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Calvin Klein AW17Photography Lillie Eiger

The Lynchian darkness of Raf’s all-American Calvin Klein

Land of the Freaks: the designer delves beneath the surface with a Technicolor Hollywood fever dream of warped Americana

“This is not America.”

The introduction of Raf Simons’s first show for Calvin Klein began with those prescient David Bowie lyrics, sung angelically over an unsettling synth. The recording, performed by Sophia Anne Caruso, was taken from Bowie’s off-Broadway musical Lazarus, one of his final projects before he died. The 1984 version by Bowie and the Pat Metheny Group followed suit, as Simons unveiled a new vision for one of America’s most mythic and identifiable commercial brands: a Technicolor Hollywood fever dream of warped Americana. The message was lucid: this is not your average Calvin.

“You are sat in an artwork by Sterling Ruby,” read a message on each seat in the ground-floor showspace, downstairs from the offices where the brand operates. A “permanent, total-room installation,” Ruby’s sculptures, quilts, and ephemera hung from the ceiling as part of a planned trilogy of commissioned artworks, set to be unveiled in two more parts later today and in May of this year. For his expedition to America – cultural, commercial, and otherwise – it makes sense for Raf to recruit the artist, his longtime collaborator, for the ride. Ruby’s work, at its most potent, exposes the consumption, waste, and industrial decline of America’s overblown brand of idealism. Simons and Creative Director Pieter Mulier tapped into that same shimmering discord to novel and, at times, ironic effect. After all, if you’re going to set about rebranding a sacred cow of American advertising, it helps to have a sense of humor.

“Raf’s America mirrors the one that Lynch has long mastered, where a fascinating darkness brews beneath the splendor of our polished, sweet surfaces”

“This Is Not America” originally appeared on the soundtrack of John Schlesinger’s The Falcon and the Snowman, a film that tells the true story of a disillusioned military contractor and his drug-pushing friend who became walk-in spies for the Soviet Union in the 1970s. Given the state of Russia’s current interference in America’s political upheaval, the reference is a wry one, reinforced through the collection’s multi-colored leisure suits which evoked the countercultural Stilyagi of the 50s and 60s, with racing stripes that traded on a certain current fascination with sporty, Soviet-inspired tracksuits.

As models came down the catwalk, they did so as Pee-Chee folder illustrations brought to life, as if recruited to blossom into underground film stars. Aluminum-stamped florals on black leather jackets and steel-toed cowboy boots added to the Warholian sense of kitsch. Opulent fur coats, oversize plaid topcoats, and marabou feather evening dresses came packaged in clear plastic: caricatures of commercialised elegance. Along with the silver metallic box bags, they felt like factory readymades designed to satisfy our voracious consumer culture. Prada, Helmut Lang, and Martin Margiela have all mechanised this same circuit, but the imprint of Calvin Klein provides a new and energised sense of purpose. It felt like a natural evolution of both Raf Simons and Raf Simons’s Dior, streamlined and stripped of pretense – a straightforward shock to the American fashion establishment.  

As Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” interrupted the Bowie dramarama on the soundtrack, my mind naturally wandered to the relentless inspiration of David Lynch, whose Twin Peaks revival is creeping just around the corner to grab our collective psyche like Bob at the edge of Laura Palmer’s bed. Raf’s America mirrors the one that Lynch has long mastered, where a fascinating darkness brews beneath the splendor of our polished, sweet surfaces. Raf has referred to this same dream space as the “interzone,” a hard-to-define layer of consciousness that summons unseen specters of the intuitive mind. More simply, both artists acknowledge a willingness to accept what can’t be explained, which is something a lot of Americans are struggling to adopt.

Newly arrived from Europe, perhaps Simons and Mulier are able to see something most Americans cannot. With their new western world inhabited by candy-coated cowboys and metamodernist Pop, the Calvin Klein brain trust successfully zeroed in on a sensation that feels both prevalent and underreported within our urgent social climate: a sense of delirious denial, that lucid state of fear that can only generate laughter. Raf Simons couldn’t have arrived a more problematic time, and he’s reacting as if to say What IS this crazy place? Patched together like a topsy-turvy quilt of conflicting eras, attitudes, and ideas, the new Calvin Klein is an amusement that captures the bizarro contradictions that make this young country unique. “This is not America,” Bowie cries, from beyond. He’s right, it’s the land of the freaks.