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Calvin Klein A/W18Courtesy of Bureau Betak

Raf Simons Imagines Escapism Anew at Calvin Klein A/W18

The third and final part in Raf Simon’s Calvin Klein trilogy presented a glimpse of a new and more hopeful horizon, writes Alexander Fury

Lead ImageCalvin Klein A/W18Courtesy of Bureau Betak

Watching Raf Simons’ most recent Calvin Klein show, all I could think of was escape. Not the way you normally do at a fashion show, plotting your swiftest escape route from the building and to the next show after the finale winds its merry way. Nor Escape, the fragrance, by Calvin Klein – well not specifically, at least, although the idea behind that fragrance – “going beyond” to use Mr Klein’s own words from its 1991 release – was evident. Raf Simons’ Klein show did, indeed, go beyond. 

As you entered the door, you escaped the fast-paced word of New York circa February 2018 and escaped, somewhere else – somewhere odd, alien, unreal, a fascinating dreamscape of popcorn snow and Warholian barns. It wasn’t anywhere you wanted get away from fast.

Since he started at Calvin Klein 18 months ago, context has been all-important to Raf Simons’ work for the house. He suffixed the mainline with ‘205W39NYC’ - CK HQ, where he presented his debut and sophomore collections. And this show was intrinsically keyed to the environment in which it was presented, with Hazmat-suited heroes and heroines trudging through disintegrating popcorn kernels - either escaping from that strange landscape, or into it. 

Escapism is something constantly present in American culture: it’s there in the dreams promised by Hollywood, proposed through the corvettes and deuce coupes of pop music, and through the glossy pages of fashion magazines, especially those of Calvin Klein, one of America’s ultimate dream-weavers. Raf Simons continues in that grand tradition – weaving dreams, and making magic. 

There were plenty of American movie references in this Klein show (Raf Simons threw out references to the fascinating 1995 Todd Haynes film Safe and the 2017 Sofia Coppola vehicle The Beguiled), and lots of popular music on the soundtrack. But if there was an auteur or composer to be credited, it was Simons himself. Like Klein, this show used fashion as the medium to evoke a new landscape and to tell its story. Like a movie, it was highly edited, different scenes spliced together in single outfits; so say a billowing, Pioneer-girl, I-saw-Goody-Osborne-with-the-Devil Quaker dress in flax-coloured organdie was worn over the bottom of a Silkwood-style hazardous waste suit, with a knit balaclava. Fragility and protection, delicacy and survival, heroes and those needing to be rescued. Some looks fused those two points of view together together, recreating American quilts in chiffon dresses, or trimming Mylar-y survival blanket foil in silver and sewing them into lingerie dresses. Delicate, but paradoxically powerful.

Escaping isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It implies fleeing an evil, outwitting peril, breaking out of shackles, sure. But escape can just mean getting away, being free. Simons said this collection was about freedom, which represented both America, and Calvin Klein. Ultimately, it simply felt free – particularly in its outlook, which roamed free of Americana and touched on universal themes, indicating the breadth of Simons’ vision for Calvin Klein. His past collections have been about an outsider’s take on American tropes – particularly using movies as his window onto and frame of reference for an alien world of diner uniforms and marching band costumes and cheerleading pom-poms. They were a little like an aesthetic citizenship test, proving he spoke the visual language of the U.S. In this instance, Simons was introducing America to the alien, rather than the other way round. This collection perhaps represented America’s slightly fearful look, through woolly balaclava, at the outside world. 

But to paraphrase the 32nd president, Franklin D. Roosevelt, there’s nothing to fear, but fear itself. Calvin Klein is proving that: rather than fearing the radical change and upheaval that Simons has wrought – starting by throwing out the Calvin Klein logo-branded multi billion pairs of underwear, and working his way out to the other clothing layers – they are wholeheartedly embracing the Raf revolution. This subtle, quietly radical collection, with its change of focus and broadening of outlook, is the latest evolution. As with so much that Raf Simons does, the context spoke volumes – from the walls of 205 West 39th Street, just off Seventh ‘fashion’ Avenue, to the vast aircraft hangar space of the former American Stock Exchange building – a space that has shaped not just America’s financial markets, but seismically shifted world events over the past century. It was a change of scale, a statement of ambition. And a promise of more to come. There was no fear here. There was hope. And new horizons.