What does the phrase 'all-American' even mean any more? It's a question I've been asking myself a lot in recent weeks. And it popped up again today as I watched Liya Kebede, Julia Nobis and Mica Arganaraz walk the Calvin Klein runway.
It's hard to overstate the levels of anticipation surrounding Raf Simons' big American debut. That's because it's such a fraught time for a designer like Simons to take on an iconic, first-name-only-needed American brand like Calvin.
To start, we're currently witnessing one of the most turbulent periods in modern American history. Simons' debut show, for example, took place a day after the federal courts rejected Donald Trump's travel ban against people from seven Muslim nations. And that's barely scratching the surface of the human and civil rights battles raging right now.
It has also been a rocky year for American fashion. Designers who were long fixtures on the New York Fashion Week calendar are leaving to try different things: Tommy Hilfiger showed in Los Angeles and Rodarte has uprooted and gone to Paris. Proenza Schouler will stop showing in New York later this year. And due to its sale from LVMH to G-III group, DKNY are no longer on the schedule (Donna Karan left the schedule seasons ago.) The number of international press traveling to New York to cover its shows has been dwindling, while conversation questioning its influence spiking. It was as if the sky was falling.
Cue Raf, the Belgian fashion superstar formerly of Dior and Jil Sander, with all of his gravitas, critical acclaim, and feverish fans. Building excitement for his first show, Calvin Klein rolled out a new logo, redesigned by Simons and the famous graphic designer Peter Saville, and a new bespoke line offering 14 made-to-order styles — which many interpreted as an argument in favor of slowing fashion down.
Did Simons' big debut live up to expectations? In some respects, it surpassed them, simply by commanding so much attention. When was the last time a New York show became the hottest ticket of the entire global runway season? It's been a while. But today's front row (so major, so starry) was proof of the power of Raf: Lauren Hutton, Sofia Coppola, Karlie Kloss, Naomie Harris, and the cast of the Oscar-nominated film Moonlight, A$AP Rocky, Gwyneth Paltrow, Julianne Moore, Sarah Jessica Parker, Millie Bobby Brown, Kate Bosworth, the original Calvin Klein girl Brooke Shields and more.
But Raf's debut also had a huge impact because he celebrated his new adopted country by making a searing critique of it. New York is no stranger to cheery, rose-tinted love letters to Americana. But rarely does a designer of Raf's global influence take the country to task from a platform as mighty as Calvin Klein's. This was a subtle, clever mix of fashion and activism — fashtivism. And following on from moments like Dior's feminist manifesto of ss17, I have the feeling we'll be seeing a lot more of it.
Along with creative director, Pieter Mulier, he re-worked the staples of the house, showing them against a soundtrack that included David Bowie's 'This Is Not America' and making a point in his press notes to highlight a message of inclusivity.
This was a subtle, clever mix of fashion and activism — fashtivism. And following on from moments like Dior's feminist manifesto of ss17, I have the feeling we'll be seeing a lot more of it.
"It reflects the environment," Simons said in a statement. "All of these different people within different styles and dress codes. It's the future, the past, Art Deco, the city, the American West…all of these things and none of these things. Not one era, not one thing, not one look. It is the coming together of different characters and different individuals, just like America itself. It is the unique beauty and emotion of America."
An elaborate installation, an imagining of America created by the artist Sterling Ruby, underscored the celebration of diversity in the show.
And like the great American quilt, a patchwork of mismatched fabrics, he pieced together all those varied references to create a lineup of desirable clothes: stiff double denim with cowboy boots, tailored hybrid coats with grandma quilting, and career woman outerwear covered in futuristic plastic.
While the clothes weren't among Raf's most game-changing, they are certain to birth trends that trickle down — the slouchy straight leg cut of his denim, for instance, the retro shirting (a refreshing polar opposite to all the slashed, twisted and knotted fashion shirts that are so popular right now) and the cowboy boots are the stuff of high street dreams.
As the much-awaited kickoff to the month of fashion weeks, this was a meaningful reaction to politics at a time when it's been practically impossible for us to talk about anything but — and also a jolt of heavyweight creativity at time when New York could use it most. Let's hope we see more of it this month.