By  on September 3, 2008

Calvin Klein — two of the coolest words to ever come out of American fashion. His is a multifaceted legacy in which timing, marketing savvy and a core fearlessness fused to create one of the greatest, hippest fashion houses of all time. Throughout his designing career Klein captured, even anticipated, the proverbial zeitgeist with a flamboyant audacity that in a way seems counterintuitive to the spareness of his clothes.

Oh yes, the clothes. Over the course of his 38-year career, Klein proved himself much more than a clever seer engaged in shameless titillation of the public, putting a particular teenaged pretty baby in jeans, a waifish unknown model in absolutely nothing and an impressive male package bulging boldly on a billboard high over Times Square. Klein was also a terrific designer who early on sensed the demand of an emerging class of bright, independent women for fashion that looked like they felt: sporty, sophisticated, unencumbered. Reviewing Klein’s evolution from the early to late Seventies, one sees in the clothes a rapid transition from snappy cuteness to seductive chic. And unlike Halston, that other great fashion star who spent days designing and debauching at Studio 54, Klein remained a powerful force for decades.

He took his hits along the way, and not just from the feds, who investigated his is-it-kiddie-porn rumpus room CK jeans campaign shot by Steven Meisel in 1995. Critics sometimes thought Klein found too much inspiration on other runways, some as seemingly antithetical as Rei Kawakubo’s and Yves Saint Laurent’s. More often, Klein was accused of pilfering from designers more obviously in line with his aesthetic, at times Giorgio Armani, Jil Sander, Helmut Lang.

But to take Klein too much to task for perceived references is to miss his essence as a designer. (Obviously sensitive to the issue, during the spring ’97 season when New York still showed after Europe, Klein saw photos of fishtail looks from Milan and promptly phoned this reporter there to stress that his collection, too, featured many a mermaid.) Along with Halston, he was the preeminent architect of American minimalism, already developing notions of casual style into a statement on the rapidly relaxing social and sexual mores of the day. And unlike so many designers who get caught in the time warp of their own initial success, Klein continued to turn out of-the-moment, important collections until he retired. Cases in point: the brazenly one-note spring 1994 outing built entirely around the tank silhouette; and his fall outing that same year, in which he embraced the controversial proportion that became known as the “New Length.”

Along with his mastery of the runway, Klein’s legacy is inseparable from jeans and underwear. His success at elevating such proletarian categories to the level of cocktail party conversation via brilliant marketing remains unparalleled. In fact, with those categories, as well as fragrance, Klein was one of the first to grasp that fashion is far less about a price point than a finely honed and, yes, calculated point of view.

Today, five years after showing his last collection, Klein has no formal link to the house he once owned. He declined to be interviewed for this Milestone; read into that what you will. There’s no question that the house aura has changed; still plenty chic, it now feels a touch safer than when Calvin steered the ship. One senses that shift when comparing its new Secret Obsession fragrance campaign, the banned television spot featuring the naked, writhing Eva Mendes, to Kate Moss’ old Obsession spots. The beautifully produced Mendes ad feels timely in this video sex-is-everywhere age. Moss, on the other hand, was a real shocker.

“I don’t think newness is ever over, or staying on the edge,” Klein told WWD in 2000. “Fashion is about change. You have to keep evolving and changing. It has to be new. You have to keep pushing it.”  

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