NEW YORK — Omnipresent as Calvin Klein is throughout the world, the man behind the brand has a reputation for being anything but that.
Yet during a rare public tête-à-tête with Fern Mallis Monday night, the designer opened up about selling his now $6 billion business, marriage, addiction, designers today, his Bronx childhood and paragliding with his lover. No subject seemed to be too personal for the 68-year-old Klein, who appeared relaxed and affable throughout the interview — his first at 92Y in 12 years. At a private reception afterward, Klein told WWD, “Every day is a new adventure and I enjoy life. It’s all fun.”
This story first appeared in the October 19, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Here, selections of what Klein discussed during the 90-minute interview.
SCHOOL DAYS IN THE BRONX
My mother would paint the apartment every few months. Burgundy. I hated the way the place looked. I couldn’t bear it. But my parents were wonderful people. As my mother once said, “Don’t ever forget that you are a product of your father and I.” And I am, I know that. And they both encouraged me to study and to continue my work. My growing up was actually kind of a wonderful experience.
DECIDING ON FASHION
Well, one thing, my father was a businessman and my mother managed to spend all his money on clothes. She loved clothes and she was very subtle about it. She would have fur but it would be fur-lined coats. She loved neutral colors, tweeds and she would sketch. My grandmother, her mother, was a dressmaker for a designer on Seventh Avenue and then opened up her own little shop as a dressmaker. I knew from the time I was five exactly what I wanted to do. I went to great public schools in New York, and I was in special art classes, drew all the time.
THE OLD NEIGHBORHOOD
My best friend Barry Schwartz, who became my business partner, always supported me. Most people didn’t understand. They were playing baseball and I was going to art class.…I don’t think anybody thought of it as straight, gay. Ralph Lauren grew up in the same neighborhood and Ralph always dressed in a peculiar way. I was the edgy one. I wanted to look like some kind of tough guy, like James Dean. And Ralph looked like he was from some other country. And I remember him distinctly. No, [we weren’t friends.] He was older than I. I grew up in a very Jewish kind of intellectual environment.
HOLDING ONTO THE PAST
What I did save was the clothes, all the clothes we’d done since 1968, most of the samples. All the photography and commercial work that we did before we sold the company. The archives are still housed in the building where my offices are and the design studio uses it.
My first real job was designing coats and suits for a company that was run by a man whose name was Dan Milstein. Typical garment center company at that time. He had what we called morning sickness. Until he smoked his first cigar, which typically was around noon, he was a nightmare and whatever I sketched was never good enough. After the cigar, of course, everything was fine. It was a good learning experience, but I knew then that I wanted to be on my own. I always had the sense, maybe it was because my dad was in his own business, that I would never be understood. I would have to do it myself.
HIS BIG BREAK
I decided that while I was on the job, I could make some samples at night and on weekends and then I would leave my job. The people I was working for figured out what I was doing and they fired me before I quit. So I took a little room at the York Hotel that had rooms for manufacturers who made clothes in the South. My little room was right opposite the elevator and, sure enough, one day the general merchandise manager from Bonwit Teller walked in. I showed him the clothes and he said, “I will have a buyer down here tomorrow, then on Saturday you will come up to the store and show the clothes to president Mildred Custin.” And he said, “You will then have been discovered.” I promise you this is exactly what happened.
My showroom was on Seventh Avenue and 37th Street, Bonwit’s was on Fifth Avenue and 56th Street and being this crazy perfectionist I didn’t want to crease any of the clothes in a taxi. So I wheeled a rack and unfortunately one of the wheels broke. It was a nightmare getting the clothes up there.
And finally I was up in her office at the top of the building and they would say, “Miss Custin just entered the store. Miss Custin is now in the elevator.” And I’m dying. She comes in, I show her the clothes, she doesn’t smile. And she says, “Mr. Klein, I will pay you $20 more for each, just make the production exactly as these samples look.” And then there was a $50,000 order. I had projected $50,000 for the year would be great. Now, mind you, this was 1968.
I called Barry, he was my business partner who had put up the money. He put up the money; I had the talent. He had taken money out of the cash register at the supermarket. I called him and said, “Are you sitting down? Well, I just got a $50,000 order from Bonwit Teller and he said, ‘Who is Bonwit Teller?’” In the grocery business it’s about peas and beans. The great thing about the fashion business — and I still believe this today — is that the word caught on like fire. People were coming in immediately. Everyone wanted to see the clothes, everyone wanted to buy.
