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The Curious Case of Raf Simons at Calvin Klein

Could the rumoured arrival of Raf Simons at Calvin Klein present an opportunity for the brand to rethink its entire creative and business structure?
Raf Simons and Calvin Klein | Source: Courtesy/Wikimedia Commons
By
  • Imran Amed

NEW YORK, United States — Some curious questions came to mind this week as Francisco Costa and Italo Zucchelli were ushered out of their respective roles as creative directors of women's and men's at Calvin Klein Collection, making way for the long-rumoured arrival of Raf Simons at the helm of the iconic American brand sometime later this year, presumably after his non-compete agreement with Dior expires.

“A new brand direction will ultimately follow one creative vision across all categories of the business. An announcement will be made in due course,” intoned the company in a statement distributed suddenly on Tuesday afternoon, creating shockwaves around the fashion world.

As a strategy, bringing in Simons makes a lot of sense. His modern minimalistic aesthetic is a good fit for Calvin Klein and his arrival could bring new momentum to a brand which has languished for several years, at least from a high-fashion sense. Over the same period, other elements of the business have grown significantly, albeit separately from Collection. Having one creative director across the brand would help to ensure that the brand is manifested consistently everywhere the consumer sees it.

But here's the thing. It was Simons who sparked the industry-wide hand-wringing about the pace of fashion, the demands placed on top-tier creative directors and the challenges of maintaining his own collection while also overseeing six collections for women's ready-to-wear and haute couture at Dior.

Last November in a System Magazine article published on BoF, Simons told Cathy Horyn: "When you do six shows a year, there's not enough time for the whole process. Technically, yes — the people who make the samples, do the stitching, they can do it. But you have no incubation time for ideas, and incubation time is very important. When you try an idea, you look at it and think, Hmm, let's put it away for a week and think about it later. But that's never possible when you have only one team working on all the collections."

And yet Simons' rumoured role at Calvin Klein will put the designer in charge of all categories of the Calvin Klein business — which generated about $8.2 billion global at retail in 2015 across "women’s dresses and suits, men's dress furnishings and tailored clothing, men’s and women's sportswear and bridge and collection apparel, golf apparel, jeanswear, underwear, fragrances, eyewear, women’s performance apparel, hosiery, socks, footwear, swimwear, jewellery, watches, outerwear, handbags, small leather goods, and home furnishings." How is this going to be any less frenetic and intense than Dior?

What's more, Calvin Klein Collection is not really a business. Back in 2011, former Calvin Klein president and chief executive Tom Murry told me in a CEO Talk that it was essentially a marketing expense, designed to generate editorial coverage to create a halo over the entire Calvin Klein brand. Would Simons' really want to oversee a collection that doesn't meaningfully resonate with the end consumer? And as a business, does this kind of model really make sense anymore? (There is only one Calvin Klein Collection store in the entire world, located on Madison Avenue in New York.)

Maybe the company has in mind a new kind of creative set-up for Simons? Could Calvin Klein be re-thinking its entire business structure and approach to make way for Simons' desire for more creative space, as well as the brand's need to be streamlined, having proliferated into a confusing hierarchy of labels including ck Calvin Klein, Calvin Klein Jeans and Calvin Klein? Could the brand be thinking about consolidating its men's and women's collections — a move which several other brands have recently announced? So many questions.

For some answers, it's worth looking to the man himself, Mr Calvin Klein, who in 2003 sold his business to PVH for $400 million in cash and another $30 million in stock and still earns royalties on products that bear his name until the end of 2017. Just a few weeks back, I heard Mr Klein in a rousing and wide-ranging conversation with Fern Mallis at the Mint Luxury Conference in Mumbai. Amongst other things, he endorsed the brand's recent choice of Justin Bieber to front its men's My Calvins campaign, but was much less enthusiastic about Kendall Jenner, Bieber's counterpart for the corresponding women's campaign.

But the most interesting thing he said was this: "Luxury, to me, is the ultimate in quality, in terms of product. Having the absolute best quality of perfection that you can have is truly luxury. I would use as an example Hermès. The Kelly bag was created many years ago for Grace Kelly and still today you have to wait three years to get one, because it's so special. That's luxury. But luxury is also cashmere. You can go to Uniqlo and buy a cashmere sweater for very little money or you can go to Hermès and buy a cashmere sweater for a lot of money. They're both cashmere, there are differences, but it's still luxury. So now, what we're experiencing is luxury at prices that are much more affordable and luxury that is the best of the best."

"The really smart retailers — Europeans like Zara, Asians like Uniqlo — they're not using the word luxury, but I can tell you, I know denim really well, and the same denim that Uniqlo uses is $1,000 in a designer store on 57th Street," he continued.

This modern and forward-thinking view of luxury, focused on product quality and real value for the consumer, could portend a very interesting strategy to come at Calvin Klein, a brand that is known the world over and has positions at the very high-end of the market, but also on the high street. Why not make it all sit together somehow, offering the best design and quality at a range of price points?

So here's a message to the executives at PVH. Listen to Mr Calvin Klein. He was a visionary when he started his business almost 50 years ago, and he remains a visionary today.

Imran Amed, Founder and Editor-in-Chief

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