Raf Simons had a provocative first year at Calvin Klein. Just 3 seasons in, the Belgian designer revamped the label with an outsider’s view of America’s current political moment. Through a courtship with American cinema, Simons traced the country’s zeitgeist, sending spectators down a rabbit hole of social anxieties, unease and, indeed, hope.
The fashion astute will recall Simons’ James Dean-inspired looks in Calvin Klein’s Fall ’17 show (those with a short memory need only look at the uptrend in Western-inspired footwear since then). Simons’ first season proved a wide-eyed celebration of America’s Golden Age, a rummaging through the cinematic cowboy’s rucksack of classic Americanisms. The celebration took a sour turn, however, in Simons’ horror-infused Spring ’18 show. With motif’s from Stephen King’s Carrie and The Shining, Simons traded admiration for provocation.
His previous two shows provided the framework for Calvin Klein’s Fall ’18 show. Set at the American Stock Exchange, the show encompassed a feverish farm scene (think James Dean gone Wes Craven), complete with woebegone barns papered with Andy Warhol shots. A deluge of popcorn littered the runway half a foot deep. At a glance, the maizy debris was a nod to the show’s cinematic underpinnings. Beneath their crunchy exterior, however, they embodied Simons’ preoccupation with spectatorship. “Fashion has embraced too much the spectators’ expectations,” Simons told Vogue last Fall. If, in Simons’ extended analogy, the runway is likened to film, the spectator is likened to the popcorn-wielding moviegoer, glutting at the show’s spectacle. At a time when the relevance of runway shows is in question, this examination of spectatorship is all too pertinent. Simons also cited Todd Haynes 1995 film, Safe, as an inspiration for the show. The film’s exploration of environmental illness in an affluent neighborhood is reflected on the runway by the intersection of grotesque and couture.
In line with the show’s forlorn atmosphere, Calvin Klein’s Fall ’18 collection is a mixed bag of dystopian couture. Complete with an array of fireman jackets, survival blankets turned dresses, menacing knitwear balaclavas, and rubber hazmat thigh-highs, the collection evoked an ominous bedlam of disaster. Among the fray, however, were glimmers of hope: delicate chiffon gowns, flowing prairie skirts, and chunky knit sweaters – glisters of beauty in an otherwise hellish landscape.
Simons wrapped up New York Fashion week, and a whirlwind first year, with a thought-provoking glimpse into the American spirit. He held a fun house mirror up to the entire country, boldly prompting the question: Is this us?