Critical Shopper: Raf Simons Knows What America Needs

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Critical Shopper: Raf Simons Knows What America Needs

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Critical Shopper

By KATHERINE BERNARD

The three floors of the newly renovated Calvin Klein store on Madison Avenue are painted yellow, the kind of color saturation that makes a room an environment.

As the new chief creative officer of Calvin Klein, the Belgian designer Raf Simons has already shared his vision of American clothes, which includes joyous (everyone says “Raf” is pronounced like “laugh”) references to cowboys, prairie quilts, American flags and 1950s plastic-covered couches, to extraordinary acclaim.

This June, the Council of Fashion Designers of America awarded him best women’s and men’s wear designer of the year. The last person to achieve this dual honor was Mr. Klein himself, in 1993. The industry feels optimistic about Mr. Simons in New York and about Calvin Klein in America.

So, it seems, the first thing Mr. Simons wants us to think about what he thinks about America is this yellow. It’s cheery and sort of fake, like a rubber duck, Heinz mustard or C.G.I. Minion skin.

The entire brand, including jeans, underwear and home goods, hasn’t had a unified vision since Mr. Klein departed in 2002. But that’s changed with Mr. Simons, who has had a men’s wear line since 1995, designed Jil Sander from 2005 to 2012, and was the creative director at Dior for three years after that.

Raf (as collectors and fans call him) taking over all facets of Calvin Klein, his specific creative leadership, the way staff whisper “Raf is on his way,” differs significantly from another experiment in industry cool-making that’s happening at the moment, at another ’90s minimalist power brand, Helmut Lang, where there is no longer a designer at all.

The company hired the Dazed editor Isabella Burley as editor in residence, tasked with curating a collaborative rotation of artists and guest designers, the first of whom is Shayne Oliver of Hood by Air. Both concepts are exciting, and make New York fashion feel a little more alive.

But I am here for Raf. In the store, I fall to my knees. Well, I kneel down and feel the carpet, which has silk in it. The salespeople, all of whom are wearing beautiful boxy uniforms that are not for sale — don’t bother asking — tell me things about Mr. Simons: “Raf believes in gender fluidity.” “Raf loves color.”

I put on a pair of rib-knit sweater sleeves ($495), which, yes, are just sleeves, about a third of a real sweater. The wool holds at my shoulder, and when I pull it down, it flaps and slouches without feeling the slightest bit insecure. I’m told I could wear the sleeves over a blazer like the runway look, but I’m enticed by the idea of slipping them on with a T-shirt or dress.

I picture them holding up for decades, and wearing them, slightly disintegrated, unraveling at the elbows, as I work in some fantasy, mostly fern-filled garden I’ll have in old age. (No, I won’t if I keep buying fraction sweaters for half a grand). My grandchildren will wish they were kept inheritable: “But those are from Raf’s first collection at Calvin Klein!”

The store interiors are more installation, a collaboration with the Los Angeles artist Sterling Ruby, with whom Mr. Simons has worked on clothes and spaces for nearly a decade. Ceiling-high yellow scaffolding fills the room, a jungle gym for shoppers’ sight lines. From the scaffolds hang oversize yarn pompoms, vintage quilts (sourced from private auctions in Pennsylvania, where Mr. Ruby grew up) and a tin pail. Mannequins are dressed on high-reaching platforms. This is a room that used to be spare and all white. A bird could have flown straight through it.

The only natural question is whether the staff climb the scaffolds at night. All I learn is that wherever scaffolding is mounted, it legally must be able to bear weight. An inspector comes to the store once a week to test it.

I climb to the second floor, where the installation continues. I love the look of this store. It’s soothing and stimulating at once. It looks like a gender-neutral preschool. I tell a salesman this and he laughs. I later learn he is actually on the design staff, so the Raf-laugh counts for even more.

The display pedestals are geometric shapes in primary colors. There are giant stuffed cylinders that Mr. Ruby calls “candles” and touchable yarn pompoms (also by him). A lot of clean white underwear is hung carefully on racks. There’s a bed (with a $400 white jacquard American flag duvet) for a nap. It looks like a place you’d go to learn empathy and sharing, to have a cubby for your things. Soft carpet to pad tantrums. A lot of the clothes are encased in plastic, assuming that people are prone to accidents (inspired by those spill-proof American sofas).

Interactive Feature | The Open Thread Fashion Newsletter A look from across The New York Times at the forces that shape the dress codes we share, with Vanessa Friedman as your personal shopper. Sent weekly.

There’s more to try. Up-upstairs, in the men’s section, I stand next to a black virgin wool coat for a little while ($3,895). No one could make a better one. There’s a $290 hoodie with a leather patch with the silhouette of Brooke Shields from her “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing” campaign. It is a homage and a wink, and I wonder what will become of the phrase “My Calvins” under Mr. Simons. In the store, underwear and bras are printed with the 205 West 39th Street headquarters address. New bags have labels with that address, too.

I try on a brown leather cowboy shirt that is too big ($2,495), but I think could work as a coat. A salesman brings me another option, a black leather shirt with a shinier texture and fewer curved seams ($1,850). “This one has a different hand,” he said.

I see a young boy wearing a Supreme tee taking a photo of himself in the mirror nearby, a vintage quilt as his backdrop. Quilting is probably the opposite of how youth socialize these days. A material craft that allows only enough attention to talk to the person right next to you, that uses both your hands so you can’t reach for a phone. An activity that makes something that lasts for more than a century. Something really beautiful.

It may be an odd choice for a cool rebrand, but it makes me think what’s here is to treasure. Raf is a good influence.

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