text by Adam Lehrer
Now that Calvin Klein has finally announced that Raf Simons will be taking over the brand as its designer, a bitter sweet sentiment has swept throughout the fashion industry. Last year, when Cathy Horyn sat down with Raf for what amounted to his Dior exit interview, published by System Magazine, one couldn’t be faulted for thinking that Raf seemed totally done with luxury fashion houses. This was an artist struggling with the fact that he no longer had the time to find inspiration to create. Deadlines had worn him down, and it was time for him to re-focus on his own revolutionary label. The fact that Raf’s last two collections, one inspired by his heroes such as David Lynch, Martin Margiela and Cindy Sherman, and one a beautiful collaboration with the Robert Mapplethorpe archive, were his best menswear collections since collaborating with Sterling Ruby seemed to signal that Raf was back in his element, filtering counter-culture, art, music, and radical gender politics into his clothing.
So, on one hand, it might seem a little hypocritical that Raf is already back at a luxury label, and one that to fashion snobs would seem like a (rather large) down grade in prestige from his previous job at Dior. But try to think of it on a conceptual level. When you think of prime era Calvin Klein, what do you think of? Grunge, heroin-chic, Steven Klein. If I had to put my money on it, I would guess that Raf was attracted to the idea of Calvin Klein’s brand identity, and the significant stamp that his alternative tastes could have on it. Though CK is not a cult label by any means, it did at one time conjure up a concept more rebellious than that of other American mega brands like Ralph Lauren. For some reason, that idea has been lost. I can’t say it’s the brand’s previous designers faults; Francisco Costa (womenswear) and Italo Zuchelli (menswear) both made some beautiful and minimally chic garments during their tenure at the label. But the label’s branding felt out of sync, and this caused its desirability to wane. When we buy into labels that expensive, we aren’t solely buying into the clothes. We are buying into what the brand stands for. Calvin Klein already started rectifying this with its London-based self-taught photographer Harley Weir-shot My Calvin’s campaign that feature portraits of Kendall Jenner, Young Thug, Abbey Lee, and even fucking Frank Ocean. Now with Raf designing the clothes, it won’t be too long until Calvin Klein is cool once again. My assumption is that Calvin Klein offered Raf a contract with stipulations stating that his work load will be significantly less than it was with Dior (his longtime right hand man, Pieter Mulier, is also coming on as creative director, which means Raf might not have to directly involve himself in every garment decision), and also that he will be able to fully oversee the creative direction of the branding. Raf is unquestionably a fantastic curator, and it is extremely exciting to think of the music and art elements he will be able to bring into Calvin Klein with its gargantuan ad budget.
But what of those music references? Will Cavin Klein suddenly be associated with minimal techno, noise rock, krautrock, and new wave? Undeniably, Raf Simons will be bringing those elements to the label that he now calls his employer. And can I just add this: RAF SIMONS IS COMING TO MOTHERFUCKING NEW YORK! How could anyone question that? Our city has been lacking any big name avant fashion designers for a very long time, but no longer.
RAF’s EARLY MUSICAL INFLUENCES
Around the time of his AW ’14 collection, designed with friend Sterling Ruby, Raf was asked about the collection’s use of patches. It was simple, as a kid he patched his jackets up with his favorite band logos. Among them: Sonic Youth, Black Flag, and Pink Floyd.
THE SMASHING PUMPKINS
Interestingly enough, Raf’s first major music reference was The Smashing Pumpkins in his AW ’97 collection that featured the band’s track ‘Tonight, Tonight’ as its soundtrack. That might seem weird, considering Raf’s rather alternative tastes, but less we forget in 1997 The Smashing Pumpkins were still a rockin’ band and hadn’t yet released a litany of terrible records, or Billy Corgan’s nauseating poetry book, for that matter. But the band’s mixture of stadium bombast and art-y punk structures make sense when considering Raf’s work, a man who has designed avant-garde menswear collections at the same time as Dior couture.
With its AW '98 collection, the Raf Simons brand identity really started to gel. Raf found inspiration in the Emil Schult-designed cover of Kraftwerk’s 1978 album 'Man Machine,' and even used the group’s much-aged four members as models. Raf took the skinny black ties and red shirts look and re-imagined it for the runway. Raf was really the first fashion person to acknowledge that creative fashion people and artists find much more fashion inspiration from the pop culture they love than from the fashion they see on a runway, and basically created a whole new genre of fashion in the process. Brands as varied as Hood by Air, Vetements, Nasir Mazhar, and others wouldn’t exist without his realization of the intimacies of the fashion-pop connection.
