raf simons reimagines america for calvin klein debut

The beloved Belgian designer’s first collection for the iconic American brand featured Sterling Ruby party streamers, a David Bowie soundtrack, corporate suits, and cowboy boots.

by Emily Manning
10 February 2017, 6:50pm

Earlier this week, Raf Simons released his first-ever Calvin Klein campaign. Created with longtime collaborators Willy Vanderperre and Olivier Rizzo, the images feature models gazing upon artworks by Andy Warhol, Christopher Wool, Richard Prince. They wear denim and underwear. Klein built his empire by refashioning our perception of these garments — elevating them from quotidian ubiquity to luxury symbol of American style and sex. In one photograph, three boys in tighty whiteys are dwarfed by an American flag-esque sculpture by Sterling Ruby. The campaign proved something of a roadmap to Simons's first full collection for Calvin Klein, debuted this morning in New York City at the house's headquarters on 39th Street. Jeans, and those optic white briefs, both appeared on the combined men's and women's runway, as did other classic codes of American fashion: boxy leather jackets (and later, full leather looks), sharp suits, jackets lined with quilts, steel-tipped Western boots — a balance between corporate and cowboy that feels all too relevant today.

The campaign's art world influence was keenly felt, too. Wool's painting in the Calvin campaign reads: "A guy goes to a psychiatrist wearing only Saran Wrap. The psychiatrist says to the guy, I can clearly see your nuts you nut." Many garments — skin-tight sweaters with varsity-style sleeves, minimalist shift dresses — incorporated transparent elements. Others (neat suit coats with ever-so-slightly broad shoulders, delicate feather dresses) were wrapped in swaths of transparent plastic. It could have been a nod to the preservation of artworks, or to New York City galleristas' particular breed of pristine dry-clean power dressing.

Perhaps, though, it was also rooted in something much more personal. Simons has often spoken about the transformative impact of the first fashion show he ever saw, Martin Margiela's fall/winter 1989 offering. " It was the 'white' show, where all the models wore dresses in white and transparent plastic," Simons explained in 2008. Frédéric Sanchez, music director for Maison Martin Margiela, told The Gentlewoman that the show's makeup was inspired by Bowie's 'Life on Mars' music video, and its soundtrack was modeled after Warhol movies. "The idea was to cut all the tracks short abruptly, chop them up... mess with the levels to make them sound distorted or dirty, then put it all together like a collage."

Even if this Margiela memory was not at the top of Simons's mind, it certainly lends a fascinating context to the show's soundtrack. Bookended by two different versions of Bowie's "This is Not America," (the original, produced in 1985, and one recorded by the Lazarus musical's ensemble cast in 2016), it contained snippets of Roy Orbison's "In Dreams," The Flamingos's "I Only Have Eyes for You," a Bjork-ish cover of Ramones classic "I Wanna Be Sedated," and John Barry's "Midnight Cowboy."

Simons's favorite artist and friend of over a decade, Ruby, designed the set, which featured multi-colored streamers and American flag banners hanging from the ceiling. When an eerie, pitched-down sample from The Virgin Suicides — lifted from the neighborhood boy's monologue about the Lisbon tribe — played slowly, Ruby's set recalled the film's house party. The show seemed quietly rooted in many of the same complex questions that make the book and film so meaningful — of American youth, sexuality, isolation, family, obligation, expectation, history, freedom. We wonder if its director, Sofia Coppola, felt the same way, sitting in the front row. 


Text Emily Manning 
Photography Mitchell Sams

New York Fashion Week
Calvin Klein
Raf Simons
fall/winter 17
nyfw fw17
autumn/winter 17