No More Cowboy Shirts

The first outfit of the first Calvin Klein collection that Raf Simons showed back in February last year. Photo: Yannis Vlamos/

It has been the talk of the fashion world for two weeks now. And it is finally confirmed. Raf Simons is leaving Calvin Klein, according to just-out reports by BOF and WWD. This is barely two years after his appointment in August in 2016, and reportedly eight months ahead of the end of his contract. We suppose if you were publicly noted by your boss for not bringing the results that he had hoped for, it is time to go.

Early this month, in an earnings report, CEO Emanuel Chirico of PVH Corp (the parent company of Calvin Klein that also owns Tommy Hilfiger) told the media how disappointed he was with the third-quarter earnings of the brand, especially the ROI in Calvin Klein 205W39NYC, the re-branded main line, which the company calls their “halo business”. In addition, Mr Chirico said that “some of Calvin Klein Jeans’ relaunched product was too elevated and did not sell too well.”

Not only were the styles elevated for Calvin Klein Jeans, the prices were elevated too. Is designer jeans still a category that has so much pull that Calvin Klein is still trying to maintain a lead? It isn’t clear if shoppers are willing to pay more than S$300 for what, to most of us, is a basic garment that we already own in numbers that are more than two. It does not require big data to know that people are now buying expensive hoodies rather than expensive jeans. With dismal sales, Mr Chirico was said to have described the new denim line as a “fashion miss”.

The signature shirt is also available for men. Photo: Mr Porter

But the problem it seems is the rather lukewarm response to Calvin Klein 205W39NYC at retail level. Sure, the fashion editors and fashion-correct influencers mostly love it, but from the first collection, we feel Mr Simons did not create anything as special as he did with his two earlier tenures: at Jil Sander and at Dior. We once heard a woman tell her boyfriend in DSMS that Calvin Klein 205W39NYC “doesn’t look expensive enough.”

The clothes shown on the runway may be eye-catching, but upfront, when they seen are on the racks, they are quite different. For all the minimalism they project, much of the lauded pieces feel heavy and thick to the touch, even in the summer season—more work wear than luxury threads. A common complain is the weight of the fabrics used in the frequently-featured western shirt (Melania Trump was an early adopter). It is in a cotton twill that is heavy enough for trousers.

Melania Trump in CKMelania Trump was one of the earliest public figures to wear the Calvin Klein 205W39NYC western shirt. Photo: Getty Images

The heavy fabric use has even filtered down to the cheaper CK Calvin Klein and Calvin Klein Jeans lines. The cotton poplin versions, too, weren’t breezy-light enough. It is a puzzling product development move and, as noted by some merchandisers, ignorant of the needs of much of Asia that constantly bake under equatorial heat. To be fair, the design team has translated the western shirt into some rather uncommon clothes for the other collections, such as polos and even puffer jackets.

Perhaps, most unnecessary is the relentless beating of the Americana drum. It isn’t certain if Americans are marching to the beat, but we suspect it may have increasingly become a difficult sell. Mr Simons seemed to get his kicks on Route 66, assuming the rest of the world is still enamored with American culture. He paid tribute not only to cowboys, but firemen too, and much in between, including the unlikely cartoonish sea terror Jaws. It is hard to believe that Americans will pay top dollar to cop these items that are already available, from mall stores to gift shops. That, to us, seem like peddling the Mandarin collar or tassel-earring to the Chinese.

We wonder if for European designers, Hedi Slimane included, America is exotic, which may explain why Mr Simons played with Yankee “icons” the way he did. We can imagine the twinkle in his eyes when he arrived in New York in 2016 to take up the post at Calvin Klein. Only thing is, this was no longer the America that he remembered and fantasized about. It was a wall-seeking/building America. And Andy Warhol, prophetic and unique, was, by then, dead.

Finally, Plucked From The Jaws Of Americana?

Even with enough snark on the shark by now, can a film not exactly known as the height of cinematic arts truly bring back the thrill Calvin Klein once arguably offered? 


Joke? Tease? Irony? After putting the images and motifs of American culture to frequent use, Raf Simons’s fascination with America—the pop, the kitsch, the dark—has lost much if its initial cleverness, even charm. Is the US still delivering so much cultural punch to Mr Simons that the best way to deliver his vision of Calvin Klein, once, perhaps ironically, a purveyor of European sophistication, is to exploit the obvious signifiers of how America had caught the popular imagination of the world?

