Calvin Klein is facing the fact that it’s a jeans-and-undies company now

Nothing gets between Bieber and his Calvins.
Nothing gets between Bieber and his Calvins.
Image: Reuters/Bobby Yip
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Calvin Klein took a big gamble in 2016 when it made Raf Simons the first person since Klein himself to have complete creative control of the brand.

Simons, a cerebral designer who had most recently served as the creative head of Dior, was suddenly overseeing the image of a business that made most of its money on sales of fairly nondescript jeans and underwear. Could his art-gallery inspirations translate to the department store?

Though the company has praised Simons’s contributions, such as his revamp of the brand’s runway line, 205W39NYC, it’s acknowledging that the changes aren’t paying off as it had hoped. “While many of the product categories performed well, we are disappointed by the lack of return on our investments in our Calvin Klein 205W39NYC halo business and believe that some of the CALVIN KLEIN JEANS relaunched product was too elevated and did not sell through as well as we planned,” it announced in its Nov. 29 earnings statement.

The comments highlight the divide that exists between the two sides of Calvin Klein: On the one hand there’s the more creative, fashion-centric side, and then there’s the side that sells, mostly in the form of jeans and underwear.

To support his new vision for Calvin Klein—a heady mix of Americana, pop culture, and art that fuses Western themes, horror movies, and Andy Warhol—Simons has staged lauded runway shows, overhauled its marketing, and redone stores. The investments that Calvin Klein’s parent company, PVH Corp., has made in the brand total between $60 million and $70 million over the last three years, Manny Chirico, PVH Corp.’s CEO, said on a call with investors. Much of it went to the “205 collection business,” he noted.

The company now plans to cut back on further investments.

It also suggested it will cut back on the fashion edge Simons honed at the label. Instead, Chirico said, “we will be taking a more returns-oriented commercial approach to this important business. Second, we will shift the focus of our marketing campaigns going forward, as they have been too skewed towards our higher-end ‘205’ line and the high-fashion consumer.”

Raf loves his references.
Image: Calvin Klein/Willy Vanderperre

There wasn’t always a divide between fashion and sales at Calvin Klein. Before Calvin Klein Jeans launched in 1978, the Calvin Klein brand had been a success for a decade on the basis of Klein’s style of understated chic: the simple but sexy A-line minidresses, the beautiful coats, the clean lines and pure color palette. From its first small collection in 1968, financed with a $10,000 loan from Klein’s childhood friend, Barry Schwartz, the business rapidly grew, as did Klein’s name as a designer. In 1973, the then-32-year-old Klein became the youngest-ever designer to win the Coty American Fashion Critics’ Award, a prize he claimed again in 1974 and 1975.

And then came the jeans. Denim’s introduction transformed Calvin Klein from a thriving designer line into a mainstream blockbuster. The company claimed it sold 200,000 pairs in the first week the jeans were on the market. Similar success followed from the underwear lines it launched in the 1980s—the marketing for which practically defined the company’s image.

Over time, the mass-market products took over sales so completely that, before Simons joined up, Calvin Klein admitted publicly that it had come to regard its runway collection as a “marketing expense” (paywall).

At this point the brand tends to be more successful in Europe than in its home country. As for Simons, industry insiders are speculating (paywall) that he may soon walk.