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Raf Simons’ Early Exit from Calvin Klein Underscores the Brand’s Identity Crisis

Despite rumors about creative differences, Raf Simons’ early exit from Calvin Klein caught the attention of the industry late Friday partly because his accession was a great cause for excitement in 2016.

At the time of his arrival, Calvin Klein, Inc. CEO Steve Shiffman said Simons as chief creative officer “signifies a momentous new chapter for Calvin Klein” and compared his creative vision to the brand’s founder and namesake, Calvin Klein. In an interview with Vanity Fair, Barneys New York executive Jennifer Sunwoo said she was confident in Simons’ “ability to transform the brand and really make it much more relevant than it has been.” The Washington Post’s Robin Givhan said, “Calvin Klein is renewed.”

And in an article penned for Rivet about Simons, Denim Dudes founder Amy Leverton, who frequently included Simons’ colorful Western-inspired pieces in her trend reports for Kingpins, wrote: “I don’t think anyone’s going to get between Raf and his Calvins for some time to come.”

So why did the brief 16-month love affair between Calvin Klein and Simons, who nabbed three Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) awards for his work at Calvin Klein, fizzle?

Mass versus fashion

In some ways, the Belgium designer’s vision for the heritage brand may have been lost in translation.

It was only up until March, Denim Dudes contributor Samuel Trotman pointed out, that PVH executives were singing Simons’ praises and noting the strong financial return from the runway collection.

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However, denim was one of the company’s biggest investments—and signature categories—and its failure to deliver results were a signal that Simons wasn’t hitting the sweet spot they had expected. Fits were off, Trotman said, which meant there was a high return rate from online purchases. And the Calvin Klein Jeans label, which offered runway-inspired looks for a lower price, missed the mark in a price competitive category.

“While they were interesting designs that proved popular with influencers, I think they failed to appeal to the mass market due to their higher price point—compared to the likes of Zara—and were perhaps too directional for the regular middle America customer,” Trotman said.

Calvin Klein Jeans is built to produce mass market denim, but Simons isn’t a mass guy. It’s a space the designer never ventured into during his tenure at Jil Sander, Dior or his own eponymous label. “I can imagine this was frustrating for a designer like Raf who had previously worked in Dior couturiers in Paris prior to Calvin Klein,” Trotman said.

Nor was Simons able to achieve the cult-like following of Gucci, Louis Vuitton or Off-White that has become de rigueur in the luxury and streetwear categories, but it wasn’t necessarily an even playing field.

As chief creative officer, Simons oversaw a roster of brands including Calvin Klein by Appointment, Calvin Klein 205 W39 NYC, Calvin Klein Jeans Est. 1978, CK Calvin Klein, Calvin Klein, Calvin Klein Jeans, Calvin Klein Underwear and Calvin Klein Performance. Apart from the skivvies and workout gear, the brands lacked individuality and distinction in design, quality and price.

The runway collection, Calvin Klein 205 W39 NYC, was a particular area of confusion for Christine Rucci, founder of denim consultancy Godmother NYC Inc. The odd moniker, which is the address of Calvin Klein’s headquarters, was lost on most consumers. And when other U.S. brands were dropping secondary labels and opting to tier the price points within the brand, Rucci said Calvin Klein placed high-end denim price points alongside cheaper products.

“The quality and branding was disconnected,” Rucci said, adding that the fit and look of the denim styles did not warrant high-ticket price tags.

Recent designs also strayed from the minimalism that Calvin Klein had become known for under the creative direction of Francisco Costa. Instead, Simons introduced a tongue-in-cheek version of Americana with strong nods to the Midwest, Pop Art and western workwear. Or as Rucci described, an “American version of Raf” instead of capturing the DNA of Calvin Klein.

“It was always a risk for Calvin Klein hiring a high-concept fashion designer, considering they are a brand best known for underwear and denim,” Trotman said. “Calvin Klein’s target market were never really going to understand Raf’s creative vision, and it has been said that from the beginning there was a disconnect between his personal aesthetic and the needs of a multi-billion-dollar, multi-tiered brand, driven less by high design and more by mass marketing, an area in which Simons had no experience.”

