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One English Eccentric Could Make Calvin Klein Jeans Really, Really Good

Luella Bartley is back, babies.

A model wears a hot pink hat with a pink veil.
A look from Luella’s spring 2009 runway show.
Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

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Were it not for the excitement Calvin Klein stirred up this morning by dropping a fresh set of underwear ads that star the cast of Moonlight, I’d think you’d be sick of reading about all the changes that have happened at the brand since Raf Simons took over as chief creative officer. We’ve written a lot about it: the new look of its high-end collection, the new logo, and the arty new feel of its marketing imagery.

So, I’m sorry, but here’s one more thing. It’s really important. In addition to dropping spectacular images of Mahershala Ali and Trevante Rhodes sans shirts, Calvin Klein announced on Monday morning that it has hired Luella Bartley to head up its Calvin Klein Jeans business.

!!!

For those who are now going “Who is Luella Bartley? I am far more interested in discussing Academy Award-winning actor Mahershala Ali, and also these underwear ads of his that you mentioned,” I’ll explain. Luella Bartley is a British designer whose namesake brand, Luella, encapsulated everything good and cute and punkish about fashion in the ’00s. Bartley’s penchant for ruffles, mini dresses, frothy fabrics, and bright colors would be way too sweet and quirky to fly in today’s sleek-sexy, dusty pink retail landscape, but this was pre-Obama, Henry Holland’s saucy slogan shirts were a thing, and Zooey Deschanel’s bangs and twirly skirts were everything.

I was in high school at the time, and the way Bartley gave girly style a real bite spoke directly to my heart.

A model wears a flouncy yellow minidress.
A look from Luella’s spring 2008 show.
Photo: Gareth Cattermole/Getty Images
A model wears a “Geek!” shirt on the runway.
A look from Luella’s spring 2007 show.
Photo: Scott Gries/Getty Images

Peak Luella transpired in 2006, when the brand did a Target collaboration that included cherry prints and some little strapless dresses in polka dots and green tartan. Britt told me this morning that she still occasionally stalks eBay for pieces from the collection, which you can snap up for a mere $15 or so. (Britt also told me that the only fashion show she ever sneaked into uninvited was Luella’s.)

Luella is immortalized as a fascination of the ’00s because the brand didn’t live to see the second decade of this century. Bartley presented her spring 2010 collection at London Fashion Week in September 2009, and shuttered her operations not long after.

In 2013, Bartley and her former colleague Katie Hillier were tapped to lead Marc by Marc Jacobs. There, they styled latex bodysuits under T-shirts under flouncy, classically Luella dresses and dove headlong into mixing logos, colors, and prints in one BMX-inspired collection. It was spunky and fun and everything Marc by Marc Jacobs should have been.

A model wears a latex bodysuit under a girly polka dot dress.
A look from Marc by Marc Jacobs’s spring 2015 show.
Photo: Peter Michael Dills/Getty Images
A model wears massive gray plaid pants with a twisted checked shirt.
A look from Marc by Marc Jacobs’s fall 2014 show.
Photo: Arun Nevader/Getty Images

And then in 2015, Marc Jacobs announced it was folding the little sister label into its main line. So Marc by Marc Jacobs was dead, too.

Now Bartley is at Calvin Klein as the head of global design for Calvin Klein Jeans, which spans $88 to $198 denim, logo shirts, sweatshirts, outerwear, and dresses. Currently, most of it is pretty bland. There are a lot of perfunctory-feeling tees and denim dresses. A $298 harness crop top looks kind of cool, but it’s not that innovative. There’s a ton of room for improvement.

Bartley shares with Raf Simons a knack for unexpected layering and for making well-trodden standards (party dresses, suits) look fresh and more than a little weird. Where her playfulness meets his sophistication, there might be real magic — and I don’t think this is just my Luella nostalgia talking.