Raf Simons' survivalist chic

The Calvin Klein collection (above) by Raf Simons at New York Fashion Week.
The Calvin Klein collection (above) by Raf Simons at New York Fashion Week.PHOTO: NYTIMES

Calvin Klein's chief creative officer Raf Simons aims to redesign the American identity with his new collection

NEW YORK • It is a tough gig to be crowned the saviour of American fashion. Excessive expectations and all that. Most designers would quail at the thought.

Raf Simons, however, is not one of those people.

He has not only accepted the mantle, but he has also tossed it over his shoulders and added a stringy Sterling Ruby-inspired fringe.

In his debut dual-gender collection for Calvin Klein in February, Simons, the new chief creative officer, announced that his show represented "the coming together of different characters and different individuals, just like America itself".

It was a big claim, but last Thursday, for his sophomore effort, he took it a step further.

"It's about American horror and American beauty," he said in his show notes; the dream turned nightmare.

The Calvin Klein collection (above) by Raf Simons at New York Fashion Week.
The Calvin Klein collection (above) by Raf Simons at New York Fashion Week. PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA

The immediate interpretation of that one is easy - let no one say Simons, who is Belgian, shies away from current events - though the designer chose to approach his subject at a more oblique angle, through the American fantasy factory that is Hollywood.

He is attempting no less than a redesign of American identity.

His America is an America of the mind, rooted in the Midwestern prairies and resonating coast to coast by way of Stephen King, Sissy Spacek, Kim Novak and Twin Peaks, with stereotypes - cowboys, cheerleaders, lumberjacks - just twisted enough so the references teeter on the tightrope between mythology and cliche.

An installation by Ruby, the artist who is Simons' quasi-muse, of brightly coloured yarn pompoms, dangling axes redolent of The Shining, tin buckets and swathes of fringed silk, dangled over the heads of stars Trevor Noah, Mahershala Ali, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paris Jackson, Kate Bosworth and Brooke Shields.

And out came two-tone satin cowboy shirts with contrasting satin trousers or pencil skirts, branded patchwork quilts, jeans and jean jackets with paint rolled over thick on one side.

Also, virginal cotton nighties splashed with black-and-white prints from Andy Warhol's Death And Disaster series, and a riot of slightly queasy-making colour in knit vests and contrasting trousers and silver-tipped cowboy boots.

Mid-century silhouettes - the full skirts and tiny waists that have been part of Simons' design vocabulary since his stints at Jil Sander and Dior - rendered in camper-tent nylons were also used for oily shirts under men's tailoring, gathered and puckered with rucksack strings.

Matching tops and pencil skirts were made in rubber and given an industrial Ohio factory stamp, and party dresses trapped white lace flowers under transparent vinyl or silk under a scrim of black net. There was a woman-as-mop evening moment, which looked better than it sounds.

In taking survivalist materials and elevating them to elegance, Simons is developing a sartorial vocabulary that is both original and weirdly well suited to the story of the times.

You may not want to wear it all.

But in his black mirror, a lot of it is going to look unexpectedly right.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 11, 2017, with the headline 'Raf Simons' survivalist chic'. Print Edition | Subscribe