When I first heard that one of Raf Simons’s Big New Ideas for the transformation of Calvin Klein was Andy Warhol, I rolled my eyes.
As an art-fashion play, it seemed a little obvious. A pop icon household name for a pop icon household name. The creative who embraced Campbell’s Soup being the symbol of a creative who embraced underwear. No matter that they (Calvin and Andy) actually used to hang out with the same crowd. That was then; this was mid-2017.
Mr. Simons, who is Belgian, had arrived the September before as the brand’s first chief creative officer, to much ballyhoo about the reinvention of an American icon, and much joy on the part of the fashion crowd. As a designer, he had been a hero of sorts to the style set since he introduced his own men’s wear brand in 1995, and then revived Jil Sander (in 2005) and Christian Dior (in 2012, after the John Galliano disgrace).
Now he had been handed the keys to the Klein kingdom, brought in to turn around what had become a stale brand living on past glory (albeit one with $8 billion in sales): Redo the stores, rethink the lines, change the teams, upend the ad campaigns, reinvent the wheel, cause a ruckus.
His first show, in February 2017, was one of the most anticipated in New York in years. Everyone was so excited, he won the Council of Fashion Designers of America awards for both men’s and women’s wear before either collection had even been sold. By the second show, in September 2017, Warhol had entered the mix, along with quilts and prairie dresses and, later, hazmat suits. Mr. Simons was making a soup of American identity.
Turns out he was more prescient than anyone knew. Just a year later we are living in a Warhol moment inside a Warhol moment inside a Warhol moment — in a country run by the most Warholian president we have ever had, at a time when Instagram has made everyone an influencer for 15 minutes, during a year where the Warhol body of work is being celebrated as never before.
In late September, “Contact World,” an exhibition of almost 130,000 of the Warhol’s unseen photographs, opened at the Canter Arts Center at Stanford University. Next month, “Andy Warhol — From A to B and Back Again,” the first major retrospective of Warhol since 1989, will take place at the Whitney Museum in New York.
And on Oct. 26, an accompanying show of 48 of Warhol’s 102 shadow paintings, the series commissioned by the art dealer and collector Heiner Friedrich and first exhibited in 1979, will open to the public on the ground floor of the Calvin Klein headquarters on 39th Street, in the space where its fashion shows are held.
Amid it all is Mr. Simons, who, when he joined Calvin Klein in 2016, convinced Steve Shiffman, the chief executive, to cut a deal with the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. It extended far beyond the typical one-off, pay-to-play artist-fashion collaboration (which have become as common as bugle beads these days) and would allow Mr. Simons unprecedented access to the Warhol archive for three years.
Now there are Warhol flower paintings on Calvin Klein jeans and denim jackets. Images from Warhol’s film “Kiss” on CK underwear. Warhol silk screens of a young Dennis Hopper and Sandra Brandt on Calvin towels and dinnerware. Prints from the disaster series of mangled cars and electric chairs on full New Look skirts and twisted tank tops. Stephen Sprouse portraits on fringed scarves.
All of that suggests that anyone trying to understand this weird Warhol moment could do worse than talk to Mr. Simons.
The Democratic Ideal
One of the few places in the world of Raf Simons where there are no Warhols is his home. Instead there is a curvy maraschino cherry red mohair sofa by the midcentury furniture maker Jean Royère, framed by two matching red mohair marshmallowlike chairs, around a Gio Ponti coffee table.
There are carefully constructed arrangements of Noguchi floor lamps. There is art by Cady Noland, Cindy Sherman, Rosemarie Trockel, Isa Genzken and Sterling Ruby. There are Picasso ceramics and two Le Corbusier lamps from Chandigarh, the Indian city imagined by Nehru as the embodiment of the country’s modern ideals.
Mr. Simons, 50, moved into the apartment, a penthouse on the Far West Side of Chelsea framed by art galleries, five months ago, after living in the Stella Tower, the Art Deco apartment building in Hell’s Kitchen designed by Ralph Walker. Mr. Simons had moved there when he started at Calvin and was thinking about what language he wanted to build for the brand.
“I liked the idea of connecting an American major brand to an American major artist, whose body of work spoke about things very relevant to Calvin Klein,” he said, leaning back on his sofa. It was a week before the “Shadows” show would open. “I knew Calvin had links with artists, but the names that always came up were Donald Judd, Dan Flavin — minimalists, because he was a minimalist. Andy Warhol stood in the middle of the contemporary environment. In his approach, his vision, his obsession with superstars and famous people, his sense of commercial product, he was very democratic. Calvin is very democratic.”
