Pin It

What does Raf Simons at Calvin Klein mean for fashion?

The brand’s new chief creative officer has claimed he’s ‘completely, completely obsessed with trying to get out of the fashion system’ – so are we on the brink of radical change?

There is no longer any doubt over who will be heading up Calvin Klein, but one question does remain – what will the label look like under Raf Simons’ direction? The initial whispers of the designer joining the house elicited mixed reactions, ranging from scepticism to near-tangible excitement. This was, after all, the same Raf Simons who had just denounced the pace of fashion which had limited his creative process at Dior, and was keen on devoting himself to his eponymous brand. Many of us had concluded, post-System interview, that it would be some time before we would ever see him heading up another major fashion house. To throw himself back into the maelstrom so quickly seemed not only unlikely, but almost hypocritical, such was the apparent conviction in everything to told Cathy Horyn. And yet, the more you mulled it over, the more it began to make sense.

At the very core of Raf Simons’ vision has always been an obsession with youth culture. Both music and the nature of youth are threads that run throughout nearly all of Simons’ work – an obsession borne from his own formative years growing up in the small Belgian town of Neerpelt, where his local record shop provided the only form of escapism. His collections have come to explore everything from the disappearance of Richey Edwards of the Manic Street Preachers, to the trials and tribulations of adolescence – his SS97 collection was playfully titled “16, 17, How to Talk to Your Teen.” "I wanted to make clothes for kids,” he told Alexander Fury in 2014 of his beginnings, and over two decades on that ethos is still a significant element of his work. This is where Calvin comes in – there are few, if any, fashion houses better placed than Calvin Klein to provide Simons with the platform to connect to today’s youth. Both aspirational and accessible in equal parts, the label straddles the catwalks of New York and the carefully-filtered Instagrams’ of London teens without any aesthetic discord.

“There are few, if any, fashion houses better placed than Calvin Klein to provide Simons with the platform to connect to today’s youth”

And while Calvin Klein is in no way niche, something that Simons’ own label undoubtedly is, it does enjoy a rebellious reputation within the world of fashion thanks to years of provocative, era-defining campaigns. This outsider sensibility is something that Simons himself is all too familiar with – he has no formal training in fashion design, but his eponymous label has built its cult-like following off the back of eschewing industry norms, employing street-cast models and the most democratic of seating (or often standing) arrangements at his shows. Calvin Klein too has often positioned itself as an industry alternative – along with the work of photographers like Corinne Day and Davide Sorrenti, in the 1990s it provided a gritty rejection of the hedonistic glamour of the previous decade, pioneering an aesthetic rooted in the same kind of anti-fashion outlook that has underpinned much of Simons’ vast oeuvre: “Kick me out when I'm theatrical – I think it's disgusting,” he quipped in a 2013 interview.

Visions seemingly, or at least somewhat, aligned, the prospect of Simons combining his talent with the vast resources of Calvin Klein is a tantalising prospect for anyone with a passing interest in his work. With Calvin Klein under his “one creative direction,” Simons will, presumably, enjoy a greater degree of control over ad campaigns than he did at Dior – the often extravagant J’adore perfume adverts that always felt somewhat at odds with the Belgian’s modernist vision. Similarly, there will be a scope for creative collaboration on a much grander scale – something which has often yielded some of Simons’ most potent work. His AW14 collaborative collection with Sterling Ruby was arguably his strongest collections in recent years, while his AW03 Closer collection, utilising the iconic Factory Records’ sleeve artwork of English graphic designer Peter Saville, is undoubtedly one of his most iconic. With the likes of stylist Olivier Rizzo, photographer Willy Vanderperre and long-term colleague Pieter Mulier (who it was also announced today would be joining Calvin Klein as creative director, continuing his role as Simons’ right-hand man) his unique vision has not been forged alone but through a continual dialogue and exchange of ideas, constantly seeking to agitate and pose questions through his creations. The altogether more intriguing aspect of this, in relation to Calvin Klein, is how this will be translated for a mainstream audience.

