Raf Simons’ Debut Calvin Klein Collection Radicalizes American Sportswear

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A message of inclusivity and diversity reigned at Raf Simons' debut for Calvin Klein Fall/Winter 2017.

“This is not America,” sang David Bowie over the final walk at Calvin Klein for Fall/Winter 2017, which dove-tailed with a similar theme: this is not Calvin Klein as we once knew it. Gone were the parade of banal neutrals and nudes, replaced by bold swaths of color in retro color-blocked patterns. Menswear and womenswear was seen side-by-side with silhouettes that were gender-fluid and crisply tailored, while plastics and knits juxtaposed the industrial and the homespun. Yet, these are all surface details which supported a much deeper, political theme.

As the new Chief Creative Officer of Calvin Klein, Raf Simons and his womenswear counterpart, Pieter Mulier, had the rare opportunity to reinvent a giant of American sportswear, and they took to the task like a fish to water. As a Belgian native, Simons was able to view his new progeny through an outsider’s lens: what does the Calvin Klein brand stand for? One instantly flashes back to its more tawdry campaigns – a sultry Brooke Shields mugging for the camera, “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” Or perhaps one thinks of a heap of oily-limbed, Amazonian models sprawled about in nothing but their underwear. Calvin Klein sold sex in its ads and unassuming wardrobe basics on the retail shelves.

Calvin Klein Fall/Winter 2017
Photo: Courtesy of Imaxtree

For Fall/Winter 2017, Simons and Mulier returned to a few of Calvin Klein’s deep-rooted themes, like denim, which was impeccably cut and produced in dark indigo shades, but there was something else at work that brought a frisson of controversy to the catwalk. America’s current political landscape finds its citizens in a state of upheaval and unrest, marching to the Capitol to pledge their allegiance to democracy and choice. As such, America’s new President has issued dozens of executive orders that threaten the country’s status quo, orders that ostensibly thrust issues of human rights, gender, race, and religion to the foreground.

Simons’ “Americana” themed collection is a reaction to the extremism now permeating Washington D.C. It is there in his diverse selection of models, his choice to show menswear and womenswear together, his effort to make no differentiation between the sexes, and his use of traditional sportswear codes to up-end expectation. Notably, the soundtrack acted as signposts along the way – a Virgin Suicides voice-over was pitch-shifted lower to unsettling effect and spoke to themes of female repression, while Bowie’s emotive refrain “this is not America” resonated deeply with those who rightfully resent the open obliteration of democracy.

The clothes reflected the underlying theme, as gorgeous shifts that sprouted whimsical tufts of feathers were restrained by plastic coverings as a literal interpretation of repression. Denim separates were tucked in and tidy, a nod to America’s blue collar worker, while crumpled knit sleeves met nude bodices in a hybridized stance on gender. Masculine cowboy boots and metal-tipped brogues were worn by men and women alike, and Prince of Wales-checked suiting was so flawlessly cut to likewise appeal to all. A few looks were even paired with white bandanas, signalling the brand’s participation in Business of Fashion’s #TiedTogether campaign. With Simons and Mulier co-creating from a fearless stance on personhood and politics, it seems that Calvin Klein has left behind its “sex sells” marketing schemes to embrace a message much more in tune with the world’s state of affairs.

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