When it was first touted, a few months ago, that designer, Raf Simons, was going to Calvin Klein I put it down to the usual fashion rumour mill working on overdrive. Why would somebody leave Christian Dior and its atelier and move to a brand built on discount underwear and cheap perfume? It didn’t make creative sense and it doesn't make business sense.
The days of buying back licenses, regaining control and taking a brand ‘upmarket’ with the help of a superstar designer are over, especially, if you have shareholders to please. Brands like Calvin Klein are built on volumes. If you want to hit the billions in sales in fashion it needs to be everywhere, quite literally: on the shelves of Boots and in the bargain bin at TK Maxx.
If Raf wants to do ‘real’ shows and make great fashion, that’s fine, but how that translates into the bread and butter product will be interesting. It may alienate its existing consumer while not replacing the sales in the difficult-to-please and fickle designer fashion market.
It must be remembered that minimalism is a hard sell. Even Prada is struggling. Justifying the price of a designer white shirt is difficult, today, especially with the rise of the high-street and brands like Uniqlo. The landscape has changed.
Calvin Klein’s brand pillars and DNA was always the image and not the product. The product was the afterthought.
The brand, probably, hit its peak around the mid-nineties. The time of CK One which took the pretension out of perfume, by adding a screw top, and a fluid, unisex advertising campaign featuring Kate Moss. Nobody bought the clothes. You couldn’t, even if you wanted to. The grey concrete John Pawson shops, Christy Turlington, Marky Mark’s six-pack, spaghetti-strapped minimalism, which looked so fresh, streamlined and cool, at the time, was all about selling pants and Unilever produced fragrance. This was the chapter of fashion history featuring jersey dresses in taupe or dove grey and the rise of the American mega brands such as Ralph, Tommy and Donna.
Calvin Klein was always the most forward and directional of all these brands and thus resonated further, especially in the UK. It was also the most visible with its Escape, Eternity and Obsession fragrance campaigns. This was the birth of ‘designer’ fashion and consumers wanted to buy into it at a price they could afford. It was a bit grungy, a bit street, yet still retained enough Americana to make it attractive. It was cool.
When fashion companies get as big as Calvin Klein they become conglomerates. These beasts of a business are difficult for any singular individual to have much input into. They roll on regardless of what was shown on the catwalk in New York or Milan and the fashion crowd turn up and clap just because the fragrance advertising is paying their wages.
I’m guessing Raf will want to work from Europe, probably Antwerp. He’ll probably show in Paris. (New York for the first season - *claps hands furiously*). The Americans will think he’s their great white hope, give him whatever he wants and haemorrhage money finding out that the tide went out on designer fashion.
So, he didn’t have the creative freedom at Dior that he wanted, and it’s a shame they didn’t give him more scope to make the brand his own and see what he could do with the shops and advertising etc., but, Calvin Klein is completely on the other side of that ‘designer’ scale.
Calvin Klein isn’t in the same category of recent revivals like Gucci, Valentino or Saint Laurent. These brands have a great retail network of the best stores on the best streets in the world. When they do something it is replicated in hundreds of shops, the world over, in very little time. This creates fashion. This creates the energy the fashion industry needs and means it actually gets into people's hands and onto their bodies. Calvin Klein would start from near zero on this front, even if every major department store took it, and it would take years to get even one store in every major city of the world.
Calvin Klein invented masstige before it was even a word. When Calvin Klein, himself, left they should have followed the Coach/Michael Kors route when they saw the ‘accessible’ luxury market growing, over a decade ago.
The fashion industry will do what it usually does, nod and smile while taking the money, but, whatever happens it’s going to be interesting.