NEW YORK — The show began when a wall-size screen surrounding the audience lit up with the brilliant blue of the ocean and the silhouette of a lone skinny-dipper cutting through the water. And then, that unmistakable soundtrack: Duh, Dum. Duh, Dum.
The theme from “Jaws” ricocheted from wall-to-wall as the first models marched around a room at Calvin Klein corporate offices paved with blood-red carpet. The 1975 thriller was a cultural phenomenon, ostensibly about shark attacks in a New England resort town but at heart a engrossingly humane film about unknowable threats, fear and community rituals. It was the first big-tent summer movie, a well-crafted piece of popcorn entertainment. Shark!
Designer Raf Simons took “Jaws” as his inspiration for the spring 2019 Calvin Klein 205W39NYC collection. There were trousers inspired by scuba suits, jumpsuits that actually looked like they’d be at home on a surfboard, dresses with bodices that folded down around the torso, abstract prints that resembled rocks or coral viewed through rippling water. And there were old-fashioned fan T-shirts with the image of an open-mouthed great white shark, its teeth bared.
It was a collection inspired by the tension between man and nature, by sport and by America’s greatest export: vivid, old-fashioned storytelling that has become a kind of global language. Can fashion speak as broadly?
Since taking the helm at Calvin Klein in 2017, Simons has been exploring American culture — not so much as it has been defined on either coast or in big urban centers, but how it’s lived in the heartland, in small towns and farming communities. He has offered his customers coats lined with heirloom-style quilting and filmy prairie dresses. Now that most every other runway feels larded with ruffly “Little House on the Prairie” floral-print frocks, Simons has moved on to dresses that have a similarly feminine sensibility but with Old World sophistication and high-tech prettiness.
His menswear uses a similar vocabulary with its sleek trousers, T-shirts and tuxedo jackets. And both men and women benefit from his tailored school boy blazers.
Thrown into this “Jaws”-fest was another Hollywood classic: “The Graduate.” It, too, is a film that explored great unknowns about aging, love and what it means to claim one’s future — to defy expectations or authority. And so, coupled with all of the foam-like aerodynamic trousers and dresses whose soft pleats evoke the ripples of water lapping at the shore, there were also graduation gowns, tassel-fringe sashes and even a few models wearing mortar boards to drive home a message about transitioning into a future.
At heart, there were a host of desirable clothes in this collection — clothes that continue to tell the American story that the Belgian designer embarked upon when he arrived in New York to lead this storied brand. He still raises a single, freshly relevant question: What is America?
In past collections, that answer has had to do with a community of people connecting with a kind of salt-of-the-earth, Midwestern authenticity — not one rooted in race or ethnicity but in heart and aspirations. For spring 2019, he expands that definition. America is its popular culture. Not art-house films but the ones meant for mass consumption, that speak to universal themes and define a generation or an era.
American is the collection of quirky actors such as Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum, entertainers like Meek Mill and athletes like James Harden who populated his front row. It’s sharks! It’s the fear of them as a metaphor for simmering angst over things beyond our control — things that are unknowable. It’s the belief in the limitless future of the freshly minted graduate. It’s youthful transgression. It’s plastic.
And it’s irresistible.
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