Calvin Klein, Raf Simons, and the tricky business of mass brands going high fashion

The Calvin Klein brand hired big-name fashion designer Raf Simons to build relevancy. Now he’s out.

When Calvin Klein appointed Belgian designer Raf Simons as its first chief creative officer in 2016, the move was considered “historic.”

Simons was handed the reins of the brand, a level of responsibility nobody but Calvin Klein himself had ever had. With his appointment, Simons would run the company’s many-tentacled business: intimates, denim, men and women’s runway collections, and home goods. The company’s marketing division would report to him too. It wasn’t just the breadth of his role that was notable, though; Simons, a bona fide European fashion darling who had designed for the likes of Dior, was taking over an American brand that had become best known for its logo underwear.

Calvin Klein was betting heavily on Simons. In the announcement of Simons’s appointment, the company explained it had turned to him to “further strengthen the brand’s premium positioning worldwide.” Calvin Klein wanted a stake in luxury, and believed it needed a big-name designer to get it.

Two years later, Simons and Calvin Klein are parting ways, several months before the designer’s contract is up. Per a press release, the company “decided on a new brand direction different from Simons’ creative vision.” Company sales didn’t indicate the partnership was headed for success, even if Simons did create hype for the brand. His designs failed to translate to a wide enough audience fast, and so he’s out.

 Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images
Designer Raf Simmons walks the runway for Calvin Klein Collection during New York Fashion Week on September 11, 2018.

This is not the first time a fashion house has relied on a splashy designer to bring renewed cachet and profit. But Simons’s departure from Calvin Klein shows how brands can rarely be part of the high-fashion world while still playing to the mass market.

Why Calvin Klein hired Raf Simons

Founded in 1968 by Calvin Klein, the eponymous brand found initial success in its high-end outerwear and stylish sportswear. The company’s casual-chic aesthetic helped America define its own design vernacular, one that didn’t involve copying what was trending in Paris. As part of the Big Three — the most important American designers of the time, with Ralph Lauren and Perry Ellis — Klein established the style that would come to dominate American runways for decades. His company also paved the way for people like Donna Karan, Bill Blass, and Anne Klein to establish themselves as the American fashion industry boomed.

In 1975, Calvin Klein described his clothes to Vogue as “loose, easy, and sexy” with a “mood that is always casual”; this was particularly appealing to women who felt confined by the impracticality and pricing of French fashion. Due to his influence, the designer was referred to “as the American Saint Laurent” by the then-fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue, Ellin Saltzman. Newsweek even put Klein on its cover in May 1978, calling him the country’s foremost fashion designer.

But only with the debut of a denim line in 1978 and intimates line in 1982 did Calvin Klein became a true blockbuster brand. The company marketed both with overtly sexual, sometimes controversial advertising. Brooke Shields appeared in a 1980 commercial for Calvin Klein jeans at the age of 15, seductively telling the camera, “You want to know what gets between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” The intimates line debuted with Brazilian Olympian Tom Hintnaus posing in briefs for famed photographer Bruce Weber; Calvin Klein intimates really exploded in the ’90s, after Mark Wahlberg and Kate Moss shot a racy commercial for the line.

When the company was sold to the global apparel giant PVH in late 2002 for $300 million, the New York Times called Calvin Klein “one of the world’s most recognizable brand names,” in large part due to its best-selling underwear and jeans that could be found at any department store. The Times also referred to the company as the Calvin Klein “machine” because of its expansion into mid-priced fragrances perfume, home goods, and sunglasses.

When PVH took over the company, Calvin Klein stepped away from designing duties, and the company hired Francisco Costa to lead the company’s luxury womenswear operation for 13 years. While Costa was celebrated for his simple, elegant red-carpet looks, Calvin Klein under PVH moved away from its capital-F Fashion roots and became more of a mass-market brand. Its name recognition, especially abroad, has contributed to the company’s bottom line; PVH, which also owns Tommy Hilfiger, Izod, and Geoffrey Beene, earns more than $8 billion annually, 39 percent of which comes from the Calvin Klein business.

In 2014, as part of a bid to court millennials, the company created the much-celebrated #MyCalvins Instagram campaign for its intimates line, and cast big names like Justin Bieber and Kendall Jenner. The campaign helped the company sell $69 million worth of underwear (and inspired a Saturday Night Live spoof), and the company has since tapped all sorts of influencers to post photos in Calvin Klein underwear to Instagram.

