We take a moment to analyze the recent resurgence of Calvin Klein’s abstract and concrete inspiration from the 1990s.
On January 12 2014, a blast from the past was unleashed on the international menswear elite as press and buyers from all over the world embarked on Viale Umbria in Milan for the Calvin Klein Collection show. Three looks in, and then randomly mixed in with the rest of the collection, Italo Zuccheli sent out sweatshirts bearing old Calvin Klein perfume logos. Obsession, Escape and Eternity, all ’90s eau de cologne staples, were intricately appliquéd on the tops, giving the usually sombre and minimal Calvin Klein Collection a strong retro vibe. The collection, hitting stores in a few weeks, might only represent the men’s Ready to Wear fashion, a relatively small part of the enormous Calvin Klein Inc. empire, but the jumpers are tell-tale signs of a year when Calvin Klein seems to be going back in time a lot, taking in both abstract and concrete inspiration from the 1990s, the decade when Calvin Klein ruled the shop shelves.
Later in the year, Calvin Klein Jeans – a much more mainstream and commercial entity of the mother company – launched “The Re-Issue Project” together with E-tailer MyTheresa.com. The capsule collection is an updated version of the classic Calvin Klein Jeans brand, featuring nine staple pieces taken from the classic Calvin Klein Jeans wardrobe, tweaked for 21st century needs. Meanwhile, as the mentioned perfume logo-inspired catwalk sweatshirts won’t go into proper production, Calvin Klein Collection will open a pop-up store at Dover Street Market, selling vintage jumpers with similar branding from the ’90s. Simultaneously, though not IRL and focused more on the womenswear market, the #MyCalvins campaign features old-school super models posting Instagram photos of themselves wearing the classic cK monogrammed underwear that helped make the brand a household name 20 odd years ago.
All in all, especially when taking these campaigns into consideration, Calvin Klein Inc. has one of the strongest brands and logos in the history of fashion. Up there with Ralph Lauren’s polo player, Chanel’s double C and Louis Vuitton’s initials, Calvin Klein might always have been minimal and clean in terms of design, but the branding is larger than life. Calvin Klein Jeans was a pioneer for other high-end brands as they started to commercialize their products by making expensive fashion more democratic and accessible. Basically, by the early 1990s, time had come to cash in on the logos. The end result, as the MyTheresa collection shows, was a wardrobe of basics – sweatshirts, jeans, T-shirts, etc. – but with visible and oversized branding. The message was: “I can afford to buy Calvin Klein and I don’t mind showing it off.”
Like all fashions, that concept has come and gone a few times since. Fashion goes through periods when a humble self-awareness takes over and subtle designs win over brash and vulgar logo-mania. Of late, a fall back to the ’90s, whatever that really means, has seen more and more loud and clashing colors mixed with oversized logos. Ironically, we’re also engulfed in a complete opposite trend, the normcore wave of dressing ordinary and anonymously. The Calvin Klein Jeans brand sits comfortably in between those polar opposites as the line is mainly taken up by white, grey and white wardrobe staples endorsed with massive cK logos. Perhaps that’s why it works, the pieces refuse to be defined by any of the two sartorial schools of thought.
So Calvin Klein Inc. is obviously going through a period marked by a sense of nostalgia. Whether it’s Kevin Carrigan, the global creative director for Calvin Klein Platinum Label, Calvin Klein White Label, Calvin Klein Jeans, and Calvin Klein Underwear, and his mainstream lines or Italo Zuccheli’s exclusive catwalk collections, the clothes are about looking back in time as opposed to forward. The one exception is Francisco Costa’s Calvin Klein Collection for women. The Brazilian designer has continued to push his minimal look since he took over a decade ago. Costa’s New York shows are a constant example of how to push forward while maintaining the all-important heritage.
The problem Calvin Klein will find is that there’s only so many times you can raid your own archive. Considering the amount of simultaneous activity, 2014 seems to be the year Calvin Klein Inc. decided to turn back time. And no one can argue they’ve not thought it out well. Except for having ’90s super models and contemporary celebrities, such as Iggy Azalea and Lara Stone, running the #MyCalvins campaign on social media, the new advertising imagery for Calvin Klein Jeans features Lottie Moss, the younger sister of the original cK model, Kate Moss. As if that wasn’t enough, the pictures were shot by Michael Avedon, grandson to Richard Avedon who, together with Bruce Weber, shot all the legendary cK campaigns in the 1990s. Calvin Klein is clearly not only exploring its past but draining it of references. Is it maybe abusing it rather than just using it?
Looking back in time is standard practice for the fashion industry, if nothing else because fashion per definition is a cyclic business obsessed with past themes and trends. After all, there’s only so many new ideas left. Heritage has been a buzz word for years and, in many ways, this is Calvin Klein’s heritage and no one can take that away from them. But where do we draw the line between utilizing and ransacking? How much of these parallels can we, the consumers, muster? How bothered are we about a new generation of Avedons shooting the latest Moss model? But there’s no doubt the line-up is impressive, and though I’m not that bothered about celebrities showing off their underwear on Instagram, I appreciate Italo Zucchelli’s pop cultural nod with his Obsession sweatshirts.
In a way, the Calvin Klein Jeans resurgence was unavoidable: the brand, logo, style and timing is perfect. As Calvin Klein Collection, both men’s and womenswear, continue to impress on the catwalk, the brand is currently in pole position for both mainstream success and high-end accolades. Though the simultaneous onslaught, intentional or coincidental, is quiet tiring for the eye, there’s no denying it will get the tills ringing…