As diagnostician of Calvin Klein’s one-time design and branding troubles, Mr Simons has been consistent in tapping into the vast repository of the images of American life—not necessarily meaningful—installed in the imagination of our mind or those from the outside who see the US as the land of the free and of greatness, weather that greatness has waned or not. He has incorporated the art of Andy Warhol, a long-gone artist, into the jeans lines; used the brand’s recognisable name/font as box logo; and re-imagined the Western (cowboy) shirt as fashion article of the highest order that even the FLOTUS couldn’t resist.

Calvin Klein SS 2019 G1.jpgCalvin Klein SS 2019 G2

Thankfully, that shirt did not appear in the spring/summer collection, but something else did, something as unconnected to a higher form of anything: the 1975 film Jaws. And not as clothing more compelling than T-shirt and tank tops, on which the not-scary-anymore great white shark in attack mode appeared, as seen in the movie poster. Using marketing visuals is an extension of Mr Simons’s own line: Remember last season’s Peter Saville-designed New Order album covers? (Mr Saville also redesigned the Calvin Klein logo.) Mr Simons had admitted that Jaws was a film that had somehow impacted him. And it is now the inspiration behind the latest looks, sporting not only the image that those old enough will remember, but also including ideas built around the effect of a shark attack.

That means pleated skirts with front portions lobbed off as if the titular character of Jaws had enjoyed a big bite of them, crushed or crumpled fabric treatment that could have been the result of emerging from the terror, and even hair that looks like the aftermath of struggle-swimming to safety. If you need more, there are those skirts or hip-wrappers (?) that were supposed to look like the upper part of scuba wear peeled down to the waist after use. If only James Bond had thought of it too, he would not need to abandon his scuba wear on the beach as he always does. Are these seaside terror ideas commentaries on the predatory tendencies of the American presidency (and indeed America)? Or, might this be fashion that the FLOTUS could use to win the attention of her Shark Week-loving husband?

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Jaws was not the only film that informed Mr Simons. There was also 1967’s The Graduate, which explained the ridiculous presence of mortarboards and pseudo-academic regalia that, frankly, look out of place in a non-academic setting, conceived without wit to include a forbidding sea and the hint of spilled blood. The thing is, some of us are tired by repeated references to American anything: the Wild West, pop art, and even those civic heroes, such as the hi-vis get-ups of last season’s prairie-lasses-who raided-the-fire-station duds. So much so that we now find what the media calls “American vernacular” so tiring that even vaguely interesting add-ons such as those fringed sashes/shawls with an indeterminate print that could have been (again) blood, looked, past the third time, ho-hum.

Mr Simons did have a way with dresses—mainly the shift, vaguely ’50s (more so with the admittedly lovely pointy-toed heels), adequately avant-garde, and, some, sweetly printed. This the kind of femininity Mr Simons excels in, and it would have worked successfully without the dispensable holsters/harnesses that looked a little too late, post-Virgil Abloh @ Louis Vuitton anyway. Europeans, we understand, love America possibly for the same reasons Americans love Europe, or going to head European houses. But Tom Ford, making a name for himself at Gucci, did not try to be too European. Why has Raf Simons utterly succumbed to the America of popular taste? Or is the renamed and extra long Calvin Klein 205W39NYC a reflection of what American fashion will become: superfluous?

Photos: top: Calvin Klein/YouTube, runway:

Raf’s Americana For Calvin

Calvin Klein SS 2018 finale

The Western shirts with the texture of satin that opened the spring/summer 2018 show was, to us, a little ominous, and an indication that Raf Simons isn’t moving on from where he started—the autumn/winter 2017 season, when he showed his first collection for one of the biggest American labels, Calvin Klein. Mr Simons is now in America, and he’s showing Americans the America that Donald Trump is desperately trying to bring back.

