How Raf Simons Is Pushing Calvin Klein’s Stale Sexy Legacy Towards The Future
Calvin Klein was once the brand whose campaigns could launch a thousand ships, if not at least a handful of careers. An infamous 1980 campaign featured a 15-year-old Brooke Shields, at the height of her teenage fame, wearing bootcut blue denim jeans and provocatively asserting that “nothing” came between her and her Calvins. Mark Wahlberg catapulted past The Funky Bunch when he modeled a pair of CK underwear with one hand on his package, all swagger and bravado. As recently as last year the brand relied on its “sex sells” ethos when it cast a topless, tatted Justin Bieber in a boxer-brief campaign so revealing it prompted impassioned debates about whether or not the mega-star had stuffed.
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Then, along came Raf Simons. The designer was anointed as Calvin Klein’s Chief Creative Officer in the summer of 2016, an announcement that pre-empted a series of funny little changes. The brand decided to combine their menswear and womenswear shows. The logo’s iconic typography grew up a little bit—shedding lower-case letters and gaining a minimal sleekness. And the ads changed. Simon’s first ad for the brand still featured models in underwear—only instead of lustily gazing into the camera, they’re featured gazing at or alongside large-scale artworks by the likes of Sterling Ruby (a past Simons collaborator) and Andy Warhol. The ads are still stark, minimalist, and attention-grabbing, but they’re selling something other than sex: a new era of Calvin Klein.
It’s important to understand where Raf Simons, fashion industry darling, is coming from. Simons is a 49-year-old Belgian designer who got his start in industrial design, before realizing, after a stint interning for Walter Van Bierendonck, a member of the famed avant-garde design collective “Antwerp Six,” that he wanted to make clothing. In 1995, he launched his eponymous label, which immediately began to play with the sharp tailoring, playful graphic punches, and obsession with uniforms that would come to define Simons’ aesthetic. His work was covetable and highly influential as well as culturally significant, reflecting the designer’s deep well of extra-curricular interests: art, music, design. From 2005 to 2012, Simons found a natural fit at the creative helm of Jil Sander, a brand known for tailored minimalism and sleek urban appeal. More surprising was his next job, serving as Creative Director at Dior, where he drew accolades for reviving the brand’s stuffy reputation by playing with unexpected proportions and decadent patterns.
Simons shocked the fashion world when he resigned from Dior in 2015, writing in a statement that he wanted to focus on his own work. Perhaps even more surprising was his subsequent onboarding at Calvin Klein, a brand so basic and so specifically imprinted on the cultural consciousness it seemed almost below Simons. But at Calvin Klein, Simons has begun to reinvent the brand, broadening its definition and elevating its aesthetic. If his first Calvin Klein ad campaign featured underwear and art, his next few tread a little more subtly. He tapped Millie Bobby Brown, the twelve-year-old star of Netflix hit Stranger Things, as the face of Calvin Klein By Appointment, with a visually-striking campaign to match. Expertly-shot ads featuring the cast of the Academy Award-winning picture Moonlight managed to subvert the usual underwear ad tropes, while still inducing plenty of thirst.
These ads represent sharp deviations from the brand’s last pre-Simons campaign, a cringeworthy, Instagram-targeted series featuring Kendall Jenner with the slogan “I [blank] in my Calvins,” meant quite transparently to encourage fans to recreate their own versions (Kendall dreams, reminisces, and stands tall in her Calvins, in case you were wondering). It was a campaign so corny (and effective) that even Clavin Klein himself spoke out against it, saying “it wasn’t something I would have done.” (He approved of Bieber, though).
Under Simons’ careful watch, Calvin Klein is being molded into a label more in step with the times, one that doesn’t traffic exclusively in heteronormativity, or adhere to its own legacy. Sometimes Simons' hand is visible, like when he transformed Calvin Klein’s flagship location into a bright yellow Sterling Ruby installation. But more often the soft-spoken designer allows the new Calvin Klein to speak for itself. As it has on the runway, where Simons’ takes on what a Calvin Klein uniform might look like have been positively fawned over. Summarizing Simon’s chameleon-like magic, Fashionista wrote, “At the heart of it, Raf Simons's immense design talent stems from his adeptness at cultural curation. It seems his mind functions like an Instagram feed, a limitless well of classic imagery and eternal youth that he offers his acolytes sips from.”
Simons recognizes that in 2017, selling denim you can buy at the mall with sex is a long way past groundbreaking. It’s tacky. Latching on to young social media celebrities in a desperate bid at relevance: also tacky. Pairing thoughtful, good design with smart ambassadors who represent where culture is going rather than where it’s been: smart. Simons’ brilliance doesn’t lie in his ability to tap into what youth culture wants, it’s his ability to predict where it’s going, and to softly push Calvin Klein towards that end. Simons’ reign doesn’t mean the end of the sexy Calvin Klein pinup, but rather the beginning of a new kind of sex appeal altogether. We’ll know it when we see it.