Thursday, January 31, 2019

An American Tale

By its nature, reinvention is a tricky undertaking. What should one hold on to? What should one discard? And when one finally reaches the bare bones of the thing in what way and in which direction should one begin to rebuild? This concept and these questions often confront us as a year draws to a close.

Calvin Klein will need more than a handful of resolutions to pull itself out of the quagmire in which it currently sits. The brand, barely into a major rebuilding project, now finds itself rudderless. Only two years after arriving, Raf Simons made his exit. There will be no collection shown at New York Fashion Week next month, and while there have been a few steps made to roll back Simons' changes, there is no real understanding of what will happen next.

In the decade since the global economic upheaval caused by the Great Recession, the fashion industry has dealt with a fair share of turmoil. Current day disasters aside, the economy as a whole has recovered. And yet uncertainty touches every corner of the industry. There is a skittishness that didn't exist prior to 2008. Many major brands find it hard to hold onto a creative director. Lanvin has had four in as many years following the falling out between Alber Elbaz and the brand's owners. Carven has found itself in a similar situation since Guillaume Henry departed for Nina Ricci in 2014. There are too many of these stories happening at too fast a rate for a full accounting of each one to emerge.

But the breaking of Simons and Klein feels bigger.

The timing of the announcement was the first sign that this rupture was different from the many others we've seen in the past decade. In a previous age, the holiday news dump was often left to celebrity divorce announcements. In this age, the dumping is continuous and the news being dumped is of a more cataclysmic sort. When this news dropped on the Friday before Christmas, there was something of the old about the entire affair. In a way it felt comforting. But then one remembered why these dumps happen. They occur to hide and distract. The dumper hopes that when people return from family dinners and presents and skiing or sunning that they will have moved on. That they won't feel the need to dig beneath the surface of the announcement.

When Simon’s appointment was announced in August of 2016, there was a frisson of excitement. His eponymous menswear line has a cult-like following. His years at Jil Sander were almost universally lauded. His short tenure at Christian Dior in the wake of the brand’s John Galliano disaster was more divisive, but he still had the respect and admiration of many in the industry. At Calvin Klein he was to be Chief Creative Officer in charge of every piece of the brand from the stark white underwear to the denim to the runway. It was the kind of power that now only comes when one is working under one’s own name. (And sometimes, depending on whom you've sold off stakes of your company to, not even then.) It was obvious that this meant a change, a real change, at Calvin Klein. You don’t choose to give a darling of the industry all of that power otherwise.

The total overhaul has become de rigeur this decade. Hedi Slimane landed at Yves Saint Laurent after the somewhat unceremonious sacking of Stefano Pilati and instantly discarded the “Yves.” Three creative directors, the aforementioned Elbaz, Tom Ford, and Pilati had controlled the reins after the man himself stepped aside, and while each had presented his own particular vision for the house of Saint Laurent none had touched the name. For some, Slimane had gone too far before he had even begun. There were rules. There was respect to be paid and history to be honored. You could strip a brand back to its bones but to pull out the foundation was unimaginable.

But it worked. Monetarily at least. It worked and worked and worked until one of those inevitable breaking aparts that now plague the industry happened. Three years seems to be the longest any one brand can hold onto any one person. Three years seems to be the longest any one person can bear to stay in place.

Bringing something back from the dead, or the nearly dead, is a different beast. Christopher Bailey lifting the Burberry plaid out of the gutter it fell into after an indiscriminate distribution of licenses is one thing. Marc Jacobs launching ready-to-wear at Louis Vuitton is another. Shaking things up is expected. A major recalibration is what's needed. There have been other examples of this kind of work in recent years, the rebirth of Schiaparelli for example, but that is not what was occurring at Yves Saint Laurent or the now defunct Calvin Klein of Simons. This is not what is occurring at Riccardo Tisci's Burberry. There was no dormant period. There was history. Recent history. Uninterrupted history stretching back decades in some cases. There was occasionally economic stagnation as well, but does that call for a complete dismantling?

It feels important to note that in the three cases mentioned above the people in charge were or are men. It’s a small sample size and in no way statistically significant, but when one looks at the work of the women in similarly lofty positions, one can’t help but begin to draw some conclusions about the why of matters. Maria Grazia Chiuri, who joined Christian Dior after Simons’ departure, Claire Waight Keller, who began to helm Givenchy after they and Tisci parted ways, and Laura Kim, who, along with her co-creative director Fernando Garcia, oversees things at Oscar de la Renta, are mining the histories of their houses.

