User Experience: Calvin Klein 205W39NYC
Calvin Klein Incorporates Sterling Ruby
Capitalism is like a shark—it has to keep swimming or it dies. So, despite the impossibility of perpetual growth, capitalism ploughs forever forward. Fashion, just like any other industry, must follow this principle, outputting ever-higher volumes at ever-accelerating speeds while endlessly searching for new inspiration.
The most important source of newness for fashion comes from the world of art. Designers have several ways of incorporating art into their work: they can use art as a reference, on a mood board or as general inspiration; they can appropriate a work verbatim—as a print, for example; they can work directly with artists on collaborative projects that result in garments; and they can commission artists to produce site-specific installations that contain them. Raf Simons and the artist Sterling Ruby have known each other for almost 20 years, and have together explored all of these avenues.
In 2012, when Simons was creative director at Dior, he copy/pasted Ruby’s canvases onto a couture collection. For his own Fall/Winter 2014 show, Simons temporarily renamed his eponymous label “Raf Simons x Sterling Ruby,” presenting a co-authored collection that resembled neither Raf’s design nor Ruby’s art, but something totally different. Now in the role of creative director at Calvin Klein, Simons has asked his friend to redesign the brand’s flagship store in midtown Manhattan. The nature of the collaboration has serious implications for both the future of fashion and artistic practice.Ruby’s design is defined by a canary cacophony of surfaces and scaffolding. An elaborate hanging system has been erected around and over block-colour display units. Acid-wash Americana and folk craft abound. The colour palette is less extreme than most of Ruby’s art, but otherwise it is a fairly typical and exemplary installation. Although scaffolding has been used in construction for at least three millennia, all modern systems owe their origin to an English builder called Daniel Palmer Jones. In the early 1900s, he invented and patented the “Scaffixer” and “Universal Coupler” connecting modules (which are still in use today). Before these innovations, iron pipes were tied together with rope, which had a nasty habit of coming loose in rather lethal ways. What Jones’ joints made possible were higher, safer, and more robust frameworks—and thus more extensive and ambitious construction. Today, scaffolding is a symbol of the capitalist city. It is a fundamental component of growth, and a visual symptom of speculation, development, destruction, and change—infinite expansion.
In New York, it is especially common to see scaffolding installed right up against façades, forming filigree, impromptu colonnades along the street, and casting shop windows into deep shadow. This urban form recalls 19th century visions of the city as a multi-layered metropolis, where alienated individuals, subjected to the brute power of progress, occupied spaces produced as mere afterthoughts of industry. Ruby’s erections rise from steel pipe legs, marooning nude plastic mannequins, many without any Calvin Klein product on them, 20 feet up in the air. There are no guardrails on the raised steel decks. Like suicidal versions of an Antony Gormley artwork, these desolate figures in red and black perch precariously over the customers below. All the same, the attitudes of the suspended mannequins feel forced. They are over-eager to appear reckless, as if conjured from the fading memory of a Baby Boomer rocker. They insist on making a symbolic gesture of defiance, knowing full well there is a safety net below them.
This condition recalls one of the key qualities that separates the 21st century city from its 19th century heritage: there has been a massive reduction in the types and numbers of risks we are exposed to in everyday life—both fiscally and physically. Credit is not extended to people deemed to be too high risk, which cuts them out of the urban realm and the financial system. The flow of money has become fluid and smooth, but also ruthless and impersonal. The brutality of this capital at work has also produced a strange overcompensation in the realm of health and safety. There is more urban signage now than ever before—do not lean on the doors, no smoking, high voltage—and systems of crowd separation like traffic lights and road markings have become very advanced. An array of devices designed to increase access and enjoyment of the city have been widely implemented, from wheelchair ramps to laws on public health and air quality. Yet such advances have always been inversely matched by efforts from the wealthy to gentrify, displace, depoliticize, and socially cleanse civic space.When scaffolding is used indoors it has a slightly different effect. It recalls the freedom of loft apartments, the energy of “ad hoc” DIY and the artistic occupation of ex-industrial spaces. Scaffolding in the home accompanies attitudes towards the temporary, the functional, and the authentic. There is something deeply nostalgic about its use in a New York shop interior, as if it were an attempt to recapture the glory days of the 1970s, when property had almost no value and you could rent a brownstone in the Village for $100 a month. Equally, the spaces of the store are all domestically inspired. First you pass through the lobby, as you go upstairs you hit the living room and atelier, then at the top is a bedroom and its dressing room. Ruby’s interior has become a fantasy loft—fantastic and impossible, an idealized and abstracted home in midtown. The single rail of Calvin Klein underwear in the bedroom hang limp, in an unsexy way. The scene bypasses irony, instead evoking the sadness of a father’s y-fronts.But it all comes back to how much the interior is identifiably a work of Sterling Ruby. This new flagship has frequently been described as a work of art, but you could equally say that it is Ruby’s art that has now been transformed into a flagship.
Before the modern era, most artists relied on a system of patronage. Nobility and the church supported artists, paying them a wage and granting them commissions. But during the 20th century, artists tried to become more autonomous. Figures like Andy Warhol wanted to initiate, produce, and sell their own art themselves—without relying on the grace of any elite. One powerful consequence of this quest for independence was that art had to be thought of more and more like any other commercial product. It could not really be sacred or priceless; it had to be valued and valuable. It could not be singular and fixed like a painting on the roof of a chapel; it had to be serial and portable like a limited-edition run of small sculptures.The result of this process is that artworks have become a lot like luxury cars, or expensive watches, or exclusive penthouses—all are now subject to the same market logic. In this case, Sterling Ruby has been commissioned by Raf Simons and Calvin Klein to execute an installation, as an artist, but under the supervision of a creative director. The ambition has been to create an interdisciplinary cultural collaboration between fashion and art; the result is that an artist has used their own style and skill to promote a brand as an artistic product—which it isn’t.What makes this particularly complicated is that the outcome is rather good. Ruby took the shell of British architect John Pawson’s store and totally reinvented it, creating a fantastic, glowing world in the process. But the underlying message is that art no longer has very much creative autonomy. The Calvin Klein flagship happens to be amongst the clearest examples of a generalized cultural phenomena. Ruby has applied his distinctive artistic style so faithfully in this commercial context that it has retrospectively reframed all his previous work. I’m sad about that. We have to ask: what does conflating artistic practice with commercial decoration mean for our common culture, even when the result is very beautiful?