At Calvin Klein, Raf Simons Writes His Own American Horror Story

Eric Wilson - Calvin Klein 

The real takeaway of the spring Calvin Klein collection shown on Thursday night was all about embracing death and disaster, and I am here to tell you that I am buying into this American horror story. If there is already a waiting list for a dress printed with an image of an electric chair, please sign me up. A tote bag promoting an ambulance crash? I’ll take two. This is America, after all, or at least this is Raf Simons’s America, the statement of a well-traveled European offering his perspective on a messed-up culture that he somehow admires, even if he is still coming to terms with us Yanks since he moved to New York a year ago to become the chief creative officer of Calvin Klein.

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There is little doubt that Simons has unexpectedly emerged in that time as one of the most powerful voices of American fashion—after his first collection, he won both the men’s and women’s designer of the year trophies from the Council of Fashion Designers of America, a feat only accomplished once before, by Calvin Klein himself. His debut was a smash, even though it left me with a nagging question that was only reinforced when I recently visited the Calvin Klein flagship on Madison Avenue, which has been renovated with a particularly crazy art installation by the Sterling Ruby, a longtime Simons collaborator. With its wildly garish décor of yellow and red, I couldn’t help but make the association with the look of a McDonald’s restaurant and I wondered, not for the first time, is Raf Simons, in his Western-shirt-and-cowboy-boots take on the most iconic sportswear brand in America, secretly making fun of us?

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Well, if he is: After his second collection on Thursday night, I am delighted to be in on the joke. From a purely consumer perspective, looking at the clothes he showed, I would argue that they were more desirable and even approachable than the stiff jeans and plastic-coated coats from fall (as much as we all loved them, let’s just say not a lot of people outside the fashion bubble can pull off the Marlboro Man look with such aplomb). For spring, the Western shirts were revised in charming satiny patchwork colors, the sporty windbreakers came in less aggressively oversize versions, the dresses were made of complicated fringe patterns but super fun, and the most artful ones were produced in a softer looking rubberized fabric, rather than stiff plastic. The harsh images that appeared throughout, of Dennis Hopper, of car crashes, of an electric chair, stamped on tank tops, dresses, and bags, were instantly recognizable as the works of Andy Warhol, albeit some from his controversial Death and Disaster series produced in the 1960s.

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Some might be offended, or clutch their pearls and go so far as to question the timing, given the state of the world at this given moment. But from a critical perspective, I think this collection showed incredible respect for one element of American culture, its appreciation of irony even in the darkest moments of tragedy.

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Simons, in his press notes, cited “American horror and American beauty,” as he reveled in the heritage of scary movie archetypes, presumably from Jason Voorhees to Patrick Bateman to the Upside Down. So it’s worth noting that Sterling Ruby added new elements to the runway set that nodded to this spooky theme, including axes and fringed cheerleader pom-poms dangling from the ceiling. Those pom-poms, it turns out, were seen in Simons’s fringe dresses and bags for Calvin Klein too, both scary and strangely beautiful.

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