On Friday, Calvin Klein staged the first show under the direction of new chief creative office Raf Simons. In New York, the Belgian designer offered up a collection that equally celebrated and subverted the codes of Calvin Klein, flipping the brand’s iconic aesthetic on its head. But one of the biggest statements of the show was its eerie soundtrack, taking viewers on a surreal sonic trip that beautifully echoed Raf’s new vision.
“It is the unique beauty and emotion of America,” he said of the collection – but what hit home hardest was the music’s themes of lost love, alienation and sedation, quietly twisting these romantic ideals into something altogether darker.
The 2016 presidential election uncovered a violent tear in America’s social fabric, one that many didn’t know (or, importantly, didn’t want to know) existed – something lurking in the land of the free. Considering Simons has only recently moved to America, he has an outsider’s view on a political reality millions of its population are finding difficult to grasp.
This perspective comes naturally to Simons. Growing up in the 80s on the periphery of Belgium’s punk scene, he came to adulthood looking in on that – and the golden glow of the American ideal. Through the 90s and early 00s, his shows carried the contextual weight of observing from the outer, using the sounds of countercultural musical icons – from riot bands to German krautrock to the Gabba rave movement – to fill out his explorations of youth culture in society. So, it makes sense that he should approach this debut for Calvin Klein as a deeply layered, music and art- fuelled study of the stereotypes, personalities and ideologies that exist (and have always existed) beneath the storied, polished surface of America.
Here, we look to Simons’ appreciation for the connection between fashion, music, and film, breaking down the show soundtrack into the codes that make it resonate on a broader cultural level.
This is Not America by David Bowie and Pat Metheny – Lazarus cast recording, 2016
Picture it. A minor chord rings out over the space – clinical, all white, but for the primary coloured bunches of yarn and clothing suspended from the ceiling, courtesy American artist (and Raf Simons favourite) Sterling Ruby. A girl’s voice rings out: “This Is Not America,” David Bowie and Pat Metheney dystopian 80s masterpiece. But it’s misty, creepy even. A far cry from the upbeat original, it’s the haunting cast recording from Lazarus, Bowie’s final, off-Broadway project, here becoming a siren’s ode to alienation, displacement, a lost world.
It’s no secret that Raf Simons is a huge David Bowie fan. His SS99 ‘Kinetic Youth’ collection saw a soundtrack patched with Life On Mars, Heroes and Space Oddity, and later at Christian Dior he described Bowie as the musical equivalent of haute couture, naming his SS15 collection ‘Moonage Daydream’ after the third track on 1972’s The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. In the current political and social climate, the choice of This Is Not America feels apt. Bowie originally wrote the song for 1985 Cold War spy film The Falcon and the Snowman, written to the disillusioned backdrop of the Raegan era and Vietnam war. The theme gave Bowie’s career new fire, named one of the greatest protest songs of our time. But there are deeper meanings behind choice of the weirder Lazarus version.
The play picks up on where The Man Who Fell To Earth (the 1976 Nicolas Roeg movie) left off. Michael C. Hall takes up the role Bowie made famous, portraying the brilliant and unhinged humanoid alien Thomas Jerome Newton, who has been stranded on earth mid-mission to retrieve water for his dying home planet. Haunted by a lost love, Newton – “a ‘man’ unable to die” – finds himself stuck on a planet that no longer looks like the positive place it once was. Lazarus captures a few brief days in the life of Newton – who’s now living off booze and twinkies up away from the world in his Manhattan apartment – as he connects with a waif of a lost soul and devises a doomed escape plan.
Newton woke up one day and found himself stuck in a reality he didn’t ask for, a feeling that continues to resonate with many Americans bewildered at their country’s politics now. A legendary 80s protest song, made relevant by Lazarus’ eerily current themes of displacement and isolation. With this show, Raf said he wanted to reflect all the varied cultural facets that make up America – no wonder this song made sense.
In Dreams by Roy Orbison
If the use of that haunting Lazarus recording hadn’t already made us feel like we were inside some fucked up dream, the segue into Roy Orbison’s In Dreams did the trick. Those unmistakable operatic strains were immortalised in David Lynch’s Blue Velvet, in the terrifyingly strange mime scene that revealed the extent of Hopper’s insanity. Simons is a fan of Lynch, the director cited as a major influence for his own FW16 ‘Nightmares and Dreams’ collection. Specifically, he’s fascinated by the musical processes behind Lynch’s work: the FW16 show soundtrack gave this away, set to a spoken word clip of composer Angelo Badalamenti documenting how he created the brilliantly macabre soundtrack for Twin Peaks. (Raf shares that interest with some of electronic music’s most progressive minds, like Chilean-American producer Nicolas Jaar, who commenced his 2012 Essential Mix for BBC with a longer version of Badalamenti’s documentation).
