Of course it took an immigrant to create an homage to America our country deserves.
It’s easy to think that America right now is at a nadir, no matter if you believe Trump was the one who galvanized its disrepair or he’ll be the one to make it great again. But there are certain truths that remain: We are a country built on the idea that equal opportunity is an achievable goal; that dream-manifesting is as important as dream-having; and that diversity is a reality, even if it’s not always seen as a virtue. We’ve tripped along the way and constructed institutional double-blinds that have turned our backs on this Americanness, but these tenets are still remarkable — especially to non-Americans.
Raf Simons’ hotly anticipated debut fall 2017 collection for Calvin Klein was a love letter to America: “It is the coming together of different characters and different individuals, just like America itself,” stated Simons in the show notes. “It is the unique beauty and emotion of America.” The show was set to David Bowie’s “This Is Not America,” the theme song of the 1985 movie The Falcon & The Snowman, which tells the story of a man who becomes disillusioned by corruption within the American government.
The collection somehow managed to honor our blue-collar history, our white-collar ambitions, our folk roots, and our cultural flexibility, but also our blue-collar future, our white-collar cynicism, our dying folk values, and our political inflexibility. It was America at its most beautiful, which it is, even when it’s marred.
Take, for example, the coats made of marabou feathers, golden fur, wallpaper florals, and woolen plaid — and then covered in a transparent plastic. To anyone who grew up covering their nice things — the family couch, television, car seats, pillows — in plastic knows what a uniquely American habit it is. It’s sacrificing your ability to really enjoy something in a quest to preserve it. In many ways, it’s the complete opposite of luxury, which asks you to indulge, without any reservations or fear of consequence. It’s an impulse that many people in America have experienced, and many people in fashion have not. Simons grew up modestly in Belgium, with a mother who cleaned houses and a father who was a soldier. It’s not impossible to imagine he sees the parallels between his rags-to-riches story and the American Dream.
There was also the marriage of many more opposites: There were work trousers lined with athletic stripes, and Wall Street blazers worn with cheer-squad knits. Thick knits fused with fine sheers; tessellating quilts with performance parkas. “In the collection, one material impacts another and one style impacts another,” read the show notes. It’s hard not to grasp the human metaphor here.
Our global editor-in-chief, Christene Barberich, also pointed out the symbolism within those quilted coats. As an act of making something beautiful and utilitarian out of trash, quilting has been an American craft that spans cultures, ethnic groups, and centuries. She writes in the caption of an Instagram from the show, “Families [come] together to sew symbolic imagery of their homes, their families, their heritages…to pass down to future generations.”
It’s also worth pointing out how Simons worked with the idea of gender-fluidity. It’s become a buzzword these days, and a lever designers have pulled in the past couple years for shock-value and timely relevance. But in this collection, with Simons’ context, it became a political declaration: décolletage and pantsuits were wielded as equal opportunities, no matter the wearers’ gender expression.
Of course, it’s not all intellectualism. America is also about sex appeal and pop, and Simons didn’t forget that. For those without a zoom lens on the show, you might have missed the iconic image of Brooke Shields’ Calvins ad pinned onto the back labels of the jeans — it was a nod to CK’s long history of elevating workwear staples into pure fantasy. This was the runway version of a GIF meme. There was underboob, too, because what is America without a touch of bad taste?
True self-awareness is a hard thing for a person to grasp, much less an entire country. And when you're also trapped within a schizophrenic existence, it takes an outsider to realize what is a fatal flaw and what is just a bad situation; what’s just random luck and what’s just a solidly wonderful, good thing. For Americans living in America, who have lived here and seen the ebb and flow of progress, it’s easy to want to escape and rebuild your own city on a hill (see: Tommy Hilfiger’s spectacle in Los Angeles). But that's not always the best response.
“Blossoms fail to bloom this season / Promise not to stare too long,” sings Bowie, a fellow immigrant who always viewed America as an outsider. Simons seems to have taken it to heart: Take it in, process the pain, then work on adding your own story to the American quilt.