring a new degree of cachet and international appeal to a classic, household American brand. He also has the possibility of reinvigorating its presence at New York Fashion Week.
"I definitely think that Raf has potential to bring a new level of excitement to New York Fashion Week," says Rabkin. "Not only as an avant-garde menswear designer, but also a designer who feels comfortable with the minimalist aesthetic that Calvin Klein is known for."
"Editors, buyers, and other influencers who leave New York early to get to London for its collections... will be inclined to stick it out until Calvin's traditional end-of-week show [to see Simons's work]," writes Vogue's Nicole Phelps, who also described it as "the hottest ticket in town."
What's interesting about Simons's appointment is that he's more of a "designer's designer" than a mainstream one. The Belgian-born 48-year-old has only seeped into the public consciousness very recently, despite running his eponymous line since 1995. High fashion is the realm of early adopters after all, where new ideas about style and dressing are incubated on the runway and eventually trickle down to the masses as they influence more commercial offerings by mass retailers. Simons has flirted with mainstream labels before. He still maintains capsule collections with adidas Originals and Freddy Perry—where his $400 rendition of the Stan Smith changes nothing about the silhouette other than adding a perforated "R" on the sides of shoes and incorporating more psychedelic colorways like school eraser pink and metallic silver. But his simple reinterpretation of the classic sneaker speaks to his penchant for minimalism and a design narrative characterized by tiny details, not broad strokes.
His rise to prominence is a testament to a blurring menswear market where street-informed labels and high fashion are embraced equally. And while mega European houses built their reputations through symbiotic patronage of the aristocracy over many decades, Simons's cult status comes, in part, from the respect other innovators have bestowed on the designer. Kanye West and Virgil Abloh have cited him as a key inspiration and reference for their own collections, the latter once describing him as his personal "Michael Jordan." A$AP Rocky's song "Pe$o" name drops him alongside designer Rick Owens, bragging that their clothes are usually what he's dressed in. And sites like Grailed afford younger heads a certain degree of education, functioning as a place where fashion kids (and future Kanyes) can purchase and discover pieces from earlier collections.
"His work has finally been discovered by a new generation of fashion fans," says Rabkin of StyleZeitgeist.
There's a definite parallel between the way Simons has traditionally infused youth culture into his work and Calvin Klein's controversial ads featuring racy imagery and underage models. Its current #MyCalvins campaign features everyone from Young Thug and Fetty Wap, to Justin Bieber and Kendall Jenner. The hashtag and use of finger-on-the-pulse celebrities is effective social media bait. But the difference comes down to Simons's approach, which is largely predicated on making the type of subculture-tinged uniform that youth in rebellion want to wear and aspire to create, not on-the-nose marketing that speaks their language.
"You can have Justin Bieber in as many pairs of boxer briefs as you want, and you can have a Kendall Jenner ad break the internet, but that's not going to do anything to influence the actual product," says Lawrence Schlossman, brand director at Grailed.
Raf Simons is one of the first fashion designers to authentically translate youth culture on to the runway. Originally inspired by the energy of Belgian club kids and the freewheeling spirit of young men in their sexual prime, he's continuously mined pop culture references and styles in a way that's always felt cerebral and real, not appropriative. In a way, he directs youth culture, rather than echoes it.
"If you look at Raf's early clothes, he absolutely predated the Instagram generation," says Rabkin. "He was one of the first designers to put cultural references like post-punk music graphics on fashion."
But Simons didn't simply screenprint Joy Division album art on the backs of fishtail parkas or on the chests of sweatshirts, notes Rabkin. Instead, he went the extra mile by utilizing fabrics like virgin wool or cashmere, taking luxurious materials and infusing them with a youthful, visceral visual appeal. And this was all years before the covers of Unknown Pleasures and Power, Corruption, and Lies ended up on a Supreme collaboration or anyone's Tumblr dashboard. An avid appreciator of art, Simons uses intricate methods to reinterpret the very works he's inspired by. In Dior and I, we see him commission a special, complicated woven fabric to craft a dress based off a painting by artist Sterling Ruby. If the best art is deceptively simple, Simons is a master.
"He is real. He's authentic, and the vision in his pieces feels tangible. That's what makes his stuff so covetable and collectible, even years after it's been on a retail floor," says Schlossman.
If Simons can manage to bring the kind of creative energy from his seasoned career to Calvin Klein, maybe New York Fashion Week can truly shed its reputation for boring, commercially-viable clothing. It could even become a place where creative fashion minds can not only jumpstart their careers, but build universes of their own.
Follow Jian on Twitter.