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Calvin Klein rewrites script to give a vision of a turbulent America on the catwalk

Model on the catwalk at the Calvin Klein show, New York Fashion Week.
A model wears a balaclava on the catwalk at the Calvin Klein show. Photograph: Swan Gallet/Rex

Popcorn is a fashion-approved snack, so editors in New York for fashion week would have appreciated the invitation for Calvin Klein’s show: a bag of popcorn wrapped in a silver envelope.

The popcorn theme continued at the venue, but turned the emoji-friendly symbol for a night at the movies into something more surreal.

For the show on Tuesday evening, there was a carpet of the stuff covering the floor of New York’s stock exchange building.

Popcorn is, of course, the fodder of trashy entertainment, but this was far from the case here. Calvin Klein under Raf Simons is about highbrow fashion with artistic references.

Topping the popcorn carpet were several knocked-together barns and scaffolding with huge red pompoms attached. It looked less like a typical runway show and more like an art installation, and was one in fact – set-designed by Bureau Betak, it featured artwork by Simons’ collaborator Sterling Ruby.

This one had more celebrities in situ: Nicole Kidman, Lupita Nyong’o and Margot Robbie were in the front row, along with Simons’ favourite Stranger Thing, Millie Bobby Brown. This is Simons’ third collection for Calvin Klein since joining the brand in summer 2016.

Margot Robbie, Nicole Kidman and Laura Dern in the front row at the Calvin Klein show at New York Fashion Week.
Margot Robbie, Nicole Kidman and Laura Dern in the front row at the Calvin Klein show. Photograph: Swan Gallet/REX

His previous outings have been equally thoughtful but had a cleaner, more graphic take on American dressing. This was more layered: models wore long overcoats over longer skirts, with silver elbow-length gloves and balaclavas that looked hand-knitted.

The reflective strips found on the uniforms of workmen and firemen were transferred to cropped jackets and billowing parkas, while some dresses had the sheen of the blanket given to marathon runners at the end of a race.

These industrial details were contrasted with a series of pretty prairie dresses in the middle of the show and playful knits of Wile E Coyote and Road Runner.

The soundtrack was equally discordant, mixing classics such as Sound of Silence and California Dreaming with headache-inducing bass tones. Put simply, this was a collection for turbulent times.

Models on the catwalk at the Calvin Klein show for New York Fashion Week.
Balaclavas and reflective strips are a departure for a fashion label once known as the home of minimalism. Photograph: Rodin Banica/REX

After the show, Simons said he had been inspired by “heroes, a lot of them, from firefighters onwards”. He said he was now able to experiment with American symbolism more, and that references included Nasa and Sofia Coppola’s 2017 film The Beguiled. This mix created, as the show notes said, “A different dream”.

In less than 18 months, Simons has transformed Calvin Klein from the home of minimalism and naked supermodels to something that aims to drill down into where America is at now.

Simons, who is Belgian-born and worked at Christian Dior prior to Calvin Klein, has used his outsider edge to add much-needed cool. Under his directive, Calvin Klein has collaborated with the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, dressed the cast of Stranger Things and – most recently – photographed the Kardashians wrapped in a patchwork quilt for their underwear campaign.

This show is the latest chapter in rewriting what an all-American icon looks like in a world of fire and fury. It’s a whole lot weirder than that bag of popcorn might suggest.

While Simons’ catwalk work has been greeted with rave reviews, the bottom line is where it matters for parent company PVH. There is evidence this is working; revenue was $467m in Europe in the third quarter of 2017, up 20% on the previous year.

The sellout rate from May 2017 – the number of products that sell out entirely – has been 10.9%, compared with 6.4% for Giorgio Armani. It still has a way to go, however, to catch hyped brands on the radar of younger consumers.

In trend forecaster Lyst’s hottest brand index, Calvin Klein was at 49, while Gucci was at number 1.

This article titled "Calvin Klein rewrites script to give a vision of a turbulent America on the catwalk" was written by Lauren Cochrane in New York, for The Guardian on Wednesday 14 February 2018 04.38am

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