Bergdorf Goodman’s windows may be beautiful and Lord & Taylor's completely iconic but Calvin Klein just upped the ante for this year’s holidays. The brand – which just announced that creative director Raf Simons will make his debut in a mixed gender runway show during New York Fashion Week in February – is already implementing Simons’ die-hard penchant for art. Calvin Klein has unveiled a Dan Flavin light installation at its Calvin Klein Collection flagship in Manhattan for the 2016 festive season.
For the uninitiated, this is not Calvin Klein’s first embrace of the late American installation artist’s work. In fact, the light display that currently adorns its flagship is a recreation of one that Flavin created for Calvin Klein twenty years ago. It has been reinstalled in honor of Flavin’s life and work under the direction of art-loving, Simons.
This move marks one of Simons’ first – if not the first – official outward-facing moves at Calvin Klein, where he is expected to single-handedly help bring an increased level of relevance and renewed prestige to the New York fashion industry. And to be frank, New York fashion – particularly as demonstrated in New York Fashion Week – needs a shakeup.
Certainly always the distant cousin of the older, wiser Paris Fashion Week, which is known for turning out the most traditionally respected designs each season, New York also takes second chair to Milan, with its established houses – Prada, Gucci, Fendi, Dolce & Gabbana, Valentino, and Versace (just to name a few) – and London, which has been heralded as consistently producing some of the most groundbreaking young design talents in the industry. Interestingly, New York, with its leisure-centric designs and largely commercial attitude towards fashion in general, in one camp and its edgy up-and-comers, in the other, represents something of a dichotomy.
Some of New York’s most widely known fashion presences come in the form of big brands like Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors, Tommy Hilfiger, DKNY, Calvin Klein, and Tory Burch, which are known for their commercial ready-to-wear collections and in many cases, their mainstream, more affordable collections. There are also a few bona fide upper echelon fashion brands, which range from Proenza Schouler and Marc Jacobs to Carolina Herrera and Oscar de la Renta – and younger ones that will certainly follow suit like Altuzarra and Prabal Gurung. And still yet, there are the truly exciting young brands, some of which have been put forth by the likes of MADE and VFILES, two New York-based fashion/media platforms that foster young talent. Andrea Jiapei Li, LRS, and Sies Marjan, among others, stand out.
With this in mind, there seems to be a rather significant gap between the young, often-rebellious, and quite stimulating brands and the ones that are turning out the most commercially successful garments and accessories. Few brands manage to achieve both. (There are definitely some but it is certainly not the norm).
This has been slowly changing. Givenchy upped the ante for S/S 2016, when it staged a one-off runway show during NYFW, complete with Marina Abramović-directed performance art, couture garments, and 800 public guests. Marc Jacobs staged a red-carpet runway show, complete with everyone’s favorite Insta-models, as well as Beth Ditto, in a “One Night Only” event at the Ziegfeld theater for S/S16. A season later, he rescued an “otherwise mostly flat New York Fashion Week” (per Vogue) with a gothic heyday, which included show-stopping sky-high platforms and Lady Gaga. Alexander Wang took his February 2016 show to church and trotted out models in punk get-ups and “faded”-emblazoned garments.
These shows felt distinctly out of the NYFW ordinary, as save for these exceptions and a small handful of others, NYFW can fall flat. New York-based fashion has always based largely on wearability and so, it makes sense that many brands want to rely on the tried-and-true method of staging and selling commercial clothes. Having said that, as indicated by Givenchy, Marc Jacobs, Alexander Wang, and a handful of others, there is a certain group of brands that are dead-set on bridging the gap and putting New York on the map again as a fashion capital in its own right. Raf Simons will certainly situate Calvin Klein here, in the sweet spot between completely commercial and outrageously exciting with his impending debut.
Raf Simons is, after all, a very apt example of how a designer can put forth wearable, arguably commercially-minded garments and accessories while still engaging consumers in a way that is exciting and invigorating. He has done so for his Antwerp-based eponymous label, which he founded in 1995. We also saw him turn out truly desirable and yet quite shoppable menswear and womenswear collections during his tenure at Jil Sander, as well as at Christian Dior, where he was praised for modernizing the house’s couture collection, in particular.
His work at Jil Sander is arguably the most telling of what we can expect for Calvin Klein come February. During his tenure at Jil Sander, which lasted from 2005 to 2011, Simons took the brand’s signatures — strict suiting, fine fabrics and minimalist overtones — and made them his own. He injected color, standout prints, and youthful coolness. This is almost certainly what we can expect in terms of the garments and accessories themselves.
As one of New York’s most commercially recognized brands (likely because of its underwear, fragrances, and edgy new ad campaigns), Calvin Klein is not necessarily one of the brands that falls within the category of exciting or refreshing or all that risk-taking. Yet, that does not have to be the case, which is what we will probably learn in February. And if we know anything about Raf, it is that others tend to follow his lead. We can see this based on the number of brands that are currently replicating any array of his designs – either from recent seasons or those from 10 years ago.
Known for his ability to apply youth codes – whether it be academia-inspired or an ode to New Order – to his garments, Simons knows how to effectively bridge the gap between commercial and cool, and it is here that Calvin, and ideally NYFW as a whole, will benefit from a Raf Simons-imposed shakeup. He will bring all eyes to New York and hopefully raise the bar (or at least the expectations) for a week that at time feels just a bit too safe. If anyone can do that, its Raf!