This December, Raf Simons announced that he would be leaving Calvin Klein nine months before his contract ends after fewer than two years. Calvin Klein’s press release stated, “Both parties have amicably decided to part ways after Calvin Klein Inc. decided on a new brand direction which differs from Simon’s creative vision.” And just like that, what started as a lovefest burned out. Now, the brand has no show this February, and many are left thinking that American brands can’t be re-invented with the European luxury model. But mostly this tale is one of wasted efforts and an inability to find a shared vision.
When Calvin Klein brought Simons, it was clear they had hoped to find the commercial success Gucci had found in Alessandro Michele. Where Ralph Lauren has stagnated without creative innovation, PVH (Calvin Klein’s parent company) believed that the high-fashion eye of Simons could revitalize the brand. But Michele had been brought up through the company, Simons, on the other hand, was new to Calvin Klein and new to a multi-billion-dollar, multi-tiered company whose life blood is mass marketing.
The first advertising campaign was arty and bloodless; it looked nothing like the sexualized, minimalism one thinks of Calvin Klein. But the clothes had punch, and the campaign received mixed reviews. Simons even received multiple awards from the council of Fashion Designers of America. Yet, the sales didn’t take off. In part because of over-distribution, but according to sources at Calvin Klein, the main reason was PVH was not prepared to produce high-apparel and accessories. The collection hit stores late and the fit was off, which lead to a high return rate.
But things stayed good between PVH and Simons until February. At first, Calvin Klein’s revenue in the three months ending in early February jumped 23% and earnings rose around $10-million, but PVH brought in Marie Gulin-Merle from L’Oréal to control marketing and other teams. This frustrated Simons, especially after he fought for more control after his stint at Dior. Meanwhile, PVH was getting increasingly frustrated by the amount of money being sunk into Simons’ collections. But as late as May, PVH’s CEO Emanuel Chirico told investors, “We couldn’t be happier with Raf’s contributions to the brand.”
However, in September, a runway concept that required Simons to show off-site was scrapped because of budget constraints. Sources also stated to Business of Fashion that PVH was concerned with the extensive partnership Simons sought out with the Andy Warhol Foundation—they feared it too arty and high-brow for a mass audience. Gulin-Merle also shifted the brand’s entire advertising budget to digital and away from high-concept, glossy magazines. Simons had been pushed out of the work he had originally been brought on to do.
At the end of the day, there was an inability to share a vision between the two. Simons is beyond capable of creating beautiful, high-concept clothes, and there were some incredible pieces from his tenure at Calvin Klein. His shows for the brand were thought-provoking explorations in American culture and nightmares, but it ended up as a missed opportunity to reinterpret the minimalism Calvin Klein has always been based in.
While America has lost one of the best European designers of all history, Simons does seem ready to move on. In October, he told the New York Times, “I keep thinking of things I would like to do that are not fashion. Making movies, making art—the practice of making something. In fashion, the actual practice of being a designer has changed so much.” Whether Calvin Klein will attempt a creative overhaul again seems unlikely at this moment but not impossible, but it is certain that there will be a Raf-Simons-sized hole in New York Fashion Week.
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Raf Simons Leaves Calvin Klein; Image Credits: @calvinklein on Instagram