On the Runway: Calvin Klein Says Designer Fashion Is Over


Calvin Klein Says Designer Fashion Is Over

The brand is closing its high-end line, in a move that could have ripple effects across the American fashion industry.

CreditCreditAngela Weiss/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Calvin Klein is getting out of fashion. At least the trendsetting, wardrobe-shaping kind.

On Thursday, the brand whose combination of sex appeal and minimal sportswear helped define American style for an international audience, and which was once a tent pole of the New York Fashion Week schedule, said that it would be closing its luxury collection business.

“Collection” is the official designation of the line shown during fashion week. It is the most expensive part of the business and accounts for the clothes most often seen in glossy magazine shoots and on celebrities. Calvin Klein is, at least for the foreseeable future, leaving the runway behind.

The move comes three months after the departure of Calvin Klein’s chief creative officer, the Belgian designer Raf Simons, whose appointment had been announced with great fanfare in 2016 (and who had changed the name Collection to 205W39NYC, after the address of the brand’s headquarters). His ascension was billed as a return to the years of Calvin Klein, when one visionary designer was responsible for all aspects of the brand. Closing the brand’s collection business marks not only a complete reversal of that decision, but the rejection of a business model long held dear in the industry: the so-called “halo” effect of a high-end line that acts as an attention-getter and newsmaker, driving sales of more mass (and profit-generating) jeans, underwear and perfume.

This has long been American fashion’s favorite pyramid scheme, practiced by brands including Ralph Lauren and Michael Kors, both of which are built on a base of affordable products bathed in the glow of aspiration from the top (what luxury executives like to refer to as “the dream”). In this strategic plan, sales of the high-end clothes may be relatively small, but the desire and name-recognition those clothes create act as crucial drivers for other lines. As do the celebrities they attract.

See, for example, Lupita Nyong’o in purple beaded Calvin Klein on the red carpet at the Golden Globes, and Lady Gaga in a blush-pink strapless column at the Critics’ Choice Awards. Or the assortment of boldfaced names that graced last September’s front row, including Rami Malek, Saoirse Ronan, Millie Bobby Brown, Laura Dern, ASAP Rocky and Jake Gyllenhaal.

Former Calvin Klein chief executive Tom Murry used to refer to the runway line as a “marketing expense.” When Mr. Simons took over in 2016, the collection business accounted for less than 5 percent of sales of the $8.2 billion brand. The bet was it could grow. However, while Mr. Simons won multiple awards for both men’s and women’s wear, his aesthetic twisted the American dream into something darker and more complicated than the brand’s consumer base was accustomed to. Its parent company, the publicly traded PVH, could not swallow it.

So it cut off its head.

Instead of simply scaling back its investment in fashion — which Emanuel Chirico, PVH’s chief executive, quantified at $60 to $70 million under Mr. Simons — and limiting its purview, the brand appears to have abandoned it altogether. Calvin Klein has made just as extreme a bet, but in the opposite direction. Its top-end line will now be a denim collection. The company is effectively saying that, with the casualization of life, the “marketing expense” of designer fashion is no longer necessary. And it is true that their biggest ad campaigns were not fashion-related: Justin Bieber and Kylie Jenner in jeans, the Kardashian family in underwear and denim.

It is also true that most consumers probably did not know who Mr. Simons was (nor could they likely identify his predecessors, Francisco Costa and Italo Zucchelli). But they knew the famous names who knew them. A spokeswoman for Calvin Klein said the brand would continue to work with celebrities, but whether those celebrities will want to continue to be associated with a brand once the glamour of creative credibility is gone is another question. There is a buzz associated with the cutting-edge designer that attracts those who would be styled the same.

There is currently an active search underway for a new creative lead who will guide the brand’s various arms. At some point, Calvin Klein could return to the runway in a different form, à la Tommy Hilfiger, also owned by PVH, which has been hosting consumer-facing, social media friendly #TOMMYNOW extravaganzas at fashion weeks around the world. His most recent show, in Paris, was a collaboration with Zendaya that starred Grace Jones. (It is also worth noting, however, that Tommy Hilfiger himself remains at the company, albeit largely as a figurehead.)

And there is no question Calvin Klein can continue to be a relatively healthy business. Donna Karan is no longer, but the lower-priced line, DKNY, continues to be produced by manufacturer G-III. That company also has a license for Calvin Klein ready-to-wear, accessories, outerwear, swimwear and dresses in North America. Bill Blass, once a favorite line of the ladies who lunch, continues to make attempts at rebranding after abandoning the runway for licenses. But neither brand is as big as Calvin, and now neither brand has nearly the same relevance or cultural currency it once did. Whether Calvin Klein can be an exception that makes a new rule is now the question.

Vanessa Friedman is The Times’s fashion director and chief fashion critic. She was previously the fashion editor of the Financial Times. @VVFriedman


Published at Thu, 07 Mar 2019 19:33:33 +0000