Gabba was rather exuberant sub-genre of Hardcore Techno that was coming out of The Netherlands and Raf’s home of Belgium in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. In his SS ’00 collection, SUMMA CUM LAUDE, Raf celebrated brilliant young kids that studied during the days and partied their faces off in raves at night. It was his first collection that really served as a re-creation of an “of the moment” sub-culture, as opposed to digging into references from the past. He sourced the military surplus MA-1 jackets that gabba kids were wearing and applied his own Raf Simons patches to them, pairing the jackets with nice shoes and high-waisted trousers. This is such a standard "cool guy" look now, and it wouldn’t even be commonplace were it not for Raf’s affinity for the kids of gabba.
Bowie is quite evidently immensely important to Raf. Raf seems to not only be a fanatic of Bowie’s music (which he certainly is), but drawn to the man’s ability to both come off as a man who subverted gender expectations while simultaneously being emblematic of the alpha-male trope. Raf Simons is a label for those men who exist AND thrive on the outside, weirdos who refuse to be put down, and men who are in-your-face about their oddities. This all makes David Bowie something like the perfect Raf Simons man, and Raf used his music in the SS ’99 Raf Simons show, as well as the SS ’17 Dior show.
MANIC STREET PREACHERS
It’s nigh-impossible for me to answer the question, “What is your favorite rock band?” That being said, the iconic Welsh glam-grunge rockers of Manic Street Preachers are always at the tip of my tongue when that question arises. They encapsulate everything great about rock music: melodies, guitars, bombast, hooks, drugs, sex, swagger, fashion, art and poetry. Raf Simons is partially responsible for cementing the group as an art world favorite. He centered his AW ’01 ’RIOT RIOT RIOT’ collection around the still unsolved mystery surrounding the disappearance of the Preachers’ lyricist and rhythm guitarist, Richey Edwards. When Edwards joined the Preachers, he was rather inept musically, but his poetry, wild and erratic drug-fueled persona, and gender-bending aesthetic elevated the Preachers to a level of scrutiny higher than that of their Brit-pop peers and into the upper echelons of rock folklore. Raf included photos of the late Edwards on bomber jackets as well as making use of the newspaper headlines published about Edwards’ disappearance.
JOY DIVISION and NEW ORDER
From 2002 to 2003, Raf re-discovered his love of both Joy Division and New Order as well as the iconic graphic artist responsible for both bands’ covers, Peter Saville. In his AW ’03 collection, Raf held access to Saville’s entire archive, and the parkas emblazoned with the covers of New Order’s ‘Powers, Corruptions and Lies’ and Joy Division’s ‘Unknown Pleasures’ still fetch upwards of $15,000 on consignment e-commerce sites like Grailed. Raf arguably re-sparked the interest in Joy Division and New Order with these collections, and is arguably responsible for every 19-year-old NYU student that walks out of Urban Outfitters wearing a Joy Division t-shirt that doesn’t even recognize the opening drone of ‘Atrocity Exhibition.’ But that’s the thing with the great revolutionaries: from Che Guevara to Raf Simons, their ideas always get sold.
In what amounted to a great return-to-form, Raf's stunning FW ’16 collection came chalk full of references, from 1980s teen horror films to Cindy Sherman to Margiela to, most prominently, David Lynch. The surrealist director was paid homage through the show’s soundtrack, that featured Lynch collaborator and composer Angelo Badalamenti discussing co-composing Laura Palmer’s theme music from ‘Twin Peaks’ with Lynch, “Angelo, THAT’s IT! OH, ANGELO, YOU’RE TEARING MY HEART OUT,’ we hear Angelo quote Lynch with saying. The show was incredible, fully encapsulating Raf’s ability to turn the spectacle of men walking down a runway in extreme clothes to the tune of powerful music into a grandiose statement of artistry.
What separates Raf from other designers, is that he really keeps his finger to the pulse of culture. He’s not like Hedi Slimane and his permanent fascinations with ‘70s rock n’ roll or Gosha Rubchinskiy and his renderings of a post-Soviet 1990s. Raf finds himself fascinated with new art and new music constantly, and is always looking for ways to bring it into his own curatorial sphere. In recent interviews, he has cited appreciation for the music of art rock Londoners These New Puritans, Detroit house production icon Richie Hawtin, and even music as abrasive as that of modern techno producer and Perc Trax label head Perc. This is what I find most fascinating about Simons’ entry into Calvin Klein. At Dior, he would have never been able to incorporate those influences into Dior’s branding, but at Calvin Klein and its openness towards counter-culture, he might just be able to.