Skip to main content

Why Raf Simons and Calvin Klein Are a Good Match

Brooke Shields. No matter how many ‘denim dudettes’ came before her or fronted campaigns since, there is no more iconic and heralded denim poster-girl than the legendary Brooke.

Did you know that that photo is nearly 40 years old? Brooke was only 15 at the time, making the ‘Nothing gets between me and my Calvins’ tagline all more controversial, and spurring the CK brand image to push its steamy denim and underwear campaigns through till today.

Until Fall ’18, that is, because Calvin Klein has a new boss that has already dialed down Calvin Klein’s image from a super sexy 9 to a mom-friendly 6.5.

Raf Simons arrived six months ago and although it’s hard to make a mark on a brand in just one season—especially a fashion house as sprawling and diverse as Calvin Klein—Simons seems to have done just this. Critics have said the Belgian designer has taken a safe approach when it comes to his debut, but in my opinion, the runway show was a triumph not despite it being understated and subdued, but because of it. If it had totally blown my mind out of my head, it wouldn’t have done its job.

Remember when Hedi Slimane came on board at Saint Laurent and that first season the whole fashion set were outraged because they thought he’d dumbed down the YSL legacy? And then three years on he’d doubled their revenues? Well I did love Saint Laurent under Slimane but I also still don’t think it was very YSL at all. I thought it was very, very Hedi.

In my opinion, the concept of a ‘well-known name’ at an established fashion house rarely works perfectly. They create their version of YSL or Balenciaga or Margiela, they sell clothes and they create buzz, but are they the right fit? Rarely. As much as I loved Simons’ stint at Dior and swooned over his incredible talent, I never felt like it was a match made in heaven. He nailed his own version of Dior because he’s extremely talented, but at Calvin Klein I believe he can do so much more, because this is a pairing that makes sense.

Related Story

Simons understands basics. He understands casualwear and jeanswear, and in just six months he has proved he has gotten right to the heart of this American icon. That’s why Brooke Shields is so important to the brand, because she was there right at the beginning. Calvin Klein launched Calvin Klein Jeans in 1978 and in 1980 Brooke was cast as the face of the brand.

It was hard not to note several of the key denim looks at Simon’ Fall ’17 show mirroring that iconic moment: the model with her mousy brown, wavy hair, that mid-cast retro rinsed denim, the slim-straight western cuts and the preppy, restrained shirts. A complete mirror image of 1980’s Brooke. And as if to complete the meta circle, she was sitting in the front row.

Why Raf Simons and Calvin Klein Are Good Match
Instagram @CalvinKlein

Brooke’s famous silhouette in the iconic campaign was also used on the back patch of every jean, a little riff off the Levi’s two horse silhouette but in stark, Raf-centric black and white. How perfect? I’ve been wondering for years why on earth Calvin Klein haven’t celebrated that image before. Seems like they needed the confidence of a new CCO to take it there.

The show invitations bore the tagline ’Established 1968’ and the runway celebrated items such as the bomber jacket, the fitted western shirt, the military parka lined with a modern take on a New England quilt, even some pretty awesome Cuban heeled cowboy-centric boots. So, a collection of all-American basics through a contemporary, yet restrained eye. Simons sited Americana as the inspiration behind the show and his long-time inspiration, artist Stirling Ruby, created a hanging installation using sheathes of denim and cheerleader pompoms to complete the feeling of nostalgic USA.

The show notes read: “It is the coming together of different characters and different individuals, just like America itself, it is the unique beauty and emotion of America.”

As well as creating a successful collection, Simons has been busy surrounding himself with a dream team of creatives to get the brand where he wants it. It was announced that Luella Bartley has been made the global head of Calvin Klein Jeans in another smart move that will give CK denim one of the strongest jeanswear lines out there. Bartley has a knack for tempering cutting-edge denim trends with a good measure of sophistication; a strength that will make next season’s runway all the more exciting to watch.

The brand’s campaign that launched in February further cements these ideals of American sportswear. It was actually dubbed ‘American Classics’ and featured totally stripped-down basics that have become the brand’s biggest hits: the tighty whities and the humble jean. Relatively unknown models, including Kiki Willems and Jonas Glöer (actual sweethearts in real life) are placed simply against backdrops by some of America’s finest contemporary artists: Warhol, Dan Flavin, Richard Prince and of course Stirling Ruby. Simons describes the comparison of these iconic wardrobe staples with iconic artworks, as “acknowledging their status as Pop.”

Through this campaign, Simons is pulling the Calvin Klein image away from its recent celebrity driven, instant gratificational past and into a more considered, pop culture territory. The sex may be turned down to a 6.5 but the cool factor has been ramped up to a 9. Simons is a damn smart designer and his combined intellectualism and simplification of the brand will, in my opinion, do nothing but good.

I don’t think anyone’s going to get between Raf and his Calvin for some time to come.