Calvin Klein's elimination of runway highlights a major problem with American fashion.

By Eric Wilson
Updated Mar 07, 2019 @ 10:56 am
Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images

Calvin Klein announced this week that the company is closing its high-end designer business, less than three months after parting ways with designer Raf Simons. Who’s really surprised? It hardly seemed reasonable, after all, to invest tens of millions of dollars into future runway shows and hire another new designer, after such a spectacular flop.

I don’t mean to belittle the significance of this news — roughly 100 employees in New York and Milan have lost their jobs, and Calvin Klein has been a cultural force in American fashion for more than 50 years. But the runway collections have offered less and less potency for the company in creating a so called “halo” effect (driving brand awareness to fuel sales of its less expensive fragrance, underwear, and jeans). It would have taken a much clearer strategy, and synergy between the creative and corporate sides of the business, to make Calvin Klein viable as both a luxury brand and a marketing juggernaut again, as it was during Klein’s heyday in the 1980s and 1990s.

And so, as with other American brands that have sought and largely failed to reinvent after their founders’ departures (Bill Blass, Anne Klein, Halston, Donna Karan, James Galanos), the Calvin Klein name will carry forward — for now, at least — only on apparel and beauty products designed for licensees. The custom red-carpet business, Calvin Klein by Appointment, was also closed. It’s a sad development, but not necessarily the worst of possible outcomes. Another designer’s swing and miss could have done more harm than good for the halo effect. And at what cost?

What’s more likely to happen is that Calvin Klein takes a few lessons from the successful repositioning of Tommy Hilfiger, which, like Calvin Klein, is owned by PVH. With its see-now-buy-now approach and lucrative collaborations with social media-savvy models and celebrities, Hilfiger has succeeded in the disruption game where other designers have stumbled. Hilfiger’s #TommyNow runway events have driven consumer engagement to levels beyond expectations, and continued to reinvent each season with shows in major cities, such as the debut of a collaboration with Zendaya in Paris last weekend. Calvin Klein’s legacy is about marketing as much as design, so it would make sense for the company to focus its resources on more headline-grabbing ventures, whether in the provocative nature of its historic advertising campaigns or just getting more celebrities to pose in their briefs (e.g. Shawn Mendes).

Another important point: While Calvin Klein was clearly in need of a reset, its pullback from the runways highlights a major problem for the image of American fashion. New York Fashion Week has lost many of its marquee names in recent seasons and now holds less and less allure for foreign buyers and editors to attend, particularly with the remaining major names like Tom Ford, Ralph Lauren, Michael Kors, and Marc Jacobs showing at opposite ends of an eight-day event. It’s too much to ask of the next generation of designers to prop up such a long event without giving them more time to grow. With this news coming at the end of a four-week cycle of shows that really had no reason to last so long, it’s time to rethink and shrink the calendar as a whole. New York would be wise to take this opportunity and make the first step.