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What's next for Calvin Klein?

By Don-Alvin Adegeest


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Fashion |Opinion

Calvin Klein ad starring Kendall Jenner. Credits: PVH

This week, Calvin Klein announced Veronica Leoni as the new creative director for its mainline collection, which was temporarily shuttered in 2018 after the unceremonious exit of Raf Simons. It makes good commercial sense that parent PVH wants to rekindle the high-end line, but the group is not a luxury operator and will have to balance Leoni’s artistic vision with a business built on commodities.

It has been two decades since Calvin Klein sold his label to PVH. A master of iconography and one of the great names in American fashion, Mr. Klein transformed commodities like underwear and jeans into desirable categories with global sex appeal. While he was a known marketing genius, he was equally a tastemaker, embracing the vision to reduce clothes to their most pure form, function, and beauty, ignoring the fluff that seduced other designers and labels of his era. He also understood that dressing was an attitude.

When he opened his Madison Avenue store, it was none other than British architect John Pawson, the king of minimalist spaces, who executed Klein’s retail vision. Rarely has a designer reached the level of fame that Mr. Klein has, whose name and CK initials remain embedded on some of the most popular cultural products today.

King of minimalism

Mr. Klein simplified fashion. Even if his ideas were not unique and bore hints of Armani and later Prada, they brought a new attitude that resonated with the times. Yet today, his ‘clean’ clothes are not what is remembered about his legacy; rather, the fragrances, jeans, and underwear are what took the brand to scale the highest heights of the industry.

Mr. Klein’s runway collections never conquered the European markets the way his contemporaries Yves Saint Laurent, Donna Karan, Karl Lagerfeld and even Ralph Lauren did, but his store was a necessary destination for every fashionista who went to uptown Manhattan.

Klein’s '90s minimalist take on fashion has evolved into the category we now refer to (ad nauseam) as quiet luxury, to which Ms. Leoni is no stranger. But like everything else in fashion, it is also saturated and embraced by everyone from Cos to Loro Piana. Having worked for The Row, Jil Sander, and Celine, Leoni has an impeccable track record when it comes to understanding aesthetic and taste. PVH said Leoni would work in partnership with Calvin Klein global brand president Eva Serrano. PVH will be keen to avoid the pitfalls from its Simons era, whose vision was too radical and skewed too far from the brand’s pillars.

With Leoni's first mainline collection launching in 2025, Calvin Klein’s retail portfolio will need to undergo a transformation if it is to start selling high-end fashion. It will be interesting to see just how high-end and what its price points will be. Will it be producing the collection in prestige Italian factories or in the far East alongside its current products? Similarly, will its runway collections be merchandised next to CK jeans and its other licensed mid-market products or will they open separate stores? The latter would require a significant investment in retail, which seems risky considering PVH has yet to have success with a Calvin Klein mainline.

The issue with luxury is that those who buy high-end fashion are probably not shopping at any of PVH’s portfolio brands, except, perhaps, the underwear. While Calvin Klein may have its advertising mojo back after its current Pride campaign and last year’s successful Jeremy Allen White ads, which reportedly boosted underwear sales by 30 percent in its first week of release, relaunching its mainline may not guarantee to be a quick top-line revenue driver. And PVH is very much a revenue-driven group.

Calvin Klein
eva serrano
Veronica Leoni