Calvin Klein’s biggest cultural significance is arguably its ad campaigns. Of course the brand is important to fashion history for being a leader in minimalism, elevating denim to high fashion, and being a big reason for American sportswear’s rise to international attention. But what the brand will forever be known for is provocative and effective advertising—the images are, for lack of a less cliché word, iconic. How else did relatively simple clothing emblazoned only with a name become such a powerful luxury commodity?
It may be hard for younger generations to understand now, as, for the last 30, years denim and underwear have always been included in high price points, and high fashion. But there was a time when it was new for a pair of jeans to be “name brand”. It was especially unheard of for men’s underwear to be name-anything.
In the early 1980s ads featured a young Brooke Shields referring to her jeans as “my Calvin’s”. A stir was caused for the sexual nature of the commercial. It has since become a defining moment for not only Calvin Klein, but for ‘80s fashion in general. While the ads have been studied over and over academically (and otherwise), the spot never overshadowed the product itself: jeans. Ditto for Bruce Weber’s 1982 image of a male model in Calvin Klein boxer briefs, shot at a tantalizing angle, which made an “it” item out of underwear for men.
Today saw the release of “American Classics,” the new Spring 2017 campaign for denim and underwear that swaps sexuality for a thoughtful appreciation for art. Photographed by Willy Vanderperre, the series has models posing in front of work by Andy Warhol, Sterling Ruby, and Richard Prince, wearing archival styles of denim and cotton. The house wanted to draw a correlation between art that is classic in American pop culture, and the way that its own ads are their own pop-culture icons.
Thankfully, there are no direct references to said ads.
As far as current marketing trends, this is an age where more and more fashion brands are leaning on their past accomplishments, repurposing nostalgia for a new generation. Calvin Klein and its new creative director, Raf Simons, could have recreated old hits with new clothing. Instead, he used “classic” pieces from the brand’s repertoire and went in a completely different direction with the marketing. It’s actually a welcome, forward-thinking thing to do. Images from campaigns of yore will always be revered for their beauty and impact, but sometimes it’s best not to dwell on the past. The new campaign shows that Calvin Klein has always had more than just attitude.