• Text Tempe Nakiska
  • 11th February 2017

This is not America

This morning in New York, Belgian designer Raf Simons debuted his vision as chief creative officer, a celebration of America underpinned with the mood of its current political upheaval. 

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 artist (and Raf Simons favourite) Sterling Ruby. A girl’s soprano voice sings: “This Is Not America.” It’s the opening lines of David Bowie and Pat Metheney Group’s dystopian 80s masterpiece – but this version’s haunting, a far cry from the upbeat original. This is the cast recording from Bowie’s final masterpiece Lazarus – the on-stage sequel to The Man Who Fell To Earth – in this context it’s a siren’s ode to alienation, displacement, a lost world. 

In 2017, what world does Calvin Klein – the ultimate American brand – exist in? For many, the recent presidential election and its following events have come as a shockwave. And so the white bandanna (the symbol of #tiedtogether, a new campaign started by BoF‘s Imran Amed to promote unity and inclusiveness), given with the invitations to the show, nodded to this. A physical advocation for unity and solidarity, for people coming together regardless of race, sexuality, gender or religion. “It reflects the environment,” said Raf Simons of the collection in the accompanying show notes. “All of these different people within different styles and dress codes. It’s the future, the past, Art Deco, the city, the American West… all of these things and none of these things.” 

With the clothes, Simons reflected on that notion with a clever play between strength and vulnerability, framed by American hallmarks: workwear, power broker uniforms, a clash between folk and future, tailoring and tech. A culturally patriotic affair, celebrating the foundations of Calvin Klein, at the same time as pulling them apart. Raf has, after all, recently moved to America, and hence has an outsider’s view on a reality many Americans themselves are finding difficult to grasp.

The first look introduced a shirt and trouser silhouette synonymous with Calvin Klein, but Raf-ified with cleaner lines, and in red white and blue. That outline came again later but in indigo denim – classic, strong. Much like the leather aviator jackets that were stamped with foil roses and worn over dresses, suggesting a more vulnerable side beneath. And that feeling came up again in sheer nude tops that exposed models’ most vulnerable parts, contrasted with knitted sleeves, like a slouchy football jersey (an Americanism in itself) with its insides ripped out.  

There was also the strong scent of Calvin Klein sex appeal, intensified by PVC coats and tactile feather dresses. One floral number verged on Stepford territory, only it was sheathed in transparent plastic – both protective and revealing at once, twisting domestic conventions. Much like Richard Prince’s Nurse Paintings, fetishising traditional notions of caretaking and servitude. 

And that reference point should come as little surprise: Richard Prince was one of the three artists whose works featured in Simons’ first campaign for Calvin Klein, released this week. Simons is an art-enthusiast whose career has been framed by the blurring of art and fashion boundaries. In today’s show it ran deeper than just the Sterling Ruby set: everywhere from the bright Keith Haring primary colours, to the climactic all-leather looks that would have looked comfortable in one of Robert Mapplethorpe’s kinkier photographs, to the experimental silhouettes of the outerwear on girls and boys. 

It all pointed to an elevation of the all-American Calvin Klein ideal, in line with a more intellectual aesthetic. Just take this week’s arty new campaign. Yes, models wore classic blue denim or underwear, but their faces weren’t turned at the camera – rather, at works of art. For a brand whose most iconic campaigns have featured major models or celebrities wearing a minor amount of clothing, it’s progressive. Add today’s show into the mix – a celebration as much as it was a subversion of the romantic ideal of America – and what you’ve got is ultimate Raf Simons, exploring the cultural zeitgeist as he simultaneously questions it to pieces. This might not be America, but it’s Raf Simons, and it’s genius.