THE ROAD NOT TAKEN
Months before I started in the business, there was a total tragedy in Barry’s family. His father was murdered in the store. Both of our parents were in the same business. He said to me, “Why don’t we become partners? I’ll give you half the business. We’ll open up lots of stores. We’ll become the next A&P.” I was married. Marci [his daughter] was a year or two years old. I knew this would mean security, that we would be successful and the idea of a business partnership with such a close friend was ideal. I went to my parents for advice, which I rarely did because I thought that I knew it all. I was sure my mother would say don’t you dare go into the supermarket business and I thought my father would say do it, this is a great opportunity. My dad said, “You know, I never knew exactly what you studied all these years, but I have a feeling if you don’t see it through, even though this is a great opportunity your best friend is offering, I think you will be unhappy all your life. You have to go through with it.” I left their apartment on cloud nine. That did it for me. It was the best advice I ever got.
I wasn’t thinking of it as a brand. I always managed to separate myself from the name of the company. But I knew I wanted to create something that would go on long after I was personally involved with it. I was just intrigued by the idea of doing other things and started with the advertising. Back then, the magazines would come to the designers to say, “Now it’s time for you to advertise and we will do it for you.” I always thought, “How could they possibly communicate what I have to say better than me?” So I always got involved in areas that American or even European designers hadn’t been concerned with.
THE FIRST LICENSING DEAL
Those were the Studio 54 days. I was on my way to Frankfurt for a fabrics fair. It was about 4 o’clock in the morning and a man came up to me and said, “Would you like to put your name on denim?” I called Barry on my way to the airport — right from Studio 54. I said, “You know, there is something interesting about this idea of designing jeans.” Then there was Lee, Levi and Wrangler. I thought this could be fun. I liked the idea of reaching lots of people because the clothes I was making, because of the prices, you could reach very few people. We made an arrangement to start that company with Carl Rosen and Puritan.
Andrew Rosen used to work for us. I am so proud of what he’s accomplished. His dad was a really cool guy. He was in the dress business. They knew nothing about jeans. My favorite expression with all of them was, “Trust me. Just trust me.” And Carl did.”
My second wife Kelly worked with me in the design studio for a long period of time and she was greatly responsible for us doing underwear.…I still wear it. And I wear other people’s underwear, too, because I want to check out the competition.
THE FALLOUT ON DAUGHTER MARCI
She was quoted in Time or Newsweek to something of the effect of, “Every time I go to bed with some guy, I’m looking at my dad’s name on their underwear.” I said to my psychiatrist at the time, “I don’t think that’s very funny.” And he said, “Lighten up.”
THE MEDIUM IS THE MESSAGE
One thing I did say is if we really want to reach a lot of people in the jeans world, I think we should be on TV. I said print is one thing and television is another. I said it’s going to cost a lot of money. He said, all right, whatever. I did a lot of work with Dick Avedon and I did a lot of work right from the very beginning with Bruce Weber. I went to Dick and told him what I wanted to do and he introduced me to Doon Arbus, who is Diane Arbus’ daughter and is brilliant and a great writer. The three of us would do a lot of drinking and staying up very late and deciding who the cinematographer should be. I worked with all the photographers and directors pretty much the same way. I had to do it. I just felt this passion. I knew what I wanted to say. I had to find the right people to help me to convey that message.
NAMING THE FRAGRANCE OBSESSION
I was obsessed anyway. The word “obsession” reminded me of myself, and of my friends who were obsessed with work or success. It’s instant. I get an emotional reaction, something happens to my body when I see a photograph or clothes or word and I know it’s right.
The reason for Kate [Moss] and this whole group of women I found that someone named “waifs” was because before that, a lot of women were getting breast implants and doing things to their buttocks. It was getting out of control. I just found something so distasteful about all that. I wanted someone who was natural, always thin. I was looking for the complete opposite of that glamour type that came before Kate.
FASHION’S FONDNESS FOR CELEBRITIES
It’s just never been my thing because then I think it’s about the celebrity. What I wanted was being about the clothes or the fragrance, not about selling the celebrity. But celebrities on the covers of magazines were selling magazines, so it’s valid. It works, but it’s not for me.
