29-Jun, 08:58

09:08, February 09 127 0

2017-02-09 09:08:20
Can Raf Simons Reinvent American Fashion?

In a nondescript office building on West 39th Street, behind key-card-locked doors and a stack of nondisclosure agreements, Raf Simons is at work, rebuilding the house of Calvin Klein.

Calvin Klein’s is a name so famous as to have earned pride of place on underwear bands the world over. Maybe yours. Mr. Klein was, in the words of The New York Times, a “pop star” and “the first American designer to become household-name famous.” That name is synonymous with American fashion design in the 20th century, part of a small, one-name pantheon that includes Ralph (Lauren), Donna (Karan) and Oscar (de la Renta).

His forte was sportswear: easy, effortless clothes, later expanded to include blockbuster underwear and jeans. But you knew that. It was more than 30 years ago when a young Brooke Shields cooed that nothing comes between her and her Calvins. She did not need to specify which Calvin.

Mr. Simons, though by no means unknown, is not Calvin. His name, Raf (rhymes with “laugh,” with a rolled Flemish R), is invoked with adoration in high-fashion circles. But even after a successful stint as the artistic director of Christian Dior, he has arrived in New York with less name recognition among the public. His task is to bring energy and excitement back to Calvin Klein — and back, by extension, to New York fashion.

“I think it’s very exciting for New York to have someone of his caliber come here,” said Grace Coddington, the creative director at large of Vogue, who first came to the United States as a design director for Calvin Klein in the 1980s.

In recent years, New York fashion and especially New York Fashion Week have been dogged by a reputation for spotlighting both too much and not enough. The city’s relatively democratic show schedule packed a couple of hundred runway shows and presentations into a “week” stretching to eight days or more, but much of it has not been considered on par with what is shown in Milan or Paris.

“The New York shows have often felt slightly odd to the Europeans, I think,” said Gert Jonkers, a founder of the magazines Fantastic Man and The Gentlewoman, who has not attended New York shows in several years. “It’s a busy schedule, but with a lot of things that don’t speak to us. I won’t fly trans-Atlantic for one or two seven-minute shows. I know there are other shows in New York, but I just don’t feel the urgency.”

Mr. Simons, 49, considered one of the great designers of his generation, is well positioned to ratchet up that urgency.

From the obscure perch of his own Raf Simons men’s wear label, he won over critics in Paris in the late 1990s and early aughts. Cathy Horyn, then the fashion critic of The Times and one of Mr. Simons’s most enduring supporters, wrote in 2004 that in all her years reporting on fashion, she had “stood up from only a handful of shows with a conviction that everything had been transformed.” Mr. Simons’s was one. Yet he maintained such a low profile that when he was named the creative director of Jil Sander in 2005, many in the industry hardly knew who he was.

Mr. Simons breathed new life into Jil Sander, and after six years there, as Ms. Sander returned, he joined Dior, ascending to one of the highest mounts of Parisian ready-to-wear and haute couture. He stabilized Dior, rocked by L’Affaire Galliano — John Galliano, its previous designer, went on a drunken, anti-Semitic public tirade that cost him his job and tarnished Dior’s image — and won the support of consumers (sales rose 60 percent under his tenure), the press and Hollywood. (It was one of Mr. Simons’s Dior gowns that tripped Jennifer Lawrence on her way to accept her Oscar.)

He left Dior in 2015, citing the breakneck pace required to keep up with so many collections and shows each year.

Yet the pace is only likely to quicken for Mr. Simons, who has relocated from Antwerp, Belgium, a city small enough that its fledgling designers count seeing him at the supermarket as a celebrity sighting, to Manhattan, with a mandate to revivify Calvin Klein. He has been given complete creative control, of a type not seen since Mr. Klein and his partner, Barry Schwartz, sold the company to the Phillips-Van Heusen Corporation in 2002; Mr. Klein stepped down from design the next year.

Mr. Simons has oversight of all of the many categories and varieties of products that bear the brand name, from the high-end Calvin Klein Collection and the lower-priced apparel and accessories carried at malls and Macy’s, to underwear, jeans and fragrances (both for men and women), as well as home goods. As if this were not enough, he has imported his namesake Raf Simons men’s wear collection and keeps a studio for it in the Calvin Klein headquarters.

After showing in Paris for some 20 years, Mr. Simons presented the collection last week during the men’s wear shows in New York, where he was received as a conquering hero.

“I never really thought it over from the point of view that I would possibly be the activator for New York: Men’s or the savior for New York: Men’s,” he told The Wall Street Journal. “But I would be more than happy if I could be a help.”

Mr. Simons was indeed a help, and his addition to the men’s fashion schedule increased registration and attendance, said Steven Kolb, the chief executive of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, which organizes the New York shows. He is likely to repeat the trick with Calvin Klein on Friday at its coed show during New York Fashion Week.

“We’re all incredibly excited to see what he does for that brand,” said Glenda Bailey, the editor of Harper’s Bazaar. “It is a real highlight on our calendar, and I know that several of the international editors are coming in, wanting to get here for Calvin.”

The draw could hardly come at a better time. New York Fashion Week has lately been subject to high-level defections of homegrown talent. Several companies, including Tommy Hilfiger, opted to show in Los Angeles rather than in New York this season, and three of New York Fashion Week’s most respected labels are moving their shows to Paris — Rodarte and Hood by Air as of this season, and Proenza Schouler as of next.

“New York definitely needs some excitement,” said Jennifer Sunwoo, the executive vice president and general merchandise manager for women’s wear at Barneys New York.

