Calvin Klein Sans Raf and The Future of American Fashion

American fashion as always been a strange beast, not only to tame, but just to understand. The world’s biggest economy, spanning a vast continent of an incredibly diverse population, couldn’t be further from the upper-middle-class consumers of Europe, or the nouveau-riche clientele of the East. The most successful stories in American fashion consists of those that went to Europe (such as Proenza Schouler, Rick Owens) and those that went commercial: that is, into the world of mass-apparel. As the country’s most iconic brand Calvin Klein announces the departure of their Euro-chic creative director Raf Simons after only 18 months, is it time to reiterate the status quo of American fashion consumption? What is the future for our beloved CK?It raised eyebrows when the American apparel producer first announced the appointment of the Belgian designer Raf Simons as its next top creative director, merging all former creative director positions to authorize full creative authorship and control. A bold move for a company that mainly thrives on selling fairly-priced underwear and jeans to the entire world – reports remind us that before Simons’ arrival, their ready-to-wear collection was signed off as a mere “marketing expense.” Coming from Dior, Simons took on the American behemoth with courage and ferociousness, re-branding its main fashion line to the cryptic 205W39NYC (after their brand headquarters). Fashion-wise, he presented a triumphant dark interpretation of Americana, old and new, and communicated it with a series of now-iconic campaigns with his BFF Willy Vanderperre featuring the art of Warhol, the deserts of the mid-west, and the Kardashians. Accolades quickly ensued. Simons was awarded “best fashion designer of the year” twice in a row at the Fashion Awards, and quickly gathered a following in the Hollywood circuit, who proudly sported his creations on the red carpet. American fashion, long crippled by the exodus by many of its best names, suddenly felt revived, revolutionized even. It seemed like a certain slow rise to success for the mega-corporate CK, with Simons providing a so-called “halo” effect to a brand that thrives on its connection to the mass-market. But bad blood first surfaced in November, when Emanuel Chirico, chairman and chief executive officer of CK’s mother company PVH, said in rather blunt terms on the company’s earnings call that the reimagined Calvin Klein — under Simons’ direction — was not working. Chirico said that the redesigned Calvin Klein Jeans — also under Simons’ direction — was a “fashion miss,” telling investors, “From a product perspective, we went too far, too fast on both fashion and price. We are working on fixing this fashion miss, and we believe that our CK Jeans offering will be much more commercial and fashion-right beginning in 2019, especially for the fall 2019 season.” The comment felt misplaced to a fashion industry audience, but only a few months later, right before Christmas, a press release was sent out announcing Simons’ exit effective immediately, stating that “both parties have amicably decided to part ways after Calvin Klein Inc. decided on a new brand direction which differs from Simons’s creative vision.” With 8 months left of his contract, it marked a new turnover rate for the top jobs in fashion – where big investments are made in to creative authors, who in turn must deliver even bigger returns at ever-greater speed. Is 1,5 year enough to transform one of the biggest brands in the world? PVH seems to think so. But they also learned their lesson when it comes to their consumer base – Chirico was not shy to explain that Simons’ clothing that was “too elevated and too fashion-forward for our core consumer.” As Simons returns to his namesake menswear label in Antwerp, we’re wondering: what is the future of American fashion? Be sure that every major fashion stakeholder is taking notes from this extraordinary, ground-breaking, and already iconic experiment in American fashion branding.