Oscar de la Renta often posts a #tbt video from one of the house’s past runway shows on social media and then goes on to explain the ways in which the featured themes have been referenced in the present day. From the start, one could see the silhouettes of Hubert de Givenchy's mid-20th century work throughout the clothing presented by Waight Keller. While it's not as apparent in the ready-to-wear collection, the haute couture at Christian Dior always has with it a sense of the house's history. Each of these women is presenting her own vision but one can see the through line. They honor the past without feeling stale. They move things forward thoughtfully and with purpose.

“We started by offering just items that the house didn’t have before like suiting, denim or evening tops, and softer goods like chiffon dresses,” Mr. Garcia said. “And we’ve been doing it little by little so we don’t alienate the very loyal customer that the brand has.”

“Women are changing the way they dress now,” Ms. Kim said. “ I think we’re just updating [the Oscar de la Renta customer’s] wardrobe.”

One could retort that what works for one might not work for another. Maybe what one brand needs is a reappraisal of its storied past. Maybe what another needs is to forget all that came before.

Or maybe what some of these men feel the need to do is stamp their influence on something so boldly that no one will ever forget that it was they who were the creators. Even when the umbrella under which they are creating does not bear their names.

What it means to be an American generally, and an American brand specifically, is wide-reaching and often in flux. But even within that expanse, one cannot deny the fact that Calvin Klein as a brand is an icon in that regard. What was discarded in the building up of CALVIN KLEIN 205W39NYC, as Simons renamed it, was that stabilizing center. The runway looks produced by him included references to Americana, movies and collegiate culture and Warhol, but it all felt removed and overly cerebral. Not that the Klein of old was dumbed down. Not that at all. Its brand of Americanness was an uncomplicated, classic, sexy sort. It was about line and silhouette and less about imagery.

I quote James Baldwin often in scenarios where one might not normally reach for him. But when it comes to words written about the American condition and the American mind, its beauty and its underbelly and its beating heart, there are few who are better.

America, of all the Western nations, has been best placed to prove the uselessness and the obsolescence of the concept of color. But it has not dared to accept this opportunity, or even to conceive of it as an opportunity. White Americans have thought of it as their shame, and have envied those more civilized and elegant European nations that were untroubled by the presence of black men on their shores. This is because white Americans have supposed "Europe" and "civilization" to be synonyms—which they are not—and have been distrustful of other standards and other sources of vitality, especially those produced in America itself, and have attempted to behave in all matters as though what was east for Europe was also east for them.

Ready-to-wear is, and has been for decades, a global business. Three of the past four designers at Givenchy, a French house, have been British. The outlier, Tisci, is Italian. The previous designer of Calvin Klein, Francisco Costa, was Brazilian. Carrying on the legacy of a brand does not require that one have lived one's entire life among the culture with which it shares a history. But there is something about the white American obsession with the Old World as mentioned here by Baldwin in The Fire Next Time, with its assumed ingenuity and beauty, that can lead to the washing away of a core essence with roots in a different place. While Ralph Lauren sent him models down the runway to the sounds of the Downton Abbey theme for Fall/Winter 2012 and Dapper Dan has been heartily embraced by the type of brand that once sued him, the former's lush preppiness and the latter's irreverent look at luxury are both American down to their marrows.

Was the assumed superiority of European luxury what was running through the minds of the executives at Calvin Klein's parent company? Probably not consciously. They were most likely hoping to emulate the monetary success of Slimane's Saint Laurent and Alessandro Michele's Gucci by scooping up an available European prodigy of their very own. And as has now become the custom, they discarded him and anything that he had created when it didn't immediately work in their favor.

I wanted desperately to like the Calvin Klein of Simons. When he presented his final collection for Jil Sander, I thought here is a talent. For awhile I was able to twist my thoughts in such a way that I liked, or even loved, those CALVIN KLEIN 205W39NYC runway collections. But I couldn't forget the Calvin Klein that had been, and oddly enough it was Simons himself who wouldn't allow me to let that image go. During his short tenure, he launched Calvin Klein by Appointment, a made-to-measure offshoot that was most often seen on celebrities at major events. Many of those looks instantly transported me to the house's cleaner, simpler past.

That could have been enough if I had let it be. But the dresses seen on magazine covers and the looks that littered ad campaigns and came down the runway were something else altogether and reminded that this Calvin Klein was not that Calvin Klein and maybe it wasn't Calvin Klein at all. Not really.