There have been few secrets in fashion more poorly-guarded than Raf Simons’ appointment at Calvin Klein. Rumors began to swirl way back in April, almost immediately after Italo Zucchelli and Francisco Costa departed their respective roles at the iconic label.
Whispers quickly began to circulate that the partnership was already a done deal, but the catch was that Simons was then trapped in a non-compete agreement, a byproduct of his brief time at Dior, and therefore had to wait until its expiry to announce his new role.
These rumors are commonplace in the fashion industry and, it has to be said, rarely true. Remember when everyone panicked that Phoebe Philo was leaving Céline? Simons at Klein proved, however, to be the exception to the rule – just three months later, his new role as creative director was officially confirmed.
The news was explosive for several reasons, the first being that all eyes have been fixed firmly on Raf Simons ever since his departure from Dior. It’s undeniable that the designer’s tenure as creative director of the French luxury house was a monumental success. It all began with his debut couture collection, comprised of sculptural florals and architectural tailoring and staged in a palatial venue strewn with thousands upon thousands of flowers.
“Fashion had seen nothing like it for years,” wrote acclaimed critic Tim Blanks in his breathless Vogue review. “The avant-garde outsider from Antwerp insinuated himself into the hallowed history of haute couture with a tour de force that had both emotional and intellectual resonance. As the man himself said, ‘A shift is happening.’”
Raf Simons: A Cult Legend
Blanks’ words highlight the ongoing appeal of Raf Simons – he is seen, and will always be seen, as a cult legend; a symbol of intellectual prestige intertwined with Belgium’s fabled avant-garde movement. More importantly, his name remains inextricably linked to youth and its various subcultures: for the last 20 years, Simons has tirelessly championed the awkward teenage boy and his mundane, quotidian interests.
Culture often works its ways into his collections: album artwork by Joy Division and New Order was interpolated into a series of his most famous pieces, whereas his FW98 collection was explicitly inspired by Kraftwerk, who modeled in the show.
His cult credentials strongly mirror those of Calvin Klein, or Klein’s early years, at least. The two brands have a similar vision in many ways: both have built their respective aesthetics on high-quality, pared-back basics. While Simons was busy subverting and reimagining the proportions of classic tailoring, Klein focused on his American heritage by reworking the country’s signature items: blue denims and white tees. There have always been parallels, but Klein is commercial and Simons is cult.
The Key Role of Teen Muses
Both brands were also reliant on a series of teen muses, and the street-cast boys of Raf Simons’ seminal shows quickly became a story in their own right. As opposed to scouring the books of high-profile agencies, Simons would instead put the young boys he was inspired by front and centre.
They were anonymous, striking and often startlingly skinny – their oversized suit jackets and DIY haircuts were hailed as the perfect sartorial portrait of the transition from boy to man. They became, in their own way, aspirational; an ideal encapsulation of the vision that Simons was trying to communicate.
Kate Moss is, of course, Calvin Klein’s iconic equivalent. It was back in the early 1990s that the then-unknown supermodel catapulted to global stardom in a series of campaigns lensed by the likes of Herb Ritts and Mario Sorrenti. Some depicted her laid nude across a sofa, whereas others showed her topless, gazing at the camera; others saw her intertwined with a tanned, muscular Marky Mark. Just like Simons’ teen muses, she was skinny (some argued too skinny) and endearingly awkward.
In the same way that Simons’ boys became the face of his label, Moss too became synonymous with Calvin Klein. The role of musicians is also pivotal: FKA Twigs, Frank Ocean and even Justin Bieber famously feature in the brand’s latest campaign, proving yet another common link with Raf Simons.
Capturing the Zeitgeist
On paper, the two creatives are a perfect match in every way. Many have argued that Calvin Klein has been struggling over recent years, producing consistent collections yet failing to capture the zeitgeist in any real way.
Brands such as Vetements, Palace and Supreme have instead sidled into the limelight, nonchalantly mesmerizing modern youth with their clever branding and studied insouciance. Klein’s namesake label may still be a major player, but its cult appeal has quickly dissipated to make way for a seemingly commercial vision that struggles for credibility in today’s climate of fetishized anti-fashion.
Who better to reignite that spark than Raf Simons? His singular vision successfully shook up Christian Dior and, most importantly, he left on his own terms – Simons famously fled his high-profile role at the tail-end of last year, later explaining to System magazine that his decision was fueled by grueling deadlines and a lack of time for creativity to germinate. “The problem is when you have only one design team and six collections, there is no more thinking time. And I don’t want to do collections where I’m not thinking.”
His words resonated throughout the industry, acting as a catalyst for a wave of change that saw Vetements, Tom Ford and Burberry (amongst countless others) rethink the fashion schedule. The message was clear – when Simons spoke, the industry listened.
Should Raf Simons Have Stayed at Raf Simons?
His outspoken criticism of fast-fashion is, however, just one of the reasons that many have argued that Simons should stick to his own label. Digital Fashion Editor Alec Leach recently mused on the potential for brilliance that would come from the designer reinvesting his time into his own namesake brand, arguing that his complaints about the pace of Dior should act as a warning: “If Raf’s main reason for exiting Dior was the speed and pressure of leading a luxury house, then just sticking to his own line would be a no-brainer.”
Leach underlines his desire to see Simons sit out high fashion and its tiresome games of musical chairs, instead channeling his energy into elevating his own label to its former glory.
Despite this valid criticism, it seems that the lure of the job comes largely from the promise of complete creative autonomy, and Simons has been offered the rare opportunity to rebuild an iconic label from the ground-up.
Cathy Horyn hypothesized the terms of Simons’ acceptance in an article for The Cut: “What does he get from Calvin Klein? What he couldn’t get at Dior – the opportunity to reshape the identity of an iconic brand, from its designs to its advertising to its choice of celebrity models.” She goes on to reiterate that Raf “wanted more involvement in all the creative decisions at [Dior], and Dior as a company wasn’t structured that way.”
It may seem a mammoth task, but Simons’ agreement to fix his singular vision firmly on Calvin Klein is at once unexpected and entirely understandable. After all, both designers built their respective empires on a solid foundation of minimalism, carefully-curated muses and an intrinsic understanding of youth subculture. Whether or not Raf Simons will replicate the dizzying heights of his success at Dior remains to be seen.
Now check out how Gucci is bringing outsider spirit to the runway.
- Words: Jake Hall
- Lead image: David Sims