“At Calvin Klein, Simons has the opportunity to set the agenda for a much greater discussion, one which addresses many of the fashion system’s failings”

Simons has, in the past, spoken of the “curatorial” aspect of the role of creative director as being one of its main attractions, both in being respectful to the brand’s past, whilst imparting his own identity. This was certainly apparent at both Dior and Jil Sander, but comments from Calvin Klein himself in the months that followed the initial Raf-rumours, coupled with today’s official statement, suggest that the Antwerp-based designer will have a greater level of autonomy than in previous posts: “They are doing something that I had hoped they would have done, which is replace me,” Klein said, adding that they had found someone “with a singular vision, (to) oversee everything that is creative.” In turn, that will lend the Calvin Klein’s runway collections a heightened sense of allure, something that has arguably been overshadowed in recent years by the brand’s viral underwear and fragrance campaigns, headed up by the likes of Frank Ocean and Grace Coddington and captured by new generation photographers Harley Weir and Tyrone Lebon.

But beyond the changes he will likely implement at his new house, lies the prospect of the changes he can make for fashion as a whole. Simons has consistently shown a desire to challenge himself in the roles he has taken on outside of his eponymous label, but also to challenge the concept of the fashion system itself. Could it be that this new challenge he has set himself is not simply to impart a singular unyielding design vision at the New York label, but to also use his work at Calvin Klein to search for a solution to the problems he highlighted to Horyn earlier this year?

“I am completely, completely obsessed with trying to get out of the fashion system”: Watch Raf Simons and Sterling Ruby discuss their AW14 collaboration.

Often in interviews, Simons will refer to fashion as a discussion, or a dialogue – one where he will set the agenda, whether with his design team or the wider world, using clothes as a medium for exploring and challenging both creativity and convention. Whether it’s on click-to-buy collections that are available as soon as the clothes are on the runway, or the divide between menswear and womenswear shows, at Calvin Klein, Simons has the opportunity to set the agenda for a much greater discussion, one which addresses many of the fashion system’s failings. Ultimately, it was “the system” that caused Raf to leave Dior; the pressure and rigmarole of creating a collection every two months was simply too much. While many would have soldiered on – and Simons was likely capable of doing so – he was simply not willing. Instead, he lit the torch paper, shifting the discourse surrounding fashion in the process, about what and how we consume. You feel that Simons is deeply perturbed by the impact the current system is having, both on his peers and on the youth who buy into their ideas, that a change in how we consume images, trends and actual garments is needed. Months on from sparking that initial debate – with efforts by others to remedy the industry’s perceived ailments having failed to inspire widespread change – it would seem that it will be Simons that we turn to for solutions.

“At present, you sense that Simons feels he is fighting a system that values instant gratification and commerciality above creativity”

“I’ve come to really question the system. As much as I am part of it, I have to question it for the simple reason that I wonder how far it can go,” Simons mused in the Summer ‘14 issue of Dazed. “How far can it go until the moment that it might not work any more? You know, it needs a very in-depth talk to analyse it and it’s something that I don’t have all the answers to, but I do have a lot of questions,” he said. With his voice now amplified through his position at Calvin Klein, perhaps it will allow him to forge a new path, one which circumvents all that has been now institutionalised within fashion, and one which others can follow.

Earlier this year Simons told System Magazine: “The only thing I know is that (fashion) used to be elitist. And I don’t know if one should be ashamed or not to admit that maybe it was nicer when it was more elitist, not for everybody. Now high fashion is for everybody.” This inner conflict of Simons, where a desire to create is countered with his wish to avoid the limelight, is what makes him so complex and fascinating as a designer, and his appointment at Calvin Klein all the more intriguing. Is Simons truly an elitist? It is unlikely – of all the positions he could have taken, Calvin Klein is arguably the least steeped in old-world fashion elitism, perhaps a sign that he is willing to embrace a new, more democratic outlook.

But in thinking out loud, it revealed something about the designer: Simons is someone who wants his work to matter, to resonate. He is emotionally entrenched in his creations and ideas, the very real tears in the final scenes of Dior and I were testament to that. At present, you sense that Simons feels he is fighting a system that values instant gratification and commerciality above creativity. He may not want to be lauded personally, but as someone whose work is based on the human – whether through evoking themes of teenage identity or even his own personal history – he wants what he makes to mean something, not dissipate in a whirlwind of fluff and Instagram likes. At Calvin Klein, he will have a bigger platform and louder voice than ever before in questioning a system that many would consider to be broken. Speaking to The Independent whilst still at Dior, Simons mused: “It's not in my interest to be a star… I just want to do something that will change something.” His new role may just allow him to affect his most significant changes yet.