Shared interests often cues creatives to inspire one another. Simons has always been drawn to Lynch’s spotlighting of the darker side of American suburbia, just like Lynch was always attracted to Roy Orbison’s often-surreal lyrics (so much so that the singer would later make an appearance in Mulholland Drive). Yesterday, these lyrics formed the perfect backdrop to Simons’ twisted ode to American culture.
A candy colored clown they call the sandman,
Tiptoes to my room every night,
Just to sprinkle star dust and to whisper,
“Go to sleep everything is alright;”
New face of Calvin Klein Millie Bobbie Brown sat front row at the show, serving as a further reminder of Simons’ love of that dark cultural undercurrent. The young actress is the breakout star of Stranger Things, last year’s hit Netflix series that aced that genre of normality turned upside down.
I Want To Be Sedated by The Ramones (Mirel Wagner cover from A Cure For Wellness, 2017)
After Orbison’s balladic ode to escaping lost love In Dreams, we got Mirel Wagner’s slow rendition of The Ramones’ I Wanna Be Sedated, from Gore Verbinski’s forthcoming psychological thriller A Cure For Wellness. The original song was written by Joey Ramone, who at the time was suffering from burns inflicted by inhaling steam from a kettle backstage. Stuck on tour, not wanting to get on a plane to London, Joey literally wanted to be sedated. “Put me in a wheelchair/And get me to the show/Hurry, hurry, hurry/Before I go loco!” This track choice was Simons’ tribute to the pioneers of American punk rock, an angst-ridden pillar of American youth culture history.
Theme from Midnight Cowboy
As The Ramones’ lyrics segued into the melancholia of the Midnight Cowboy theme, we were reminded of a piece of filmic history that exalts the darker days of New York City, amidst the con mans, hustlers and cowboys that descended on Manhattan mid-last century to try their luck. The film may be decades old now, but it accurately reflected the reality of Times Square in an era when a visit was more likely to get you stabbed with a knife than hit over the head with a selfie stick. The inclusion of this theme song is a wry reference to the modern commercial ideals that often distract from the real history of America’s most iconic cities.
I Only Have Eyes For You by The Flamingos
This Flamingos song has all the hallmarks of classic 50s doo wop, but its echoing reverb sequences make it unsettling. In the context of the Calvin Klein show – about all the elements that make up American culture, dark and light – that feeling makes perfect sense. It was released during the primetime peak of American rhythm and blues, shortly before the baby boom gave way to the electric shock of rock ‘n’ roll, shaking the airwaves in time with the 60s counterculture revolution. With this in mind, The Flamingos’ track sounds like a reflection of that cultural progression, a slightly warped interpretation of the American dream. In the 60s, the assassination of President Kennedy, then Martin Luther King Junior, then Robert Kennedy – icons who many saw as champions of a more hopeful spirit – cut young people’s dreams short. Faced with massive social and racial difficulties, they started to question the the middle class American ideals their parents had preached, and a riotous youth-quake shook America.
Suicide Underground by Air, from The Virgin Suicides OST, 1999
Raf Simons has always channeled notions of teen rebellion and displacement, something director Sofia Coppola dealt with beautifully in The Virgin Suicides. Exploring notions of fragile youth, loneliness and isolation, the film was perfectly accompanied by a soundtrack crafted by French electronic outfit Air. Floaty and Moog-rich, they aced the film’s eerie dance between light and dark, sinister and blissful.
This is Not America by David Bowie and Pat Metheny Group, 1985
Finishing where we started – not with Lazarus, but Bowie’s original 80s version. The video for this song originally aired on television just a few months after President Raegan had been elected to his second term, the film itself telling the true story of two young American men who became spies for the Soviet Union. Considering Russia’s recent gracing of US political headlines, it’s a pointed reference.
It’s anyone’s guess what Simons’ thinks of this new America he’s found himself living in. But from yesterday’s show, it’s clear that this political and social context is already proving a rich source of inspiration – for an also-new, deeply layered, Calvin Klein.