The colour blocking of these shirts for boys and girls (only boys and girls will wear them, no?)—five of them, with contrast collars, yokes, and pockets; in colours that would not be out of place among participants of the Rose Parade, hinted at something brash that we have not really seen from Mr Simons, clownish even, if we were to ride on the current box-office hit that is It. Does America change European designers when they arrive on her shores just as she did to Hedi Slimane, who would go on to wreck Saint Laurent with West Coast rock-trash aesthetic? What does it say about the still-complicated Euro-American sartorial relationship?

Calvin Klein SS 2018 G1

The near-kitsch, colour explosion shouldn’t be surprising. Back in July, the new Calvin Klein flagship on Madison Avenue, conceived by Mr Simons and his serial partner-in-crime, the artist Ruby Sterling, opened to shoppers with a bang of yellow—walls, ceiling, scaffolding, fixtures—under which other blotches of colours punctuate the space like spilled paint. This is a Calvin Klein we have never seen before. The neutrals that Mr Calvin Klein himself was known for have stepped aside for the colours of Guanajuato, the Mexican city that’s a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Mr Simons is, of course, not alien to colours. We saw how good he was with them at Jil Sander, but back then he was still considered a minimalist designer. Now, he appears to have gone a little Willy Wonka, with the American customers his many Charlies. Watching the live stream on, the collection felt to us like a costume designer’s first presentation to Gus Van Sant for an upcoming film.

Calvin Klein SS 2018 G2Calvin Klein SS 2018 G3

Our bad; we had not read the show notes. As widely reported later, the collection is homage to American cinema, particularly those films that shock and scare. “American horror, American dreams,” Mr Simons told the besotted press. Here’s a Belgian showing Americans, tongue possibly in cheek, how to dress American, with B-grade dash. What can be more charming than that?

To be sure, there’s elegance to the clothes, even if there is, at least to most Calvin Klein Jeans and cK One consumers, an alt touch. Mr Simons re-imagines an America that few now recognise without excoriating the flashiness that has always attracted those who still take cheer-leading very seriously. Look beyond the gory movie references, the high-school pom-poms (that, in some cases, shroud bucket bags, or hang as tiered dresses), and the nod towards America that’s not along the coasts, and you may just find hints of ’50s couture and a way with transparency that is today’s nightie-for-day.

Calvin Klein SS 2018 G5

But Mr Simons also seems to be repeating himself. There’s the Andy Warhol photo-prints, which, undeniably reminds us of Mr Simons’s own collection of this past spring/summer season, which saw Robert Mapplethorpe’s photos applied onto shirts and outers at unexpected places. So which is more disturbing: Mapplethorpe’s male genitalia or Warhol’s car crash?

Reminiscent of his work at Dior (but in the colours that reprise those he did for Jil Sander) are the skirts—full and circular, only now, Marion and Joanie Cunningham’s present-day avatars might wear them. If we look at them from a filmic standpoint, as Mr Simons likely prefers, these are skirts the Stepford Wives (set in Silicon Valley?) would gladly and dutifully wear. How’s that for horror?

Photos: Imaxtree

Raf’s Calvin Looks Like This


This is not the first time Raf Simons designs for other houses. His debut at Jil Sander in 2005 and then at Christian Dior in 2012 had one thing in common: a breathtaking first showing. We’ve waited with bated breath (again) for this collection since the first discreet announcement last year that Mr Simons would be holding the creative reins at Calvin Klein. Is his first with an American house any good?

Fashion in America is in a strange place. Across categories and price points, American labels seem to be struggling with sales and identity, as much as a consumer base that seems less interested in what dressing the American way means—a la Gap and co. Yes, denim is still popular, so are T-shirts, but less so for chinos (for now, brands such as Save Khaki United is in a tricky position). Or the sportswear that American designers so gladly and proudly base their brand DNA on. When was the last time you rushed out to buy an American label?

Over there (and over here), it’s not just a changing fashion culture, but a shifting visual culture too. America today is a picture of extreme casualness. Its people—born in the land or elsewhere—do not want to look as formal as they once did, when both men and women wore suits to work and for social occasions. There’s also less a need to show the world that you’re moving upward by wearing what is perceived to be expensive clothes, such as a suit. Or even a suit jacket.

