American horror

Calvin Klein 205W39NYC SS18
Fashion | 8 September 2017

Last season, Raf Simons took us on a subversive tour of American culture through his debut collection as chief creative officer of Calvin Klein, set to the underlying tension of the country’s political turbulence.

Yesterday, seven months on, the dust has not so much settled as been kicked into an frenzied shitstorm. So Simons took his FW17 collection as a springboard and dived deeper into the warped American psyche. And when stripping back the American dream, what better reference point than Hollywood, the dream-factory where fantasies are made and nightmares realised.  At once celebrating and pulling apart the fabric of his adopted native.

As last season, guests gathered in the ground-floor showspace, directly beneath the brand’s offices at 205 West 39th Street. Clinical white at eye-level, above the runway a Sterling Ruby installation – aptly titled Sophomore – hung from the ceiling; metal buckets, streamers, pom poms, flags and axes. Yes, axes. As previously worn by the likes of The Shining’s Jack Torrance and Friday the 13th’s Jason Voorhees.

Remixing cinema’s visual vocabulary, Simons’ protagonists came in a wardrobe of American archetypes; cheerleader and diner outfits, cowboys, and denim, naturally. “It’s about American horror and American beauty,” said Simons in the press release.

Cue classic 50s couture silhouettes taken straight from old Hollywood but rendered in industrial, waterproof nylon – the type used for tents – and tough hand-painted leather. Giant pom poms worn as fringed flapper dresses, only more stretched, slashed and skewed. Lumberjack checks reimagined as men’s tailoring. Oh, and those axes from earlier? Those horror film references continued via latex gloves, blood-splattered outerwear (courtesy of Sterling Ruby) and nylon dresses that resembled bin-liners – or body-bags, depending on your disposition. Meanwhile Simons’ rhinestone ranchers reappeared from last season, this time clad in two-toned satin Western shirts and trousers with metal-tipped cowboy boots underfoot, like Gram Parsons filtered through an acid-hued lens.

That mood’s no coincidence: Dennis Hopper and his 60s counterculture biker film Easy Rider fame – a defining cultural marker of American machismo – was a direct reference point, as well as Warhol intimate and art collector Sandra Brant. In collaboration with The Andy Warhol Foundation, prints of both these icons featured across the collection alongside images from the artist’s macabre and politically charged Death and Disaster series; real-life horror scenes conceived along the lines of film noir stills. 

The story goes that this series was conceived following a meeting between Warhol and his friend Henry Geldzahler, who urged the artist to move beyond consumer objects and engage with more serious subject matter (“It’s enough life, it’s time for a little death” were the words reportedly used). It could be said that Simons is bringing that same drive to Calvin Klein. Giants of fashion consumerism, the Belgian designer is subtly weaving his own subversive and philosophical questions into the company’s output, retaining the brand’s iconic DNA while questioning its value, purpose and place in today’s society.

“Fashion tries to hide the horror and embrace only beauty. But they are both a part of life,” said Simons. And there’s the hook, fashion – more often than not – is obsessed with beauty. Whereas Simons creates in tune with the world around him, and let’s face it, there’s plenty of horror in plain sight. Having moved Stateside barely one year ago, it would appear that Simons has already managed to get under the skin of American culture. The Calvin Klein Raf-olution will certainly be televised.

GALLERYCatwalk looks from this show