A Postmortem of Calvin Klein 205W39NYC

Cover photo: GQ

It’s no longer news that Raf Simons has been released 8 months early from his contract with Calvin Klein as the label’s first Chief Creative Officer. Needless to say, this was as big of an upset in the fashion community as was his initial hiring. The designer has been a huge influence to the industry since he began his namesake label in 1995. I think it’s worth examining this issue and noting how Simons changed the landscape of menswear during his short stint with the company.

Calvin Klein, Inc., owned by holding company PVH, has built a healthy brand as one of the Big Three–including Ralph Lauren and Perry Ellis–which epitomized the state of American menswear for decades. Not many people understand this but the label is actually divided into several different lines. Pre-Simons, the luxury line that was shown on the catwalk was called Calvin Klein Collection. I used to own a suit from them and can attest that they made excellent-quality clothing, but they weren’t particularly fashion forward, leaning more toward minimalist luxury. From the top tier, there were many lower quality diffusion lines but the main two pertaining to menswear were the mainline Calvin Klein (aka Calvin Klein White Label) and Calvin Klein Jeans.

Calvin Klein Collection, 2015: Essential Homme

In the decades since the Big Three dominated menswear, the fashion industry has largely moved away from the styles that were once popular. Knowing this and wanting to make the brand more relevant once again, PVH decided that they would invest in revamping the CK product lines. It would be a gamble, but the company was largely healthy and they wisely chose a designer who has his pulse on the beating heart of the industry: Raf Simons. The original contract between the designer and Calvin Klein stated a time period of at least 2 years.

It seemed outlandish at the time given the polar opposite design mentalities, but Simons was capable and knew what he was doing. The top-tier luxury label was subsequently renamed 205W39NYC as a nod to the address of their flagship location. By many measures, the man’s designs and shows were a rousing success. Designs trickled down to the diffusion lines and even lead to the creation of a new one by the name of Calvin Klein Jeans Est. 1978, an off-shoot of the standard CK Jeans line more directly influenced and designed by Simons.

Unfortunately, the honeymoon period was short and the union between these two giants ended. Such news revealed many underlying issues that beleaguered the partnership which were only quietly spoken of in small circles before the split. To be sure, the parting of ways was amicable, but much of the blame seems to lie at CK’s feet. Other publications have thoroughly analyzed exactly what went wrong, but the long and short of it was that the company wasn’t properly prepared to switch to a designer-focused business model, especially one that was so completely different. Early issues also weren’t addressed in a timely manner.

What’s done is done, and all we can do is move forward with lessons learned, hoping not to repeat mistakes. Raf Simons will go back to focusing on his own label, and word on the street is that Calvin Klein wants to find a new designer to fill Simons’ vacancy and rename the luxury line he created. Though we wish we could change history, we can only live with it, and looking back, though short-lived this partnership was monumental in influencing the fashion conversation. Many of the following designs may stay with us for another generation or more. Others stood out so much that they will always be remembered as a highlight of inspiration.

Re-emergence of Western Wear

There are many forms a trend can take when it develops. While some never truly go away, ebbing and flowing over time, some are new interpretations of those from former years. This one is a little of both as Western wear represents a permanent part of the collective American culture, and the clothing was already starting to come back into popularity prior to Simons as I’ve noted before. He continued to use Western influences in all his collections and showed us how we can mix the once-gauche style–double-pocket shirts, leather pants, cowboy boots–into our modern wardrobes to make outfits more of-the-moment.

Further Interpretation of Workwear

Similar to Western wear, it should surprise no one that America has a preponderance for workwear. However, what makes this style different is that until the past 5 years or so workwear, both blue-collar and white-, was predominantly worn only when working. As the fashion industry was distracted with streetwear, hi-vis clothing started making waves as well. Simons felt it was the perfect opportunity to introduce firefighter clothing to his collection. Laminated and leather trenches were also thrown into the mix, to great effect. The results were surprisingly versatile, able to be worn with T-shirts, knitwear, and trousers alike.

Turtlenecks and Mocknecks

To say that the once-maligned turtlenecks and mocknecks have undergone a resurgence in popularity would be a massive understatement. Simons capitalized on the love-hate relationship we have with these items by throwing them into most of his collections, being predominantly used as a base layer. While he didn’t create this trend, he certainly fueled its popularity while exemplifying its usefulness in keeping warm and looking stylish. Again, the designer showed us that even ugly things can be beautiful in the proper context.

Nonstandard Pairings

Contrast is the name of the game in fashion, particularly in the modern cycle. It makes sense too that designers would purposefully put looks together that clash so each individual piece will stand out. However, Simons always displayed a certain panache with disparate articles of clothing that seemed simultaneously flamboyant and wearable even in mixed company. Whether it was pairing conservative suits with wacky knitwear, mismatching brightly colored tops and bottoms, or layering an oversized wool coat over a scoop neck tank top, 205W39NYC’s looks always kept us on our toes while giving us fresh ideas.

Balaclavas

Winter can be harsh in New York. People will go to great lengths in order to stay warm. The unfortunate side effect of those efforts is that people can end up looking terrible once they are all bundled up in mismatched cold weather gear. So it makes sense that in 2017, designers began creating accessories that would ensure a buyer doesn’t have to choose between keeping the chill at bay and looking stylish. Simons was one of those who jumped at this opportunity, making something so ostentatious, it’s begging to be worn whenever the mercury drops.

Side-Striped Trousers

When athleisure officially became a word and a style of clothing that will never disappear, so too did track pants, complete with side stripes, become common to wear even when not in the gym. Simons’ style of clothing has always hued toward the casual side of spectrum, but the polyblend, formless style was almost too casual–dare I say “usual”–for 205W39NYC. Thus, the designer came up with a style of pant I can say I had never seen before, at least not on the catwalk. He pasted the popular side stripes to proper dress pants to create an altogether new look. Though this was new for the fashion industry, it’s likely he was inspired by trousers from service uniforms, which would be well in line with his Americanized perspective.

Patchwork Shirts and Quilting

It took a lot of going back through pictures to even realize these were even there because of how unobtrusive they are at first. All of the patchwork shirts are made from neutral white as a base and just seem to go with whatever they’re layered over. The men’s quilted linings were an interesting way to keep warm while making a statement. As the world deals with sustainability issues in the fashion industry, Simons wisely introduced these as a way to bring awareness to the issue while simultaneously utilizing the same styling that is the core premise for popular labels such as Bode.

A Future That Will Never Be

Simons only was able to show four main visions on the runway and alas, his last one will likely never be seen in real life. That is, unless Calvin Klein has already seen so many orders for spring 2019 that halting production would be more costly than following through on selling the merchandise. That would be unfortunate because the designer’s final collection went all in on scuba diving influences, neoprene, animal prints, Jaws tee shirts, tassels, and…graduation caps. Bizarre? Yes. But intriguing? Definitely.

No one can deny Raf Simons’ creativity and talent, and his project with Calvin Klein will always be a high point on his already sizable resume. It showed the Frenchman’s skill at examining American culture. With a fresh, new perspective, he perfectly distilled and remixed those shared values and traits distinct to our country. Though 205W39NYC was cut short, its impact will be felt for a long time as the styles essentially live in each of us.

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