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.
This story first appeared in the September 3, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
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.”
Here, observations by Calvin Klein over the years, culled from interviews with WWD and sister publications W, DNR and FN.
“We haven’t done many suits since we’ve opened our business, and suddenly they look new and exciting. I love the idea of an action skirt under this length jacket.”
— WWD, 1971
“My image is that I’m young, eager and kind of sensitive. But I’ve just had a very traumatic birthday — I turned 30.” — WWD, 1973
“Five years ago, I knew exactly what I wanted — to have my own coat and suit business. I did it with my school friend Barry Schwartz and his $10,000. We’ve surpassed all our expectations. We are constantly refusing takeover orders from public companies. Now the big question we face is, just how far do we want to expand?” — W, 1973
“It’s a good time for fashion in general. Women are interested in fashion again. It’s not chic anymore to be antifashion.” — FN, 1975
“I don’t think a jean has to be more than $25.” — On the Puritan deal, WWD, 1977
“My mother turned me on to fashion. She was a fashion freak….She always wore beige and brown and, as a kid, I was dressed that way. So there’s no question it came from her. She gave me a feeling for fashion and I got interested in it….There was a turning point in my life when I was about 23. Barry Schwartz, who’s now my partner, offered me half of his [supermarket] business. I went to my parents. I knew what my mother would say — ‘Stick with fashion.’ And I thought my father would tell me to go into the supermarket business, but instead he said, ‘Don’t do it. I think you’d be sorry for the rest of your life.’ My father’s decision absolutely convinced me, and six months later, Barry backed me in this business.” — DNR, 1979
“I have recently bought an apartment — it’s a co-op and I spoke to two members of the board who asked me if I was going to turn the place into Studio 54. That’s what they were really concerned about. My apartment isn’t going to be anything like Studio 54.” — DNR, 1979
“I’m in great health….For a long time I wouldn’t even discuss it, because people tend to believe that denials are a way of hiding the truth. But now it’s gotten way out of proportion, and Barry even had to call my mother when I was away to tell her I’m OK….I understand why I may be a target. I’m young, I’m successful, I’m not so bad looking and I enjoy living life in the fast lane. It’s good gossip.
— Refuting rumors that he had been diagnosed with AIDS, WWD, 1983
“My friends always told me to bet on horses, not ride them.” — On his riding accident, WWD, 1990
“It’s Kelly in a rebellious mood. It’s Madonna. It’s the other side, the sexy, the outrageous, the crazy, the bitchy.” — On his new fall bridge and jeans collections, WWD, 1992
“Now, what was obvious to David Geffen three years ago is obvious to a lot of people. We have been putting things in place over the last four years. That was a strategy, there was a system there. But a lot of people didn’t see it. Now, they have egg on their face— all those who were calling for bankruptcy.” — WWD, 1994
“You know — hello — we exercise today, we watch our diet. And I must add, when someone says, ‘It’s young,’ it’s supposed to be young. Who wants to look like an old frump?” — WWD, 1994
“I didn’t set out thinking how to be controversial, only how to make this woman look to-die-for, a killer — with no [obvious] effort. But all of a sudden, people get upset. With Brooke Shields years ago, I thought it was a hoot, but all these people went crazy. We need newness and excitement in fashion. That’s what it’s about — that’s what puts the fun in fashion….We’re always questioning people’s values. How much can you provoke? How much are they willing to show? Is it decent? Is it exciting? Is it valid? Is it over the line? It’s a whole process, but it’s not about trying to be controversial or trendy.” — WWD, 1994
“My philosophy has always been the same. It’s always been spare, it’s always been about sensuality, it’s always been sophisticated. And above all, it’s always represented what I think is modern.” — WWD, 1994
“I do so many shades of metal tones — silver, gray, ink, sky, stone. I look at things in terms of primary colors — those we never use — they’re boring and obvious. But if you’re talking navy, there’s so much you can do with it, put more black in it, more brown, more gray. Some people just write off these tones as neutrals, but there’s so much range. Navy can mean midnight, almost black, ebony.”
— WWD, 1994
“I see Kate Moss on the buses all over the country now lying down for Obsession, and I think it’s the sexiest goddamn shot I’ve done in I can’t tell you how long.”
— WWD, 1994
“It reminds me of a rum bottle.” — On the CK One fragrance bottle, WWD, 1994
“We don’t expect it to be a Broadway hit overnight. A store is a building process. It takes time to build relationships between customers and salespeople. You learn as you go and change things as you see the need.” — On the opening of the Madison Avenue flagship in New York, WWD, 1995
“I read that Donna said the shows attract too much media. What does she think we do this for? Hello. The whole point of all of this is to put on a show to create excitement so that we’ll sell some clothes. I’m in shock. We’ve got something great going here and it’s taken us forever to get it going. The French and Italians are way ahead. Finally we got there and here we go again, back to showrooms. It’s ridiculous.”
— On the tents-versus-alternate venue controversy, WWD, 1996
“I don’t care if I did a skinny belt before someone else or if simple, pure clothes have always been my philosophy. And many times it’s been out of fashion; in the Eighties, it was not the trend. Now all of a sudden there are designers not known for doing minimalist clothes who are doing just that. And no one’s saying they’re doing what I’ve been doing all of these years. The truth is I don’t really care what they say. I care if I sell. It’s what I feel about what I’m doing.” — W, 1996
“I’m in agreement with Helmut Lang….I’m going to show on Friday evening, the 18th. It’s the only thing that makes any sense because of the production schedule and the reality that designers who do business in Europe have their collections ready a month early — one month before we show in New York. It’s ridiculous to show last when we show in Europe already….I want the press to see the clothes in context of what’s going on in Europe, not after Europe.” — WWD, 1998
“My idea of what’s sexy is very fine, sensual. I don’t want it to be cheap, flashy and tacky….For me, modernism is where the excitement is. There’s always going to be room for traditional clothes. And there’s nothing wrong with traditional clothes, except they belong in England, where the history is.”
— DNR, 1999
“Early on, people were trying to convince me that a Web site was good for image. We have plenty of image. This has to take us to another place….I don’t buy anything online. I don’t know anyone who does. What they’re online for is a whole other story….”
— WWD, 2000
“I don’t think newness is ever over, or staying on the edge. Fashion is about change. You have to keep evolving and changing. It has to be new. You have to keep pushing it.” — WWD The Magazine, 2000
“To get a celebrity to sit in the front row just so the press has something to write about doesn’t interest me….To me, the Academy Awards and all the nonsense about designers from all over the world trying to get their clothes and accessories on celebrities is so out of date. I just find this embarrassing.”
— WWD The Magazine, 2000
“I have a long-term emotional, as well as financial, interest in the success of this business. This has been my life. It’s a company not just about me, but also a lot of incredibly wonderful people. I care about this and I have a financial interest in seeing it do well.”
— WWD, 2002