Calvin Klein: Why Raf Simons’ tenure was doomed
The news that Raf Simons and Calvin Klein were parting ways, revealed deliberately Friday evening as the fashion world clocked off for Christmas, didn’t exactly surprise the industry. We look at what doomed the relationship.
Despite rave reviews for his runway shows, a huge marketing budget and the support of major magazines and movie stars, the designer failed to ignite a major new generation of customers for the brand. Anything but: the most recent quarterly results for PVH, the company that controls Calvin Klein revealed that the house has been forced to heavily discount tens of thousands of apparel items in a drive to keep up numbers.
Moreover, according to sources close to Calvin Klein on both sides of the Atlantic, senior management grew extremely disillusioned by Simons, who they regard as high-handed and secretive; and not remotely respectful of the house’s minimalist yet sexy DNA.
On top of that, the founder Calvin Klein, is believed to be highly critical of many of Simons' aesthetic choices. Calvin is said to be particularly pained by Simons' dramatic overhaul of his famous flagship at 654 Madison Avenue. Designed by master minimalist architect John Pawson, the all-white boutique was built as a pure, linear temple of design. Raf, however, completely destroyed that concept, installing a series of gaudy yellow walls, woolly red hangings and primary color shelving by his fetish artist, Sterling Ruby.
“Calvin has not uttered a word in public, but every time he passes the boutique he winces,” sniffed one person familiar with the designer.
Calvin Klein’s board is also understood to have been dismayed by the power handed over to Raf’s former boyfriend Jean-Georges d’Orazio. The pair got together when d’Orazio worked in a Christian Dior Paris boutique, and Raf was the couturier at the famed marque. When Simons moved to New York in summer 2016, D’Orazio followed, and was appointed director of client relations at the Madison Avenue boutique.
In Paris, Bernard Arnault was believed to have blamed d’Orazio for having encouraged Simons away from Dior to a new life in America. While LVMH was less than impressed with the pair’s PDA's, notably at Dior post-cruise show parties in Cannes.
Shortly after arriving in Manhattan, d’Orazio was on the Calvin Klein payroll and apparently deciding on expensive works of modern art to place in Calvin Klein’s stores. D’Orazio and Simons have apparently since cordially separated as a couple.
Throughout his tenure at Calvin Klein, Simons kept his own menswear collections going, again winning plaudits for these collections’ novel tailoring and arty propositions. Simons' own February 2018 Bacchanalia show referenced Christiane F., an '80s film on teenage drug addiction in Berlin.
“Doing heroin chic might have worked at his own house; but it was not right to be connected with an American sportswear brand,” commented a senior executive within the PVH group.
Initially, Raf showed his signature collection in New York, becoming the single most important show of the New York menswear season. And further distracting attention from his day job at Calvin Klein, though he has since moved the collection back to Paris.
Moreover, PVH honchos were most upset about Simons' grand manner. Some lamented to FashionNetwork.com that in the land of the free and the home of the brave, Simons apparently insisted on not sharing elevators with junior staffers. However, colleagues of Simons denied vehemently that this was the case.
Though the board’s biggest lament was the fact that Simons disliked sharing not elevators, but his ideas with the commercial and managerial team ahead of his shows. While at Dior, he was obliged to keep the French house’s CEO and its chairman, Sidney Toledano and Bernard Arnault respectively, fully informed of any collection’s themes and development. At Klein, Simons more jealously guarded his privacy from CEO Steve Shiffman and PVH chairman Manny Chirico, apparently infuriating the board precisely as the numbers began to go bad.
Along with d’Orazio, Simons brought his respected and hardworking right-hand-man Peter Mueller with him to NYC. However, partly at Simons' insistence, the house dismissed many of the old guard design team at the house. Inevitably, the womenswear and menswear designers, Francisco Costa and Italo Zucchelli, exited. But more notably, so did Kevin Carrigan, a highly skilled designer who had kept the more mass and mainstream CK collection purring along nicely at retail, without grabbing too much limelight. Of the five heads of design working at Calvin Klein when word of Simons' arrival at the brand first leaked, only one, Ulrich Grimm, in charge of accessories, survived the cull.
In the end, however; it was all down to the maths. As the weaker third quarter numbers appeared, Chirico told analysts: “We went too far, too fast on both fashion and price… As we move into 2019, we believe the consumer will increasingly feel more connected to the brand as we offer a more commercial product and marketing experience to capture the long-term opportunity for the Calvin Klein business.”
Initially, interest was enormous in the Simons designs for the signature collection, and the number of sales points where it retailed exploded from barely 30 to almost 300. However, the actual clothes did not perform so well at retail. The very proof of that is that Calvin Klein never opened a proper flagship store designed by Simons anywhere.
Simons had been protected by his critical acclaim. He won both the menswear and womenswear designer of the CFDA, the Oscars of fashion, for his work at Calvin Klein. But, if he was so smart, the board wondered, why was Simons sending out T-shirts covered with the movie poster of Jaws onto a luxury fashion runway? Hadn’t they been sold for cheap in downmarket UK seaside resorts back in the '70s?
Calvin Klein remains a very profitable company, with annual revenues close to four billion dollars and earnings of some half billion. However, in the past quarter, when Calvin Klein’s earnings before taxes and interest fell to $121 million from $142 million a year earlier, the stock of its owner, apparel group PVH, tanked eight percent in one day. The kind of numbers American executives quite simply hate.
“Calvin Klein remains a very successful company, but if you look at the world through a quarterly results vision then, okay, recent events are not so good,” said an insider.
There had been reports that the board effectively instructed Simons to change photographers for the main ad campaigns, from his old buddy Willy Vanderperre to Glen Luchford, though people who know Raf insist that it was his decision, after being highly impressed by Luchford’s recent work for Gucci.
Whatever the truth, the brand is effectively a giant, profitable machine. Yet, compared to significant runway brands in Milan, New York or Paris, its luxury credentials are modest. The sales of its top ready-to-wear line remain puny compared to the likes of Dior, Chanel, Armani, Gucci or Prada.
Hence, despite all the plaudits and winning both the women’s and menswear designer of the year award of the CFDA, Simons' tenure at Calvin Klein was doomed.
And so, eight months before his three-year contract was finished, Simons and Calvin Klein suffered this brutal divorce.
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