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The Calvin Klein that Raf Simons seeks to remake does not seem to reflect these not-necessarily-just-in-America cultural changes. With so many suits on show—and the more difficult-to-wear double-breasted—one wonders if Mr Simons has dreamed up a more romantic, bygone vision of America, or a European’s image of the land of the free. In his show notes, Mr Simons says “It’s the future, the past, Art Deco, the city, the American West… all of these things and none of these things. Not one era, not one thing, not one look. It is the coming together of different characters and different individuals, just like America itself. It is the unique beauty and emotion of America.” Could that be what Cole Porter once wrote, “Anything Goes”?

This debut isn’t quite like his past debuts; it did not inspire gushing admiration. Could there have been too many first presentations? Or have we become a tad too familiar, hence bored, with the by-now-ever-present Raf Simons codes that were once unanticipated at Jill Sander and refreshing at Dior? Did we expect too much?

To be fair, Calvin Klein isn’t a house with a full set of recognizable design ideas that can be mined. Tracing his inspiration to “the city, the American West” is possibly Mr Simons’s way of not depending on what is non-existent. Indeed, how many designer label consumers today can say for certain what the Calvin Klein look is if you took away the denim jeans as well as underwear ads?



What’s surprising (striking to you?) at Raf Simons’s Calvin Klein is the conventional silhouettes. There isn’t, for example, the oversized proportion of the current collection for his eponymous label. Or, if you go further back, the ethereal yet structured dreaminess that set the mood for his re-awakening of Dior. At that time, his simple yet detailed forms made everyone else’s overwrought output looked somewhat dated.

At New York Fashion Week’s autumn/winter 2017 season, Mr Simons does not tease and simultaneously tempt the way he did in Paris five years ago. Perhaps, geographical difference and the geopolitical contrast between then and now demand a certain aesthetic that negates quirk and edge. There is also the possibility that one needs to keep to Calvin Klein’s entrenched “minimalism”—a post-Euro-minimalism branding of the ’90s that the label is still fixated with.

Don’t get us wrong. This is not a lacklustre collection. It’s got an energy that is not always present in the New York shows. And it is a lot more daring than the offerings of conventional New York labels. But it does not make one hunger and crave even when there are some pieces one does not mind owning.


We like the woman’s blazer with what looks like engageante sleeves (which also appeared in the Raf Simons collection last month). That’s something rather incongruent with the Calvin Klein aesthetic—a detail more in sync with Mr Simons’s own inclination to deconstruct, and a colour paring (yellow and gray) that recall his bold use of brights.

That’s not the only sleeve that we find interesting. There’s the pullover with thick sleeves (that is reminiscent of varsity sweaters) attached to a sheer, skin-toned bodice. Versions for both men and women appear a few times on the catwalk. Although it’s unclear who might seriously be keen on such sheerness if they are not pop stars with the proclivity for such display, it is consistent with Mr Simons’s tendency to contrast textures and densities.

What’s also more the Belgian than the American founder of the label is the graphic elements: not only in terms of trims, but also in the details. A top with a cutaway at the left shoulder that is allowed to fold down across the upper chest to show its underside is appealing, but it brings to mind somewhat similar treatment seen in the Mr Simons’s Dior resort 2015 collection.

Surprising? Mr Simons has always reprised the woman’s suit silhouette that he dreamed up and perfected at Jil Sander (in particular, the proportion of the jacket to the pants), but he’s been able to tweak it at Dior so that the latter versions were truly sleek, youthful-looking, and, dare we say, sexy. Some quintessentially Raf Simons ideas are, therefore, expected at Calvin Klein—fans would be disappointed otherwise. But could these have been a little too obvious even amid the flourishes that are supposed to be American by genesis?

Whether Raf Simons is running out of steam is not yet a persuasive premise for the lack of wow at Calvin Klein, itself, like so many other brands of its peer, languishing too long in the powerlessness of moving forward. Perhaps Mr Simons is pandering to the long-held belief that American fashion, unlike European, isn’t quite the crucible of innovative, rule-breaking ideas. It is possible he is keeping to the standard that has made fashion in the US mostly looking across the oceans, but rarely leading.

The re-imagining of Calvin Klein by Raf Simon has shifted the focus to New York. Of course all eyes are now already on America—although for the wrong reasons. Calvin Klein was once considered a great American designer name. Whether Mr Simons can make Calvin Klein great again remains to be seen.

Photo: Imaxtree