Calvin Klein Learns a Harsh, Expensive Lesson: Less High Fashion, More Underwear
It was as if the mannequins at Calvin Klein 205W39NYC, the label’s Madison Avenue flagship, knew its higher-ups had just announced the shuttering of its runway collection. Scattered throughout the store, the gray figures slouched and hunched somberly, one in a sequin dress sitting on a table like a bedazzled version of Rodin’s Thinker.
Hours after Page Six reported that Calvin Klein Collection would cease operations, the flagship was empty, save for a few employees. The store’s loud, taxi cab-yellow walls punctuated just how quiet it was inside.
From the street, a woman stopped to take a photo of the 34-foot display window, which featured a pants-less mannequin wearing a t-shirt tucked into a pair of boy short underwear.
The woman then turned on her heels and went on her way, perhaps unaware that 100 people in both Calvin Klein Collection’s New York and Milan office had just lost their jobs mere hours ago. In January, another hundred were laid off, per a WWD report.
At the end of last year, creative director Raf Simons parted ways with the company after serving a little more than two years with the company.
Simons had been working under a three year contract set to expire this August, making a reported $18 million a year. His departure sent a shockwave through the industry, as Simons had been a critical darling during his tenure at Calvin Klein.
The former Dior designer injected some much-needed excitement back into the heritage brand, winning a CFDA Award for Womenswear Designer two years in a row, dressing Saoirse Ronan for the 2018 Oscars, and courting a celebrity clientele that included the likes of Millie Bobbie Brown, Lupita Nyong’o, and Michael B. Jordan.
Julianne Moore admitted to being moved almost to tears at Simons’ debut Calvin Klein show in 2017. Writing for New York Magazine in 2018, the hard-to-please critic Cathy Horyn dubbed Simons’ movie-themed collection an “imaginative” lineup that “ every other brand this week.”
But executives at PVH, which has owned Calvin Klein since 2002, were not seeing the sales results they hoped. Over the last three years, a reported $70 million was pumped into the designer label.
In November, PVH CEO Emanuel Chirico said that he was “disappointed by the lack of return on investments in our Calvin Klein 205W39NYC halo business.” The line earned $121 million during the third quarter of 2018, down from the previous year’s reported $142 million.
When reached for comment on Tuesday, representatives for Calvin Klein declined to give any official statement.
“Raf Simons was ahead of his time for that brand,” Kaarin Vembar, stylist and co-host of the Pop Fashion podcast, told The Daily Beast. “He’s a brilliant designer. Right designer, wrong fashion house.”
Indeed, Simons’ designs, on sale in New York until the flagship closes at the end of April, were in some ways the antithesis of the straight, sleek pieces Calvin Klein has been known for since the ‘90s. The store’s current stock looks like a hodgepodge of current trends: bubblegum pink power suits, tie-dye denim galore, and leopard print as far as the eye can see.
“There’s a disconnect with what Calvin Klein wanted to be—an elevated brand driven by an innovative designer—and what its customers are actually buying”
“The revamp did so poorly in stores, I can’t say I’m totally surprised,” said Lisa Rowan, Pop Fashion co-host and retail writer at The Penny Hoarder. “There’s a disconnect with what Calvin Klein wanted to be—an elevated brand driven by an innovative designer—and what its customers are actually buying.”
Indeed, PVH CEO called the Simons-led redesign of CK Jeans, the company’s denim line, “too elevated and too fashion-forward for our customer.”
For many shoppers, Calvin Klein is a household name synonymous with outlet shopping or as a department store staple, often marked down or mid-priced. Most do not rely on the brand for $1200 tie-dye denim dresses, trendy as they may be.
“There are certain things from the runway collection that I was very impressed by, but nothing stood out as a defining Calvin Klein silhouette,” Joy Davis, host and producer of the Unravel Podcast, said. “The underwear and denim are so iconic and have such staying power that other silhouettes fall by the wayside.”
The Belgian designer, who does not keep his Americana obsession a secret, knows how to make a simple, tailored suit very, very well. But some of his ultra-adorned runway looks got complicated.
Things could look like a far cry from the sleek, pared-down sexiness many associate with the brand, due to years of minimalist advertising hammered into our collective consciousness. Known for his art obsession, Simons printed an Andy Warhol sketch over sexless, baggy sweaters. Not exactly what you would picture a teenage Brooke Shields wearing while she cooed, “Nothing comes between me and my Calvins.”
For its first ad campaign post-Simons in February, the brand went back to the basics, tapping pop singer Shawn Mendes and his abs to hawk Calvin Klein jeans and underwear—emphasis on the underwear. Though the brand released a minute-long ad celebrating “The Youth” with a cast that included A$AP Rocky, Noah Centineo, and Kendall Jenner, most eyes were glued to the still photographs Mendes released to his Instagram account.
An image of Mendes reclining in a pair of briefs quickly became his most-liked post. To date, eight million fans have double-tapped his shirtless torso.
Of course, such marketing has been a time-honored tradition at Calvin Klein since the ‘90s, when the likes of Mark Wahlberg, Kate Moss, and Christy Turlington stripped down for telltale black-and-white ads.
A generation later in 2016, PVH reinvigorated the old campaign, tapping Justin Bieber and Kendall Jenner to star in the reboot. According to Fashionista, PVH reported a 13 percent rise in sales after the series of ads, mostly due to thirsty shoppers.
While there is no official word or figure yet to explain if Mendes has a similar effect, his #MyCalvins photoshoot certainly caused more of a fuss among shoppers than a traditional runway show would. (Calvin Klein did not appear on the bill of New York’s Fall 2019 Fashion Week.)
At present, the company is searching for a design director to oversee business—no doubt one who is, crucially, cheaper than Simons was. Until then, Calvin Klein, which built its reputation on sexiness, must face a less alluring reality: get a little more boring and a lot cheaper.