At Calvin Klein, Raf Simons Tests the Limits of the Space Age, with a Nod to Jiffy Pop
You may be too young to remember this, but 20 years ago, Calvin Klein – the OG of American sportswear himself – created a bit of a media sensation when he became the first designer to publish advertisements on popcorn bags sold in movie theaters. Klein, then at the height of his influence as a pop-culture provocateur, set a new tone for marketing in theaters that were, at the time, seen as a respite from the cold, cruel world of advertising. He did this simply by promoting his jeans and fragrances on bags of popcorn. It was a big deal then, anyway, when cell phones were just toys.
It goes to show how much the world has changed in the last two decades that a good number of people who attended the Calvin Klein 205W39NYC collection show on Tuesday night were unlikely to have ever known about Calvin Klein’s history of pop-popcorn advertising, nor to appreciate why we are expected to refer to the company today in its current form, under the creative direction of designer Raf Simons, by the shorthand for its New York City garment district address. History doesn’t really matter in today’s fashion, but it’s heartening to know that Simons, for all that his forward-facing design represents, just might still give a damn.
Let’s face it. This has been an especially limp New York Fashion Week, salvaged only by the few designers who refuse to give into the cynicism and nihilism of these end of days. Brandon Maxwell, Tory Burch, Jason Wu, Anna Sui, Derek Lam, Prabal Gurung, Ralph Lauren – I salute you for your optimism and your faith that in some way, American fashion still matters. But for now, my hope remains with Raf Simons, and that is because he created a joyous moment for this city, simply from an enormous pile of popcorn.
As I have mentioned here in the past, there has been some concern that Simons, the heralded Belgian designer who came to New York to revive Calvin Klein only a few seasons ago (after jobs at Dior in Paris and Jil Sander in Milan), might be having a bit of a go at America with his approach to the iconic sportswear brand. His latest Kardashian/Jenner advertising campaign, with the ladies of Calabasas, splayed on a barnyard quilt, did little to dispel that appearance of euro-mischief. But his show on Tuesday convinced me otherwise, starting with the runway set that was bathed in a playground of popcorn – dunes and drifts and banks and pools of popcorn that stretched from wall to wall of the former trading floor of the American Stock Exchange in lower Manhattan.
Walking into this set, next to Cindy Crawford and Rande Gerber, as it would turn out, I was delighted to see that I was not the only person whose shoes and pants were soon coated with a buttery white dust. It was magical in a way that you might have imagined as a child, if you had won the golden ticket to enter the world of Willy Wonka. An editor or two were induced to create snow angels in the drifts of popcorn. Dreams really do come true.
The models, too, had to trudge through this popcorn runway, some carrying popcorn bags that mirrored the original Calvin Klein movie theater bags of yore. But to the bigger purpose of bringing life to New York Fashion Week, Simons did more than his share of heavy lifting. The clothes were at times fantastic visions of Americana, both heroic and horrific –coats trimmed in safety tape like fireman’s rubbers, versus translucent prairie dresses sewn with minute quilts that would make a sister wife faint with jealousy. The knits were sensational, especially sweater vests that zipped on one side. And quite a few dresses appeared in a diaphanous silvery foil that owed a debt to the covering of stovetop Jiffy Pop, prepped to tear open and enjoy. (I suspect this was a result of Simons' fascination with the American space age race to the moon, also displayed in the silver gloves worn by several models.)
Stuart Vevers, an Englishman, also brings an outsider’s viewpoint to American sportswear with his collections for Coach 1941, and his latest underscored the appreciation for horror films and dark fairy tales. Guests entered a darkly wooded set that looked as if it might have been torn from the Stranger Things’ Upside Down, or from The Blair Witch Project, with a lonely forest disrupted by eerie, static-broadcasting television sets. For his clothes, though, Vevers remained true to a less threatening aesthetic, somewhere between preppy and hippie and hip-hop-hippie. There were a lot of long, dark dresses topped with shearlings or leather jackets.
It’s curious that both Vevers and Simons have an interest the flowy silhouettes of prairie dresses. At Coach they are more of the poetic type of flower children, with a hint of paisley tempered by whip-stitching on a leather jacket, while at Calvin Klein, they are rendered in soft, translucent fabrics and a bit ethereal in intention. For what it's worth, both seem right for the times.