Mr. Simons was wearing a big red and black sweater from his fall collection, half of it knitted inside out. (Exposing the underbelly of the country’s myths is one of his themes.) There were some yarn bits dangling.
They were the only loose ends in the apartment, which was pristine the way a gallery is, despite Mr. Simons’s large and hairy dog, a Beauceron named Luka after the Suzanne Vega song. (Luka has a Sterling Ruby-designed dog bed in the Calvin Klein offices, though much of Mr. Simons’s art and furniture seems to go back and forth.)
Of course, Mr. Simons would also like to own Warhols, he said, with a sort of bright-eyed desire. Especially “the disaster work — any car crash or disaster or electric chair. I just think they are so … it’s difficult to explain. When you say you adore that body of work, it seems like you are someone who adores violence and horror. With Warhol, I am more attracted to the work that doesn’t deal with famous people, because my world is already dealing so much with famous people.” (Calvin Klein had one of the more star-studded front rows at New York Fashion Week in September: Rami Malek, ASAP Rocky, Saoirse Ronan, Millie Bobby Brown, Selah Marley, Russell Westbrook, Trevor Noah and Jake Gyllenhaal were all there — to name a few.)
“Generally people don’t like to live with complicated subject matter,” Mr. Simons said. “But I have to feel the artwork stands for something that is important to me. I don’t like the idea that it has to fit my environment at all. I think that’s why I started looking at art and reading about it and embracing it — because it takes me away from my own work.”
Art vs. Fashion
Mr. Simons started looking at art when he was teenager in Neerpelt, in Belgium. He discovered it by watching TV shows featuring the curator Jan Hoet, though he discovered Warhol mostly through T-shirts and skateboards.
He began collecting early on and is very close to a number of artists, including Mr. Ruby, George Condo and Cindy Sherman, who are often at his shows. (His parents — a soldier and a housekeeper — used to be at his shows, too, but now New York is too far to travel.)
The whole fashion-art thing, which tracks back to Schiaparelli and the Surrealists, can seem like a cliché, but it has been a thread in Mr. Simons’s story since long before he was famous or had any money. He can appear somewhat irked, in a competitive way, when his peers make references to artists he has been collecting for years, like Isa Genzken, who recently popped up as an influence at the Proenza Schouler show.
“Of the top three or five things that are important to me, outside of family and love, art is No. 1,” said Mr. Simons, who studied industrial design and has no formal fashion training. “It’s way more important than fashion. Sometimes I think it would be very attractive to be able to bring ideas out and not have to think about them in relation to a system or structure or commerce.”
Which is to say: to pull a Helmut Lang, a designer who walked away from fashion in 2005 and is now a sculptor on Long Island. “I think about it often,” Mr. Simons said. “I keep thinking of things I would like to do that are not fashion. Making movies, making art — the practice of making something. In fashion, the actual practice of being a designer has changed so much.”
With big brands like Calvin Klein, it does not involve much of what the world considers hands-on design, but it does involve a performative aspect, which is not really Mr. Simons’s thing. He is much less interested in being a public figure than many of his peers are, though he is getting more comfortable in the role.
(You can see the evolution in the “Dior & I” documentary that was made about his first year at Dior and now, at the end of shows, when he is mobbed by reporters and celebrities paying homage, and looks both embarrassed by the display and slightly pleased — and embarrassed that he is pleased.)
He doesn’t like to do interviews very much, but once he agrees and starts talking, he tends to treat them like long bouts of psychoanalysis in which he plays patient and doctor.
“It’s always on my mind,” he said. “Is this what you do? In a way I don’t think I’m a fashion designer. I used to be so upset when people called me that. Now it doesn’t matter so much.”
Jessica Morgan, the director of the Dia art foundation, which organized the “Shadows” show, sees Mr. Simons’s use of Warhol in his designs as reflecting the fascination with youth culture that is a hallmark of his men’s label. (Calvin Klein sponsored the restoration of all 102 canvases, which will go on display at Dia Beacon in about five years, when a special gallery has been built.)
To Ms. Morgan. it’s his version of the way kids put posters or other pictures on their walls to define their own character.
