Call & Response, Good & Bad

Raf Simons has caused quite a scene in recent weeks.

His debut Calvin Klein collection was striking in its being an odd entry into the label. It was built around plastic wrapped protecting of the CK legacy while also questioning what a populist brand as such can be in 2017. While less conceptually gestural and more buzz building, it’s a fine collection. It is neither good nor bad. It is the milky vanilla of Justin Bieber’s lower abdomen. It was such a moment of buzz that I got texts from friends asking if I had seen the show. It was a talked about affair.

But how were people talking about it? How did the fashion world react? Vogue said the show “wasn’t a home run” but “it gave some of us a well-timed jolt of hope and optimism .” Hollywood Reporter said the show “hit the reset button on the iconic brand.” Cathryn Horn of New York said “nothing was overdone or without clear intent, except perhaps some sheer clingy tops with knitted sleeves in cheerleader tones.” Robin Givhan of Washington Post resonated positively, suggesting it was “not a look back as much as it was a meditation on how this moment in time tracks with our historical understanding of what America means .” Everyone was more or less giddy about it.

The show was very wrapped up in Americana now and then and took the “immigrant’s POV” of us, to stand as a mirror to where we came from and where we’re going. This was a common theme on the runway in the past few weeks and is a brilliant, subtle stance to take. But is it really anything that exciting from an aesthetic point of view? I would say not.

This is because the real showing of this was at Raf Simons’ personal label, where nearly all the ideas presented in the Calvin Klein collection were pushed beyond suggestion. Exaggerated, knitted sleeves lanked off the body. Caution tape wrapped around waists instead of being thrown over a coat like a suggestion. “I ❤️ NY” logos melted on baggy sweaters. Drooping embroidered brooches propped themselves under pecs like ideological growths. The colors were richer, the words were bigger, the fits were looser: the ideas were generally more swollen, not to slap but to be bolder to suggest love in wartime rather simple reflections of time and space based geography.

Yes, both shows operate in sort of parallel universes—Calvin’s and Simons’ own home turfs, naturally.—but you can’t take one without the other. You could see them as alter egos or perhaps a collection of rejections, insiders and outsiders. Regardless, the two are tied by more than a single vision: so many of the same visual themes, styles, and general notions were present in both. While the Calvin collection was raved, Simons’ own work passed by quietly but perhaps was more impactful and a logical continuation of his own work.

What was missing for me in the Calvin Klein debut (the statements, the risk, the pushing against the label) was what came in Simons’ home game plays. It suggested a “What if??” feeling, the sort of work-versus-play that you dedicate to your side gig. This is why the Calvin Klein show was defanged for me because it was full of hole-y desire, of places that were filled in by Raf’s other work. This is all to say that it was very, very, very safe.

I’v said this before, I’ll say it again: Raf at Calvin is less about design and more about celebrity. Let’s not build it up beyond what it is and, really, the annotated version via his own show is much more fulfilling than the Chicken Soup For The Soul everyone raved about.

He’s subtweeting himself on the runway—and the results are much, much richer.

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