Will Selling Nostalgia Work for Calvin Klein?

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When Lottie Moss, little sister of Kate, debuted as the face of Calvin Klein Jeans’ collaboration with My Theresa last week, much internet hay was made of the fact that the ads strongly recalled her sister's '90s campaigns for the brand. The stark black-and-white shots and the choice of photographer — Michael Avedon, grandson of Richard, who lensed the original campaign — only fueled the comparison. 

And, in fact, the baggy denim overalls and old-school sports bra Lottie wore in the shoot were not merely evocative of the 1990s — they were reissues of actual pieces from that time. Titled the Re-Issue Project, Calvin Klein Jeans' new nine-piece My Theresa capsule collection includes denim, sweatshirts, and T-shirts from its '90s heyday. As Justin O’Shea, the e-commerce site’s buying director, explains, “We have seen a huge resurgence in fashion towards the aesthetic which Calvin Klein Jeans pioneered, which led to us collaborating with the brand.”

While plenty of campaigns — Guess and Levi’s come to mind — rely heavily on nostalgic imagery, Calvin Klein has taken the current craze for the recent past to another plane. At the moment, the company has three different projects across its separate sub-labels that all trade on reminiscences of the recent past: the My Theresa collab for Calvin Klein Jeans, the #mycalvins underwear campaign on social media, and a planned pop-up for its men's ready-to-wear line. (The Collection ready-to-wear line — the women's clothes you see on the runway — have notably not taken this tack.)

Though it's not officially a strategy for the brand, nostalgia does seem to be a through-line for the company of late. The ongoing #mycalvins initiative for Calvin Klein Underwear features Lara Stone in another '90s-inspired, minimalist ad, and the company has enlisted over 100 "influencers" — including Miranda Kerr, Iggy Azalea, and Kendall Jenner — to pose on Instagram in its logo-branded undies, virtually indistinguishable from the styles Moss and Marky Mark originally wore. And this fall, the brand will open a men’s pop-up at Dover Street Market, selling vintage-inspired wares like an Escape-branded sweatshirt.

O'Shea's comment about Calvin nostalgia being in the air is right on point. The company appears to have finally noticed a craze for '90s-logo-based brands — including its classic sportswear — and responded to it. For example, Harry Styles and Ciara recently wore the same vintage Obsession sweatshirt. (Styles, who was born after the perfume campaign even premiered, may not have gotten the reference.) WSJ. magazine put the same sweatshirt on the cover of its recent men’s fashion issue, on Brazilian soccer star Neymar.

But why remake the pieces, rather than move forward design-wise? “Reissuing these pieces from the ’90s just felt right," Kevin Carrigan, global creative director for Calvin Klein Platinum Label, Calvin Klein White Label, Calvin Klein Jeans, and Calvin Klein Underwear, told the Cut of the Re-Issue Project. "The denim washes and silhouettes are still relevant today, and the project organically grew out of the recent nostalgia for that time period.” He also noted that the pieces aren’t straight-ahead copies of the originals. “We tweaked the fits to make them more contemporary and styled each of the pieces in a relaxed and effortless way.”

It will be interesting to see how this approach works for the company moving forward. In the short term, it certainly makes sense for the brand to capitalize on an existing trend: Customers who remember the aesthetic the first time around will be drawn to it, while newbies will be pulled in by the “retro” angle. And by making the pieces available for a limited time in higher-end contexts, like at Dover Street Market and on My Theresa, the company is safeguarding its aspirational quality. (Adidas headed this issue off at the pass when it remade its iconic Stan Smith sneakers — newly rendered haute by the European fashion pack — hard to come by.)

But even if the strategy pans out in the near future, one has to assume that customers are ultimately looking for new ideas. It will be interesting to see if Calvin can sustain the nostalgia engine, or whether it's capitalizing on a flash in the pan. (And to see if brands like Tommy Hilfiger — whose flashy ’90s pieces have a following of their own — will follow its lead.) Calvin appears to be targeting a very specific, high-end customer and focusing on identifiable logo pieces. When comparable brands have attempted similar reissues — like Ralph Lauren's RL Vintage project last year, or Levi's vintage re-creations — they've focused on more timeless, irony-proof silhouettes. On the higher end, Balenciaga Edition and Jil Sander's Iconic Items reissues have been directed at collectors or true-blue fans of the brand who are in search of a house's "greatest hits."

Francisco Costa, in his decade designing the house's Collection line, has excelled at creating minimalist yet intriguing fare. With upstart labels like Trademark and Everlane cornering the market on attractive, well-priced basics, it might be smarter for Calvin Klein's mid-priced offerings to give customers an attainable version of what they see on the runway, rather than selling the past to the highest bidder.

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