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Calvin Klein's Unusual Vision of America Is Right for the Times

But will it be a hit with shoppers used to a whole different Calvin?

Models take their final turn on the runway.
Calvin Klein Collection.
Photo: Antonio de Moraes Barros Filho/Getty Images

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Six months after Raf Simons was hired for the top design job at Calvin Klein, and a few weeks after the first glimpses of Simons’s vision for the brand started trickling out, shoppers now have a solid grasp of what they’re in for.

Calvin Klein Collection, the company’s high-end line, showed at New York Fashion Week on Friday morning. While these aren’t the Calvin pieces you see at Urban Outfitters, but rather the expensive stuff sold in places like Saks Fifth Avenue, the collection is indicative of what the more affordable options will eventually look like. When Calvin Klein Collection’s previous designer, Francisco Costa, departed in April, the company said that the entire brand would “ultimately follow one creative vision across all categories of the business.”

And after seeing the runway show, it’s hard to imagine that Calvin Klein will look much like the Justin Bieber-fronted brand you’ve gotten to know.

A model wears blue trousers and a transparent shirt with red and white arm bands.
Calvin Klein Collection.
Photo: Fernanda Calfat/Getty Images
A model wears an American flag dress under a long coat.
Calvin Klein Collection
Photo: Fernanda Calfat/Getty Images

The show notes handed to attendees, New York Times fashion critic Vanessa Friedman tweeted, described the collection as “an homage to America.” Indeed, the first look comprised a white turtleneck tucked into a muted blue button-up tucked into tomato red pants.

But this America wasn’t wholesome or cheerful or triumphant in the traditional sense. Set to a soundtrack that included passages from “The Virgin Suicides” and David Bowie’s “This Is Not America,” the clothing presented an America that is imperfect and, though bold, conscious of its own weirdness. Simons, it should be noted, hails from Belgium.

A pale young man walked the runway in blue trousers and a skintight, transparent beige shirt with red and white stripes wrapped around his thin biceps. (A teasing take on classic athletic jerseys.) The next model wore a fringed American flag wrapped into an asymmetrical skirt and made even more unrecognizable by the long printed coat she wore over it.

Some outfits were downright hard to love, like a red floral skirt and another sheer beige top covered in what appeared to be a layer of plastic, topped with white and purple knit sleeves. Even looks that were simpler in structure presented challenging color combinations, like muddy green pants worn with a burgundy shirt with poppy-hued pockets.

Coming so close on the heels of widespread protests of Donald Trump’s administration, it’s fitting that Simons and creative director Pieter Mulier’s “homage to America” would have an unsettled air. There’s not much nostalgia for “classic” Americana here. But the collection also seemed to say: America doesn’t have to be great to look cool.

A man walks the runway in green trousers and a red button down.
Calvin Klein Collection
Photo: Fernanda Calfat/Getty Images
A young woman wears a denim on denim look.
Calvin Klein Collection.
Photo: Fernanda Calfat/Getty Images

In recent years, Calvin Klein has appealed to shoppers for very obvious reasons. Advertisements starring Kendall Jenner, Justin Bieber, and Bella Hadid in various states of undress unabashedly and successfully exploited celebrity, skin, and sex to win with customers, especially at young mainstream outlets like Urban Outfitters.

Simons’s first campaign for Calvin Klein, released a few days ago, is not nearly so accessible. It shows models looking at abstract art, often shot from a distance, wearing denim or white underwear.

A model wears a plaid laminated trench coat.
Calvin Klein Collection.
Photo: Fernanda Calfat/Getty Images
A model wears a yellow, white, and black feathered dress.
Calvin Klein Collection.
Photo: Fernanda Calfat/Getty Images

Likewise, this first collection doesn’t have the bearings of a hit with shoppers. Some simple trench coats and gray suiting for men and women are chic and easy to get behind. A few multi-colored feathered dresses will no doubt appear on the red carpet in the near future. But there’s not much here that you could point to as a raging commercial success. Simons even eschewed leaning on Calvin Klein’s logo, which recently got a revamp, as a selling point.

Calvin Klein Collection isn’t the brand’s big moneymaker, not by a long shot. That would be its underwear and denim lines, and it remains to be seen how much those get altered under Simons’s direction. The high-end collection does, however, set the tone for the rest of the company.

So here it is. Your new Calvin Klein.