However, Calvin Klein isn’t immune to creative highs and lows.

Having worked on collections for Calvin Klein Jeans when it was a division under Puritan Fashion run by Carl Rosen in the ’80s and then again in the ’90s for CK Jeans, Rucci says she has seen the brand follow this same path. “They bring in new teams, totally change the branding, directions and advertising and it has been hit or miss,” she said.

It’s business, after all, and for a global brand conglomerate like PVH Corp., success is measured by numbers.

“This is what happens, though, when you bring a world-class designer like Raf Simons to a brand marketed for middle class Americans with hardly any high-fashion sense. His genius was perhaps not recognized or appreciated by this audience,” Trotman said. “In those first two years [Simons] transformed the label’s high-end, ready-to-wear business from a marketing expense into a commercial powerhouse. PVH Corp. obviously don’t see the value of this halo brand and weren’t interested in pouring any more money into this creative direction.”

Denim wins

Despite his brief tenure at Calvin Klein, Simons left his mark on the jeans business.

From a denim point of view, Trotman says Simons’ appointment at Calvin Klein has been critical in solidifying denim’s position on the catwalk and on the back of influencers and celebrities.

“I think his artistic approach and introduction of the 205 West collection gave the house a much needed shake up in terms of creativity that has elevated Calvin Klein to be a true contender against global fashion houses like Gucci and Balenciaga,” he said.

By keeping denim at the core of the collection, Trotman said Simons added his own stamp to jeans and jackets through the use of “premium fabrics, slick cuts and contemporary design details.” Simons also introduced digital prints of rural American landscapes, which Trotman described as “truly original and influential.” His styling, Trotman added, captured a moment. “I’m also a huge fan of the American narrative that Raf has proposed over the past two years, something that truly reflects the turbulent times in the U.S. in terms of politics and culture.”

asap rocky
Asap Rocky wearing Calvin Klein to The Met Gala in 2017. James Gourley/BEI/REX/Shutterstock

Simons was also instrumental in getting consumers back into dark double denim looks. “You could obviously see Raf’s influence from Helmut Lang who had famously refined denim jackets and jeans with boxy pocket details and sharp cuts back in the late ’90s and early 2000s,” Trotman said. “These Raf Calvin Klein denim pieces will no doubt be coveted collectors’ items in years to come.”

What’s next for Calvin Klein?

Calvin Klein will skip the next New York Fashion Week as it searches for a successor and for that, Rucci urges the company to stay close to home.

“I never quite understand why American brands hire creative directors from Europe. I think there is a general misconception, that if you hire a European designer, they will somehow inject newness and creativity to jump start American brands,” she said. “But therein lies the problem, an ignorance to this market and corporate structure. New incoming directors tend to ‘clean house,’ bring in their own teams and there is also a certain ‘European designer snobbery’ which does not gel well in corporate American structure like PVH.”

Rather, Rucci says she would like to see PVH bring back some of the original creative and design directors like Leanne Nealz, Elaine Chaloner and Sean Moore, who Rucci adds were handpicked by Calvin Klein.

“There is something to be said about history, U.S. experienced creative directors and senior designers and brand DNA,” she said. All too often, she added, these qualities are being rejected by big companies for a new “flavor of the month.”

Going forward, Trotman said Calvin Klein may find greater success with a more commercial approach, like the path fellow-PVH brand Tommy Hilfiger has taken in recent years with a series of nostalgic collections and shop-the-runway concepts.

“I’m not sure that will come from another creative officer role from a high-profile designer like Raf Simons,” he said. “If they aren’t willing to invest further into the 205 collection than it will merely fall back to being a marketing tool rather than a commercial power house that Raf had made it. He took it from 30 accounts to 300. They can’t expect a designer to continue to deliver that same creative output without the financial backing it requires to perform against other luxury labels.”

Trotman quipped, “Maybe Calvin Klein should hire Justin Bieber again.”