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Dress for Dystopia

In his debut dual-gender collection for Calvin Klein last February the new chief creative officer announced that his show represented “the coming together of different characters and different individuals, just like America itself.” It was a big claim (albeit effectively realized), but on Thursday, for his sophomore effort, he took it a step further.

“It’s about American horror and American beauty,” he said in his show notes; the dream turned nightmare. The immediate interpretation of that one is easy — let no one say Mr. Simons, who is Belgian, shies away from current events — though the designer chose to approach his subject at a more oblique angle, through the American fantasy factory that is Hollywood. Because, like the movies, “Calvin Klein is an American institution.”But what does that mean at a time when many people now say they don’t recognize their country? That Mr. Simons is willing to offer an answer is both risky — and a little presumptuous. But it also reveals the level of Mr. Simons’s ambition. He’s attempting no less than a redesign of American identity: one in which, if it works, a number of the alienated electorate may see themselve

Mr. Simons’s America is an America of the mind, rooted in the Midwestern prairies and resonating coast to coast by way of Stephen King, Sissy Spacek, Kim Novak and “Twin Peaks,” with stereotypes (cowboys! cheerleaders! lumberjacks!) just twisted enough so the references teeter on the tightrope between mythology and cliché. It is multilayered and riven by dualities, male or female no matter. And it is increasingly complex in its iterations.

An installation by Mr. Ruby, the artist who is Mr. Simons’s quasi-muse, of brightly colored yarn pompoms, dangling axes redolent of “The Shining,” tin buckets and swathes of fringed silk dangled over the heads of Trevor Noah, Mahershala Ali, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paris Jackson, Kate Bosworth and Brooke Shields. And out came two-tone satin cowboy shirts with contrasting satin trousers or pencil skirts, branded patchwork quilts, jeans and jean jackets with paint rolled over thick on one side.

Also virginal cotton nighties splashed with black-and-white prints from Andy Warhol’s Death and Disaster series, and a riot of slightly queasy-making color in knit vests and contrasting trousers and silver-tipped cowboy boots. Midcentury silhouettes — the full skirts and tiny waists and trapeze cuts that have been part of Mr. Simons’s design vocabulary since his stints at Jil Sander and Dior — rendered in camper-tent nylons also were used for the oily shirts under men’s tailoring, gathered and puckered with rucksack strings. Matching tops and pencil skirts were made in rubber and given an industrial Ohio factory stamp, and party dresses trapped white lace flowers under transparent vinyl or silk under a scrim of black net. There was a woman-as-mop evening moment, which looked better than it sounds.