This turns out to be pretty close to the truth. “With Dennis, Sandra, Stephen Sprouse — I liked the idea that Andy Warhol defined his heroes by making silk screens of them,” said Mr. Simons, who was by then drinking La Croix flavored seltzer, though not eating the snacks — mixed berries, Ladurée macarons, chocolate — that had appeared.
“Sometimes they got famous after the portrait. In my case, I was thinking who could be a symbol for the body of work I’m trying to shape at Calvin Klein? So I thought I might now and then, out of Warhol’s body of work, take people and reintroduce them to the audience as heroes of mine. Whether they are famous or not I don’t care so much, and for what reason I also don’t care.”
“Dennis Hopper was an incredible representation of the American cowboy. Sandra is someone I admire as a person, and I like the connection with Ingrid and Andy and Interview. Stephen Sprouse was one of the few American designers who had a kind of approach I link more to Europe and the people who inspired me, because they were fascinated by youth and generational dialogues, like Gaultier, Helmut Lang.”
Mr. Simons doesn’t care if people don’t really get that his use of Warhol is as much in the interests of Warhol, who tasked his foundation with licensing his work after his death in order to create income to support other artists, as in the interest of Calvin.
“If there’s a link between fashion and art, the assumption is always it’s the designer who wants to exploit it for commerce,” Mr. Simons said. “Not the artist who is exploiting the designer.”
Not that the Warhol foundation is exploiting Calvin Klein. It’s more like symbiosis. As to how much Calvin Klein paid for the licensing rights, Mr. Shiffman would not say, though he called it “an appropriate” number. According to the annual report of PVH Corp., the parent company, revenues for Calvin Klein increased by 10 percent in 2017.
Everyone Has an Opinion
Sometimes it’s hard during all the monologues and musing to figure out if Mr. Simons is talking about Warhol or himself. He’s very attracted, for example, to the idea that Warhol’s work has been re-evaluated over time, because though he won’t say it exactly, none of what he is trying to do at Calvin, including building Warhol into the brand vocabulary, will make sense unless he is given the time to layer it all in and let it percolate through the public consciousness.
“I used to be very fragile about how people would react to my work,” he said, “but I have become more and more at peace with the idea that bad reactions can also be good, because at least it’s a dialogue. But in that way I have to split up my reactions to it, and the reactions of the companies I work for, because a lot of companies seem most interested in the reactions of millions of people that I hardly know who they are. And everything has to work on a tiny screen, instantly. It’s not that difficult to make something that looks good on a tiny screen, and then in reality turns out to be a disaster on a person.
“The nature of fashion has changed. In Antwerp, I have more time to be quiet and to draw. Here, there’s no time to write things down. Everything is organized and in the agenda. It’s all talking. That’s the scale and intensity of the work. At Dior, I had the same sense of running against the clock, the fire at my heels.”
This sounds like a complaint, but it isn’t, really. When Mr. Simons left Dior, there was speculation that it was a protest against the increasingly hectic fashion system, but then he turned up at Calvin Klein, which is even bigger and more demanding, so that doesn’t seem to have been the issue. Mr. Simons has, essentially, traded up three times, each time for an evermore commercial, dominant brand, as he acknowledged.
“It’s my choice, my responsibility,” he said. “Clearly, I am attracted to it. I imagine there are people who think I was selling out by coming here, but it’s not such a problem for me. Not that I don’t care. I care a lot. But I don’t care so much about the fact people have an opinion. I actually admire people who have an opinion, even if it’s against me. The problem now in fashion is everything gets judged immediately.”
Behind his head, through three sets of floor-to-ceiling glass doors, the trees and bushes in pots on the terrace outside his apartment were being buffeted by the wind. Mr. Simons had bought the plants himself from the Chelsea flower market. He does not believe in gardeners or decorators, but he does believe in installers.
Later he would stop in at the Calvin headquarters to check on the installation of “Shadows,” which is especially challenging because each canvas has to be hung touching the other, so it looks like one continuous painting. But each canvas is not exactly alike; the more you look, the more differences you see. Which is a metaphor for something in fashion, if beholders care to think about it.
“The most interesting things happen over time, and sometimes you have to look at something for a long time to see if it makes sense,” Mr. Simons said. He was talking, once again, about Warhol. I think.
By VANESSA FRIEDMAN