Mr. Simons is, in a sense, an unusual person to provide it. He is serious, intense and soft-spoken, more discussed but less known by many in the fashion establishment than his more bombastic peers. He keeps close, nearly cloistered company, an inner circle that he has imported with him to Calvin Klein.

That includes devoted staff, including Pieter Mulier, his longtime No. 2 and now the creative director of Calvin Klein; Mr. Mulier’s boyfriend, Matthieu Blazy, the design director of women’s ready-to-wear; and Mr. Simons’s boyfriend, Jean-Georges d’Orazio, now a senior director of “brand experience.” He is also continuing to collaborate with artists like Sterling Ruby, who once worked with Mr. Simons on a collection and has been spotted at the Calvin Klein studios, and the photographer/stylist duo Willy Vanderperre and Olivier Rizzo, friends from their days at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts in Antwerp, who have worked with him on Calvin Klein’s new advertising campaigns.

Since Mr. Simons’s designs for the new collections are so tightly guarded that even many Calvin Klein staff members have not yet seen them, these ads are the only glimpse of what Calvin Klein could look like under his watch. (Mr. Simons declined to comment for this article.)

Advertising may seem an ephemeral marker of change, but few were as aware of its power and potential as Mr. Klein himself. Many of the ads the fashion world considers iconic were manufactured at Mr. Klein’s in-house CRK Advertising studio: Kate Moss, nude, at her heroin chicest; Mark Wahlberg, then known as Marky Mark, grabbing his groin through boxer briefs.

The new ad campaign, appearing now, features models in their underpants, just as many of Mr. Klein’s most provocative did. But Mr. Simons runs cool where Mr. Klein ran hot. In one shot, photographed at the Rubell Family Collection in Miami, they gaze, backs to the camera, at a canvas by Mr. Ruby. Mr. Klein’s models were barely contained by their Calvins, courting scandal and the occasional recall; Mr. Simons’s are gawky in the European high-fashion style, and barely fill theirs out.

Another campaign, for Calvin Klein By Appointment, offsets dresses made to order — a sort of American sportswear version of couture — with flat shots of a pair of classic white Calvin Klein briefs.

“I thought it was interesting they put the underwear in every other photograph — the iconic thing he’s known for,” said Sam Shahid, the veteran art director who ran CRK Advertising during the ’80s and early ’90s. “But I’m not sure it’s Calvin. It doesn’t have the same sensuality or sexuality. It doesn’t have the physicality Calvin always had. It’s more like Raf Simons.”

Of course, more like Raf Simons is, in part, exactly what PVH, Calvin Klein’s parent company, wants. Mr. Simons has been handed the keys to the kingdom with the hope that he will reinvigorate a brand that, despite $8.2 billion in sales in 2015, was seen by many as coasting and too diffuse.

Several of the company’s longtime executives left or were dismissed just before his arrival or just after, including the creative directors of its high-end Calvin Klein Collection (Francisco Costa, who designed the women’s line, and Italo Zucchelli, who designed the men’s); Kevin Carrigan, the creative director of its more affordable commercial collections (who recently moved to Ralph Lauren); Amy Mellen, the senior vice president for design of Calvin Klein Home; and Melisa Goldie, the chief marketing officer.

Calvin in recent years has meant Justin Bieber, Kendall Jenner and their ilk showing off “#mycalvins.” Now Mr. Simons is busily reinterpreting the whole enterprise from the logo up.

“He’s such a visionary,” Ms. Sunwoo, of Barneys New York, said. “We’re very confident about his ability to transform the brand and really make it much more relevant than it has been.” So much so that Barneys agreed to carry the new collection sight unseen. “We’re all in,” she said. “That’s how much we believe in Raf.”

It is one thing for luxury retailers to believe in Raf; it is another for the general consumer, who may not be aware of him. Calvin Klein Collection has historically received the bulk of press coverage and the spotlight offered by runway shows but accounts for a small percentage of the company’s sales.

“We used to joke that that whole business was smoke and mirrors,” said a former employee, who declined to speak on the record, citing continuing business relationships.

PVH’s goal for Calvin Klein is to reach $10 billion in global sales by 2020. The majority of Calvin Klein revenue comes from its jeans, underwear and fragrances, according to Magdalena Kondej, the head of apparel and footwear research at Euromonitor International. Mr. Simons, whose specialty is in high-end fashion, is relatively untested in these areas. A recent editorial on the Business of Fashion website made the point plain: “Can Raf Go Mass?” Or, to put it another way, since the customer is king (and queen): Will mass go Raf?

Calvin Klein is a major draw at Macy’s, which sells its apparel and accessories, jeans, underwear, fragrances and home goods. “It’s a very powerful brand for us,” said Tim Baxter, the chain’s chief merchandising officer. But will the Raf Simons name resonate with Macy’s customers?

“It’s hard to say,” he said. “Our customer clearly understands the power of the Calvin Klein brand. Certainly our most fashion-forward customers will understand the change in leadership, but I think the vast majority of our customers just really respect the brand.” (The store says that Calvin Klein is one of its top five highest-selling brands.)

How Mr. Simons’s Calvin Klein will play out at retail will have to wait. On Friday morning, it makes its runway debut, as one of the most anticipated shows of New York Fashion Week.

“I definitely feel this is one of those moments everyone will look back at, seeing Raf’s first season showing,” said Humberto Leon, a founder of Opening Ceremony, which has teamed with Calvin Klein Jeans and Calvin Klein Underwear on projects in recent years.

Ms. Coddington is cautiously optimistic about the pairing. “All those houses that take on new people, it’s always a challenge and a gamble,” she said. “You just pray that it works for everybody.”