But this bid for the mass market and the ensuing bigness of the brand necessarily left it without a prestige factor — an issue competitor Ralph Lauren has contended with as well. Costa’s runway collections had long been considered a marketing expense as opposed to a means of designing clothes people would actually buy. So in order to elevate its brand identity, Calvin Klein sought out Simons. In addition to running his namesake label since 1995, he spent seven years as the creative director of Jil Sander and three and a half years at Dior. Simons was also well received in the art and music world, and was even considered a muse to Kanye West.

By hiring a celebrated fashion talent, the brand hoped for a halo effect. Calvin Klein also believed Simons’s cachet would translate to sales, declaring that he would help PVH’s revenue jump to $10 billion. It wasn’t a bad idea — relying on a sole creative force, particularly one so beloved, has helped plenty of brands refresh themselves. Most recently, Gucci was given a modern makeover by creative director Alessandro Michele, who has turned it into luxury’s fastest-growing brand. Céline thrived under Phoebe Philo’s singular vision.

 Calvin Klein/Facebook
Looks from Raf Simons’s Calvin Klein Fall 2018 collection.

Simons spent the past two years trying to spice things up at Calvin Klein with a heady rebranding. He unveiled a new logo, pumped millions into an artsy redesign of some of its biggest stores, and changed the name of its runway line from Calvin Klein Collection to 205W39NYC. In an ode to its American roots, Simons added Western flair to Calvin Klein denim and created cheeky pieces like Jaws T-shirts. While he continued to cast celebrities for the company’s underwear ads, tapping the cast of Moonlight and the Kardashian family for campaigns, he also opted for a more artistic approach to marketing, literally putting modern art and artists in ads.

What went wrong at the brand

From the outside, Simons seemed to be keeping up his end of the deal. During his time at Calvin Klein, he earned several awards from the Council of Fashion Designers of America, the most prestigious awards that exist for American brands. His runway clothes were celebrated for “raising the bar” and appearing “sharp and relevant.”

But exciting fashion insiders and selling to a large, mainstream audience are two very different things. Shoppers didn’t flock to Simons’s collections the way PVH had anticipated. According to Business of Fashion, the 205 collection sold so poorly in department stores and boutiques that hundreds dropped the line. In an earnings call with investors in November, PVH CEO Emanuel Chirico called sales “disappointing.” He blamed the designs for being “too fashion-forward for our core consumer.”

“While many of the product categories performed well, we are disappointed by the lack of return on our investments in our Calvin Klein 205W39NYC halo business and believe that some of the Calvin Klein Jeans relaunched product was too elevated and did not sell through as well as we planned,” he told investors.

Chirico said Calvin Klein would start pivoting to a “more commercial product and marketing experience,” the exact opposite of what Simons was hired to do.

A Catch-22 for fashion

In the earnings call, PVH said it had invested as much as $70 million into the Calvin Klein rebrand under Simons, with much of that money going to the 205 collection. The brand reported earnings of $121 million that quarter, down from $142 million the previous year, because of “an increase in creative and marketing expenditures.”

 Calvin Klein
Underwear from Raf Simons’s Calvin Klein collab with the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
 Calvin Klein
A bra from Raf Simons’s Calvin Klein collab with the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.

Simons’s departure from Calvin Klein represents a constant tension within the fashion industry: wanting to offer fashion-forward merchandise while also selling to a large customer base. Simons spent millions on fancy fashion shows and licensing for famous art to hype his clothes. This was the type of directive he was given when he was hired: to increase the relevancy of Calvin Klein in the fashion world, which meant focusing efforts on his runway collection. But those clothes aren’t what pay the bills; workaday items like jeans and underwear are.

Perhaps Simons eventually could have figured out a mass-market artistic vision that would work for the company, but PVH was not interesting in giving him the time or space to do so. Fashion now moves at an unprecedented rate; the trend cycle is mind-bogglingly fast-paced, investors are demanding, and customer attention is fleeting. Impatient brands constantly opt to toss one name for another, and this game of designer musical chairs has talent proclaiming they are burned out. It’s a rather sad ending for Simons, who left Dior expressly because of fashion’s punishing schedule and the lack of “incubation time for ideas.”

Simons’s departure comes with the brand’s announcement that it will not show during New York Fashion Week in February. This likely isn’t seen as a loss by the brand, which seems to have traded any ambition of fashion prestige in favor of large-scale sales.