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Raf Simons and Calvin Klein: Behind the Breakup

The designer is exiting Calvin Klein less than two years after his debut. Last month, PVH chief Emanuel Chirico criticised the brand’s uneven financial performance and high-fashion skew.
Raf Simmons | Source: Slaven Vlasic/Getty Images
  • Chantal Fernandez

NEW YORK, United States — Raf Simons is exiting Calvin Klein less than two years after his debut as its first chief creative officer and eight months before the end of his contract. The brand will not stage a runway show in February.

The designer's stint at Calvin Klein — coming after his turn as artistic director of women's haute couture, ready-to-wear and accessory collections at Dior — won plaudits within the industry but failed to resonate commercially. His exit was widely expected after Calvin Klein parent PVH Corp. chief executive Emanuel Chirico last month criticised the brand's uneven financial performance and skew toward "high-fashion" under Simons.

"Both parties have amicably decided to part ways after Calvin Klein Inc. decided on a new brand direction which differs from Simons’ creative vision," the company said in a statement. A representative for Simons declined to comment.

Simons' appointment in 2016 was met with much fanfare. The Belgian designer, as well known for his cult menswear label as his well-regarded stints at Jil Sander and Dior, was given a multi-million-dollar salary and the title of chief creative officer, with oversight over all aspects of marketing and design for the American megabrand, a degree of control he did not have at Dior.

From the start, hiring a high-concept fashion designer for a brand best known to consumers for its denim, underwear and provocative marketing was a risky move. But PVH leadership saw competing businesses like Ralph Lauren stagnating for lack of creative innovation, while European stalwarts like Gucci soared after radical creative overhauls.

With Simons, Calvin Klein hoped to not only generate a halo effect for its lower-priced products, but transform the label’s high-end ready-to-wear business, renamed 205W39NYC, from a marketing expense into a commercial powerhouse.

But from the very beginning of Simons' tenure, there was a disconnect between his personal aesthetic and the needs of a multi-billion-dollar, multi-tiered brand, driven less by high design and more by mass marketing, an area in which Simons had no experience. His first advertising campaign for the ready-to-wear collection, received mixed feedback. Shot by longtime collaborator Willy Vanderperre, it was arty and bloodless; far from the sexualised minimalism for which the brand was so well known.

Yet there was plenty of industry praise for Simons’ catwalk shows. And in the first season alone, doors selling 205W39NYC jumped from 30 to 300. What’s more, Simons seemed committed to the cause of translating his designs into mass sales, visiting with Macy’s executives and hiring the Kardashian family to pose for underwear and denim advertisements.

As recently as March, PVH appeared committed to the partnership as well, with Chirico touting the “credibility” that 205W39NYC would bring to the brand’s other lines. But PVH’s patience began to wear thin over the course of 2018, as the buzz generated by Simons failed to translate into consistent revenue growth. What’s more, 205W39NYC struggled at retail and wholesale doors plummeted from hundreds to around 40.

In September, a runway concept that required Simons to show off-site (recent catwalks have been held on the ground floor of the company's headquarters) was scrapped due to budgetary constraints. Then, according to multiple sources, PVH expressed concerns that Calvin Klein’s extensive partnership with the Andy Warhol Foundation — which included merchandise — was too arty and high-brow for a mass audience.

PVH, which also owns Tommy Hilfiger, missed sales projections in its most recent quarter. And Chirico last month called out the 205W39NYC ready-to-wear collection's failures, adding that Calvin Klein's recent denim collection had been a "fashion miss." The brand's revenue grew just 2 percent in the third quarter to $963 million. PVH shares are down 35 percent this year.

"We will cut back on a number of these planned investments in the 205 collection business, and as we move forward, we will [be taking] a more … commercial approach to this important business,” Chirico said after PVH released financial results in November, adding that Calvin Klein will shift the focus of its marketing campaigns from high-fashion to more affordable items targeting a more mainstream audience.

In recent months, the company had begun to dial back on some of Simons’ responsibilities, installing L’Oréal veteran Marie Gulin-Merle to be Calvin Klein’s new chief marketing officer, reporting not to Simons but to the brand’s chief executive Steve Shiffman.

Simons earned multiple awards from the Council of Fashion Designers of America during his time at Calvin Klein and his absence will be keenly felt at New York Fashion Week, where he was one of the few designers who could command true international attention.

"Raf brought a unique point of view to American fashion and the CFDA wishes him future success," said CFDA chief executive Steven Kolb. "Calvin Klein is an iconic American brand that will continue to flourish under new creative direction."

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