Earlier this spring, at his debut at Calvin Klein at New York Fashion Week, Raf Simons sent out a collection that, suitably for an all-American brand, was inspired by Americana—except the patriotism was a little twisted. Bits of shredded denim and American flag-printed fabric hanging from the ceiling were just some of the details that signaled that Simons, along with his longtime collaborator, the artist Sterling Ruby, had not forgotten the turbulent political climate in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election. “We’re thinking about how to redefine American culture, particularly at a time like this,” Ruby said then. “We had to figure out different ways to put a critique in a meaningful way, but also in a subtle way.”
Subtlety had no this time around, though: Literal, actual axes hung above showgoers who made it to Calvin Klein spring 2018 last week, along with jack-o’-lanterns, blood-red swaths of fabric, and hunks of metal in the form of car parts and pails—essentially, as Simons put it, a horror-filled take on a mobile. The collection, as the show notes hinted before the models stepped out, was “about American horror and American beauty,” and Simons was true to his word: The runway was filled with a mix of the designer’s disturbing takes on American mainstays like cowboy shirts, and coats, skirts, and strapless dresses that were either the color of—or appeared to be spattered with—blood.
In this uneasy context, even the decals of Andy Warhol portraits splashed across tank tops and tunics looked more like mug shots, especially as they were joined by his images of car crashes. There was also a pair of pointy pumps inspired by the iconic hockey mask worn by the mass murderer Jason Voorhees from the 1980 horror film Friday the 13th—and paired with more of the glossy material that, in this context, drew unavoidable comparisons to body bags.
A little over a week before, Melania Trump stepped out to supposedly help hurricane victims in swamped Texas while wearing her own can’t-miss pair of heels. Two days after the show, she appeared in one of the cowboy shirts from Simons’s first season at Calvin Klein, which he’d just reinterpreted as commentary on the horror show in America right now. If the First Lady was aware of the irony, she didn’t show it.
Simons never name-checked Trump, and while few designers explicitly said their collections were political, the symptoms seemed to show, from the horror, violence, morbidity, or at times playful Halloween references that took over spring 2018. There were lighthearted skeleton leotards and sweaters at Jeremy Scott and straitjacket-like shirts in Public School’s immigrant-influenced collection, which unavoidably took on a new meaning when co-designer Dao-Yi Chow took his bow in a “DACA Dreamers” hat.
By the end of the week, even the models who broke from the de rigeur palette of black, white, and red that Shayne Oliver sent out for his reinterpretation of Helmut Lang by wearing pastel pink looked menacing in a lip so scarlet it looked vampiric, especially amid the dangling chains and bondage inspirations. (This was, after all, the show where purses where made out of slick leather bras.)
As usual, though, leave it to Vaquera to come up with the timeliest, most playful, and most delightful take: A hole-ridden sweater they sent out reliably drew mirth from each section of the crowd when the model came close enough for the text to be legible. Above a skeleton with a cheeky smile, it read, simply, “F— death.”
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