On Thursday evening, I walked into the Calvin Klein headquarters on 39th Street in Manhattan, the site of the night’s hotly anticipated Spring 2018 ready-to-wear fashion show by designer Raf Simons, to see, hanging above the snaking runway, an eye-popping new sculpture by the Los Angeles-based artist Sterling Ruby. Titled Sophomore (2017), it was an extended hanging mobile made up of pick-axes, jack o’ lanterns, giant pom-poms, metal pails, gnarled car parts, and red splashes of long fabric—all in the service of a work made by Ruby but pitched to the theme of the evening, which Simons described as “both an American nightmare and the all-powerful American dream.” The show’s program, placed on the seats for attendees, offered a few further words: “The Sterling Ruby installation functions as a panorama, a context, for a collection that plays inherently with recontextualization—utilizing ‘the clues of horror.’ “
Ruby and Simons have been collaborating for years, such that they now occupy a muse-to-muse relationship. The sculpture on the ceiling harmonized with the looks on the models, in a fashion show that doubled as an art opening and vice versa. All the work on view was an extension of the two artists’ past collaborations, including Simons’s Fall 2017 collection, presented at Gagosian Gallery in New York in February, and a show-stopping renovation of the Calvin Klein store on Madison Avenue. When Simons remade iconic early Calvin Klein underwear ads for his first campaign, he had boys in their skivvies stand in front of Ruby’s Flag (4791), from 2014, at the Rubell Family Collection in Miami.
Simons is maybe the most fawned-over designer in fashion, having successfully reignited the beleaguered House of Dior after the loss of John Galliano and then assuming his post as the first-ever chief creative director at Calvin Klein. “It’s a tough gig to be crowned the savior of American fashion,” Vanessa Friedman wrote at the start of her New York Times review of Thursday’s show. Such is Simons’s stature that this summer saw a tribute song in his honor, “RAF” by the rap group A$AP Mob, hit the charts with an immortal hook: “Please don’t touch my Raf, please don’t touch my Raf.”
Simons is also a discerning and devoted art collector. I’ve spotted him many times at Art Basel in Basel, Switzerland, as well as other major fairs. His home in New York has work by Cindy Sherman, Cady Noland, George Condo, Sanya Kantarovsky, Anne Collier, and Wolfgang Tillmans, in addition to pieces by Ruby. So, naturally, there were more art-world personalities than usual milling around before the start of Thursday’s show. Condo sat with Purple magazine’s editor, Olivier Zahm, while younger artists such as Jordan Wolfson, Joe Bradley, and Liz Magic Lazer were in the crowd. White Columns Director Matthew Higgs was there, as was Jessica Morgan, the director of the Dia Art Foundation. I was seated next to dealer Monika Sprüth, who owns Sprüth Magers (with Philomene Magers). She said it was her first fashion show in over a decade.
There were celebrities in attendance, people my seatmate said she “recognized from their pictures in the newspaper:” actors like Jake Gyllenhaal, Lupita Nyong’o, Mahershala Ali, Rashida Jones, and Kate Bosworth along with the model Karlie Kloss and Daily Show TV host Trevor Noah. Brooke Shields was also present for the event, which included the runway debut of Kaia Gerber, daughter of Cindy Crawford. And Ruby, the night’s main artist guest, sat next to Christina Ricci and Kyle MacLachlan.
Once the show started, 45 minutes late, the models bombed down the aisles in fabulous outfits cut from nylon, rubber, and lace, with hues flipping from violent yellow to blood-red on jeans and pulsating skirts. As the rapper Quavo articulated it in a verse in “RAF”: “Raf Simons, all kind of crazy colors.”
The biggest surprise may have been that, a few looks in, certain clothes were patterned with works by Andy Warhol, the result of a collaboration between Calvin Klein and the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. You won’t see any soup cans: many of the designs referenced in the show come from the “Death and Disaster” series. Don’t be surprised when you see shoulder bags adorned with Electric Chair (1964–65) and Ambulance Disaster (1963–64).
After the show, I was ushered into the backstage area, where behind a scrum in line to cheek-kiss Simons stood Ruby, in his jeans and a sweatshirt, stringy hair down to his shoulders. He seemed a little flustered by it all, bearing witness to a splashy fashion spectacle that shared DNA with his own work.
“It’s flattering to see that the artwork I’ve created for Calvin Klein have ceased to be just objects—they’ve integrated themselves into the garments,” he told me. “As an artist, I love that this trajectory of what I’ve done is going to be translated into a garment that someone can wear out on the street.”
Simons, as a fashion designer, has to create shows at a faster clip than an artist who may have a show or two per year. Visions need to come together quickly—a circumstance that Ruby, as his collaborator, has gotten used to.
“Three weeks ago, Raf said, ‘You think you can do it? Can we repurpose the mobile but integrate horror?’ ” Ruby recalled. “I said, ‘What do you mean by horror?’ “
As Simons began to explain in his thinking—”fashion tries to hide the horror and embrace only beauty, but they are both a part of life,” as he put it in his notes—the collaborative work started to come together.
“We both work on this platform where a topic has to be turned into an abstraction—it can’t exist as it is,” Ruby said. “A horror trip can’t be just a horror trip as you might know it. It has to be something else. It has to be integrated into something more.”
But the collaborators work on two sides of the country, meaning the final experience—the looks sashaying down the runway with the Ruby works strung overhead—would not come together until right before show time.
“For the past week I’ve been working in the studio on a new iteration of the mobile, and he’s been working in the atelier on things that have appropriated work out of that mobile, and up until yesterday—neither of us had seen what the other was doing,” Ruby told me. “I only saw the collection last night, and I thought it was a seamless translation of what I was doing.”
As images from the show worked their way online minutes after it ended and well-wishers streamed backstage, it was clear that the Simon-Ruby partnership has worked well.
“Most fashion houses won’t do this—they won’t allow a designer to bring in an artist and to make these kind of full-face moves which will identify the brand,” Ruby said. “This is a very sincere, very critical commitment from both of us, and from Calvin Klein.”
Update, September 11: This post has been updated to correct biographical information about Kaia Gerber.