LEAVING CALVIN KLEIN
I consulted for three years. Actually, I did a lot more during that period of time than I thought I would do. Then they kindly asked if I would stay on. When you create something and you’re used to running it, I won’t say being in control, when you’re working with so many people, it’s not like I’m running the whole show, it’s complex. But the decision does lie with me. For me, it was best just to let go and move on and enjoy a new time in my life. I don’t follow what the company does. I don’t really follow much of what anyone does. I look at Women’s Wear. I see magazines, but since I sold the company it was doing about $2 billion at retail. Now it’s about $6 billion. I still have a financial interest in the company, a very serious one. I’m not complaining.
FASHION’S RISING STARS
The stars that I know are the ones who are established. You know, Vera Wang, Carolina Herrera and Donna Karan, who is one of my very close friends. We traveled together to Africa and had a great time together. We had so much fun. We laughed like crazy. And I took a lot of pictures. Instead of standing behind the photographers directing, I was holding the camera myself.
ADVICE FOR NEW DESIGNERS
You need to have a vision. A designer, any designer, needs to say something that is different than what’s being said. And then you have to be convincing. Even if you’re not confident, act as though you are confident. That is the only way you can convince people to believe in what you believe in. And that’s not easy. I think repetition is reputation. Think of Ralph Lauren, I mean you know what he does. Donna Karan, the same thing.
THE 2003 MELTDOWN IN MADISON SQUARE GARDEN
I’ve had a couple. I’ll never forget, Kelly said, “You have to do it at a game before the playoffs when everyone is watching?” I struggled with addiction and lots of people do. That was really a shameful, horrible moment. It had nothing to do with work. I’ve done enough therapy and enough work on myself. Addiction is not caused by stress on the job, even though lots of people in the fashion industry have suffered from the same problem. It’s not about the work. It has more to do with your childhood and lots of other things. You’re always in recovery. You’re always aware that this is something you don’t want to do, whether it’s drugs, sex, food. There are lots of addictions.
DROPPING $30 MILLION TO TEAR DOWN A HAMPTONS MANSION
I tore down the house that was there. It was a monstrosity and an embarrassment to the town. I built a full-scale model of the house that we are building in Southampton on the property of what I thought I wanted so that I could walk through the space. It is very difficult to know proportions and height to get it right. I wasn’t building a house, just a structure.
THE LIKELIHOOD OF ANOTHER CALVIN KLEIN-TYPE COMPANY
I always think positive. When I started, way back then, people said, “Oh, you’re crazy. This is a terrible time to start a business and you will be lucky if you have a $2 million business.” I think the one thing about fashion is the stores and the people are always ready for something new. Being established, lasting for a long time when you think of brands like Hermès, Gucci and the other great names out there, that’s tough. But the opportunities always exist for someone new, young and talented.
CALVIN, THE BUSINESS VS. CALVIN, THE MAN
Sometimes when I see visuals or something creative, I think, “If I were doing it, I would do it differently” — naturally. But I’m not doing it. I’m not in control. When I can’t control it, why get upset about it?
AVERAGE DAY — ARCHIVES, BOOKS, THE HOUSE?
Well, all of it. I’ve been working with Madonna Badger. I don’t know if people know how much work goes into every detail. I mean, it’s not an accident when something is well done. It requires such devotion and such talent. So everything — I can’t begin to tell you what I’m doing with my apartment, my house and it’s fun to do things for myself. Because I’ve always done it for the company. All my work was for people out there, not that I had a bad life, but now I’m enjoying living in environments I’m creating with people I greatly respect. And spending time speaking to groups and universities.
TO-DO ON HIS BUCKET LIST
I’m in a relationship. I fell in love with a young man who is a total athlete. And we went paragliding off Aspen Mountain about four weeks ago. That was a trip, let me tell you.
There are no favorites. It’s the culmination of all the work that is really important to me. It’s not one collection. It’s not about one anything. It’s about all of the years constantly doing the best you can do. For me, that’s really the definition of success. People sometimes think, well it’s how much money you make or whatever they think about success. Just doing the best I can do and then hoping people appreciate it. But then I know I wouldn’t feel successful.
Family and friends, really that’s what completes life. I devoted a great deal of my life to my work, which I am very happy that I did. But I was there, I was a father. Marci and I have now the greatest relationship. And I met someone and fell in love. And he’s a great guy. I am now experiencing life in a whole new way, in a fresh way, through someone’s eyes who hasn’t seen the life that I’ve seen.