If you wanted any further indication that New York Fashion Week’s Fall 2017 season belonged to Belgian designer Raf Simons, all you had to do was look at the crowd outside the Calvin Klein showroom on Friday night for the label’s after party. It wasn’t so much a crowd as a throng, all rubbernecking to get inside a room still dressed up with the Sterling Ruby installation commissioned especially for the show, only to be told at the door that the party was at capacity. For a company that trades on perception and buzz as much as Calvin Klein, the mission had been accomplished.
Actually, the scene in the daytime was similar. Packs of street style photographers marauded that unglamorous corner of the Garment District where the Klein headquarters are based, searching for new targets with a ferocity that hadn’t yet been seen during this wintry fashion week, and certainly not two weeks ago when Simons paraded his own namesake collection at Gagosian Gallery. There was a celebrity factor, sure—Gwyneth Paltrow, Sarah Jessica Parker and Kate Bosworth were just some of the big names in the front row, mixed in with less well-known retail heavy-hitters like Macy’s chief executive Terry Lundgren and former Barneys ceo Mark Lee—but the unveiling of Simons’ Calvin Klein Collection was primed for maximum anticipation.
“It feels like a homecoming and it also feels like a new birth,” said Brooke Shields, whose most famous utterance in a long public life remains, “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” “It feels like a lot of different things at once. It’s both nostalgic and exciting for the future.”
Nostalgic and forward-thinking—that about sums up the collection Simons presented for his debut. He managed to tip his hat to the founder—the phrase "Established in 1968" appeared in some labels, while Shields’ infamous ad appeared in others—while also putting his own spin on what Calvin Klein might mean today; it was not unlike the assignments he’s faced before when taking over houses (Jil Sander, Christian Dior) with long histories and codes.
Before the show, there was some talk that Simons wouldn’t be able to channel Klein’s provocative ethos—Sam Shahid, the art director who created many of Klein's most famous ads, spoke with the New York Times about Simons’ first campaign: “It doesn’t have the same sensuality or sexuality. It doesn’t have the physicality Calvin always had.” But the collection more than delivered on that score.
Klein’s all-American allure was there in the almost-fetishistic moto jackets and head-to-toe denim looks; in the flesh-baring his-and-hers tops and varsity sweaters; in the cutout dresses; and in the kitschy, nylon textures that covered dresses and coats, in particular an incredible chartreuse-yellow fur coat. Simons turned Klein’s too-hot-for-TV kink and turned it into something more subversive. He knew, too, that Calvin Klein’s reach extends beyond sex as a quintessentially American brand that’s sold in department stores the world over, and he clearly had that symbolism in mind.
The permanent art installation he commissioned from Ruby about four months ago, consisting of odd bits and pieces of denim and shredded American flag-printed fleece, was a reflection on the turbulent political climate metastasizing in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election. “We’re talking about a kind of American synthesis here,” Ruby said before the show. “We’re thinking about how to redefine American culture, particularly at a time like this. And intervene with both art and fashion, in a way that’s hopefully not been done. We had to figure out different ways to put a critique in a meaningful way, but also in a subtle way.”
While Simons has been vocal in recent interviews about the urgency of youthful resistance—the soundtrack, David Bowie’s “This is Not America,” seemed like a subtle political comment as well—he chose here to instead celebrate the “diversity,” in his phrasing, of American dress, be it in the sexy-nerd marching band uniforms that opened the show; the sharp suits in classic checks that gestured toward classic Klein tailoring; the folksy quilted parkas; and the closing feathered dresses that seemed tailor-made for some of those ladies in the front row. “It is the unique beauty and emotion of America,” Simons said in his show notes.
While the fall collections have been infused with a sense of unease that has sometimes spilled over into a direct engagement with the political situation—see Jeremy Scott, Public School, Prabal Gurung Gypsy Sport, the CFDA’s Planned Parenthood support campaign—Simons was exalting an idea of his new adopted home that seems to be under threat. That’s in part, it seems, why there was such a sense of optimism after he and his creative director Pieter Mulier took their bows. “This feels healthy and authentically supportive, especially in this time,” Shields said.”I mean it. It doesn’t feel like, my initials—B.S.”
In the front row, the critic Cathy Horyn wore a beanie that read “You have friends in NY.” It was designed by Kerby Jean-Raymond of Pyer Moss but it could have easily applied to Simons, who has been welcomed into the city’s design ranks like “a god,” to quote an ebullient A$AP Rocky. In the dark of the Calvin Klein offices that night, the designer, visibly relaxed, let loose. Ruby, along with frequent Simons collaborators like the photographer Willy Vanderperre and his muse Hanne Gaby Odiele (plus her husband and fellow model, John Swiatek) were there, too, dancing the night away with newfound Raf fans like Bosworth and Moonlight's Ashton Sanders to the tune of DJ sets by Richie Hawtin, Nina Kraviz, and the Black Madonna. It was New York effectively showing the love back to Simons, though not every front rower made it: the brand's preteen campaign star, Millie Bobby Brown, had been ecstatic about the designer's debut that morning, but at night proved to be a no-show—it was, after all, most definitely past her bedtime.
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