Sometimes it takes an outsider’s perspective to see things with more clarity, and fresh eyes to cast off cynicism. That’s exactly what Raf Simons did at Calvin Klein when he incorporated UC Berkeley logos into his latest collection.
Raf Simons is one of the most boundary-pushing and influential creatives working today. Originally trained as an industrial designer, Simons started his own fashion label in 1995. He was named creative director of Jil Sander in 2005, and in 2012 replaced John Galliano as creative director of Dior — Simons’ debut collection for Dior was one of the best-reviewed in recent history and documented in the film “Dior and I.” Simons exited the house in 2015, and in 2016 was announced as chief creative officer at Calvin Klein.
Menswear typically stays on the safe side, but Simons references rebellious youth culture, underground music and modern art in his work. Explaining his vision, Simons said, “My brand has never stood for a classic wardrobe, which is what most men’s brands represent. … For more than 20 years, I try. I wish it was where women’s fashion is.’’
Simons counts Helmut Lang and fellow Belgian designer Martin Margiela as two of his biggest influences, and has collaborated with Peter Saville (you know him from that one Joy Division album cover) and Robert Mapplethorpe’s estate. He’s partially responsible for the 2014 Stan Smith resurgence, and Rihanna and Kanye West have been seen wearing vintage pieces from his early collections.
Equally likely to reference your favorite ‘80s movie in a runway show as he is to collaborate on a furniture collection with a Danish textile company, Simons brought a restrained simplicity to Dior and elevated sportswear basics at Fred Perry. He’s a designer well-versed in converging high and low culture to create objects that are at once beautiful and provocative.
Who better to confront America’s paradoxical extremes at Calvin Klein? “This is Not America,” David Bowie’s theme song for “The Falcon and the Snowman,” opened and closed Simons’ debut show for the iconic fashion brand. It set the tone of the show: an immigrant’s hopeful dreams of a new country tempered by a political reality.
“My whole existence had a very specific foundation in Europe,” explained Simons when asked by GQ about his approach to American fashion. His work with Calvin Klein is Americana through a foreigner’s lens: steel-toed cowboy boots with marching band trousers, plastic over luxury feathers and an American flag dress under a gray overcoat. These are symbols that are known and recognized, decontextualized to represent a whole new experience.
Simons continues to defamiliarize American tradition with his latest resort collection for CALVIN KLEIN 205W39NYC. The setting is none other than the college campus: a staple of American mythology where generations of teenagers are baptized into adulthood.
Prep isn’t new for Simons, whose first post-Dior runway show was an homage to “Twin Peaks.” Youth culture has been a cornerstone of Simons’ designs, and the distressed varsity jackets and moth-eaten sweaters in his “Nightmares and Dreams” show were indicative of a decaying and increasingly obsolete American fantasy.
The son of a soldier and a cleaner, Simons has an acute awareness of class in fashion. “I’ve been thinking also about the bourgeoisie of fashion — and the new youth of fashion, who has no interest whatsoever in the bourgeoisie of fashion. … It’s also about the relationship between things which are the highest and the lowest,” explained Simons in the same GQ interview.
Yale and UC Berkeley merchandise features prominently in this new collection. Compare the cost of four years of undergraduate tuition at Yale, an estimated $213,720, to four years of in-state tuition at UC Berkeley, an estimated $56,272. It’s an intentional juxtaposition of private and public, East Coast and West Coast, exclusive and inclusive.
The identical color palettes that the college symbols share aren’t a coincidence. UC Berkeley’s blue was chosen partially as an homage to Yale, the alma mater of many of the university’s founders and early administrators. Simons uses Yale and UC Berkeley as interchangeable visual motifs, and through this, makes the argument that these schools aren’t all that different.
It’s a cautiously optimistic worldview that has become a staple of Simons’ time at Calvin Klein. Simons doesn’t pretend that class doesn’t exist — he simply believes that it matters less than the underlying ideology of self-improvement. After all, this is still a love letter to the American dream, in which an education is an education and an opportunity is an opportunity, regardless of how expensive it was.