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Collaboration. Innovation. Fearlessness. Those words radiate from the wall of Francisco Costa’s conference room, a vibrant gift from his staff on his most recent birthday, May 10, (which he shares with Miuccia Prada, he points out). The words were not chosen randomly, but emerged as talking points during an intense examination process Costa and his design team undertook in advance of the 10th anniversary as women’s creative director for Calvin Klein Collection. Costa thought it an appropriate moment to articulate a mission statement for the team, one reflecting past achievements and goals going forward. The result: “Our mission is to create provocative, sophisticated collections for confident women.”
On a break last week from working on the collection he will show today, Costa discussed that statement, his start at Calvin Klein and his state of mind as he begins his second decade as creative director of one of the most storied brands of American fashion.
This story first appeared in the September 12, 2013 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
WWD: Break down the elements of the statement for me.
F.C.: Provocative — it’s a provocative brand. It’s the soul of Calvin. He was always ahead of the curve, whether it was his great advertisements or his great fragrances. It’s just a great reminder of the amazing company that he created. There is a fearlessness. I am very lucky to be here and have the support of corporate to do my job in the best way possible in the reality of today’s times. It would have been a total disaster if, at all, I had tried to be Calvin.
WWD: What do you mean?
F.C.: To try to re-create what he created. It would have been a disaster. Calvin himself, I’m not quoting, but I remember that he never liked to be put into a category. I remember he didn’t appreciate being called a minimalist. There is a fantastic quote that he left us here, which is more the mission statement of the company.
WWD: “Confident.” In choosing a single descriptive for the Calvin Klein woman, you choose “confident.”
F.C.: I think the women that we dress, the women who buy our clothes, they have a certain strength. It could be about the clothes, it could be about themselves. It’s just attractive.
WWD: How do the words on the wall relate?
F.C.: They kept coming up in our discussion. Collaboration — it’s all about cooperation amongst us. When a sketch comes into this three-dimensional form and everybody contributes, it’s really fantastic. I can’t say it’s a work of one — it’s a work of ours.
F.C.: Today, you cannot live without it. It’s a very competitive market. We went from having four collections a year to having eight collections a year. You have to keep up. Fearlessness is a liberation factor.
WWD: A difficult condition to achieve.
F.C.: The most difficult.
Click Here for a Slideshow of the Francisco Costa’s Looks Over the Years >>
WWD: Collaboration isn’t always easy, either.
F.C.: For me, that’s most important. If I look at the house, I don’t think that we, as a company, would have been at all successful if it weren’t for collaboration, if it weren’t for all the teams working together, if it weren’t for the support of Tom Murry and Manny Chirico. It’s really a team. And also, all the creative directors. Kevin [Carrigan, ck Calvin Klein, Calvin Klein Jeans and Calvin Klein] does a fantastic job; Ulrich [Grimm, men’s and women’s shoes and accessories] does a fantastic job; Italo [Zucchelli, men’s Calvin Klein Collection] does a fantastic job; and it’s part of one. And I think that’s the success. It’s really a team.
WWD: So there’s collaboration on the Collection level, but also the brand level.
F.C.: There is a strategic point of view that our management took in order to take this company to another level, and it has been extremely successful. It was sold for $700 million; we’re worth $8 billion now. It’s an amazing reality.
WWD: Calvin Klein is structured differently than many brands, with several creative directors for various areas. Have you ever wished that there were a single creative director — you?
F.C.: No. First of all, I wouldn’t want to do it. Number two, I think it’s a very smart thing that the company did, appointing different [people with] different views for different markets. I couldn’t possibly do what Kevin does. I find our model the perfect model.
WWD: What does 10th anniversary in this role mean to you?
F.C.: Calvin is a genius. There’s nothing I could touch that would be near enough. The challenge for me is to understand what I can contribute and make the best out of it. As a company, we are celebrating 10 years of great success. Ten years of amazing entrepreneurship from management and [hard work by] my colleagues here, my design team here and the design studios. That’s something to celebrate. And to look toward the future and how to take this even further. I get questions about why we don’t have more stores, but it’s all in works; it’s a process. There was a plan about how to run this business and how to make it a success. And we have. I think the company sits in an amazing position.
WWD: You took over from a “living legend.” Thinking back, what were your thoughts then and now? With benefit of hindsight, how do you assess your approach?
F.C.: Calvin hired me. A year later, he sold the company. The fact was that PVH took over and they had to cut costs somehow. The whole staff that was in-house was fired. The whole studio, the whole production team, everybody. And we became a licensee. The minute we became a licensee, the structure that I had originally worked in [was gone]. Many people freaked out and left. I was a newcomer, here for only a year. I had no time to think about what exactly it meant. I had a job that I was paid to do. I had to design a collection and I had to move on with it. It was very simplistic. I feel that in a way, it actually worked for me — not having the understanding of all that was happening. I was just thinking this is what I have to do. There was nobody else, so I had to hire new people.
WWD: What was Calvin’s input at the time?
F.C.: He was consulting for a few years, mostly on advertising. He would come in, but very honestly, he was not interested.
WWD: Do you have a personal relationship with Calvin today?
F.C.: No, I don’t. Socially, yes, we see each other. A nice relationship, but not personal.
WWD: That Calvin statement you alluded to, what was it?
F.C.: “We stand for being modern, contemporary, sophisticated, pure, natural and often minimal. Consistent. And, we stand for sex in a very big way. We are a brand that can affect youth and people of any age.”
WWD: How does it apply to your work?
F.C.: I think it applies a great deal. What I would say differs slightly is [the creative approach]. I am highly inspired by art, highly inspired by the street, and I think I explore that a little more.
WWD: More so than Calvin?
F.C.: Perhaps. He was very consistent. I think that I am perhaps a little more expressive at times due to what inspires me.
WWD: Were you always interested in art as an influence?
F.C.: When I say art influences me, which it does, it’s not at all in a literal form. You go and see exhibitions or collections or meet an artist. It’s all a compilation. Every moment, at all times, all this information. Then all this information disappears, and it shows up later in the process. Our collections are never thematic. They have layers, all these influences that are hard to pin down.
WWD: What artists inspire you now?
F.C.: Cecily Brown, Picasso, Basquiat. I mean, my God, when I look at his work, it’s just bigger. He grows. He has become so much bigger. He will never date.
WWD: From Calvin’s statement, the sex part, do you try to bring out a woman’s sexuality?
F.C.: I think it’s interesting because Calvin set up this sexuality, but it only came across in the ads. Sometimes the clothes were just, you know, Calvinist. That’s the difference, because sometimes my clothes get to be a little sexier and a little more experimental in the sense that I play with cuts. I love fabric like Calvin does.
Click Here for a Slideshow of Celebs Wearing Calvin Klein >>
WWD: The Calvin Klein brand retains a singular image despite having several creative directors. How?
F.C.: We have a great creative director, Fabian [Baron], who has been working at the company for many years. Fabian breathes the company and understands it. He is our rock when it comes to advertisement. It would be silly of us not to trust him. I supply ideas, I have meetings, we have discussions, but it’s really up to Fabian to create the language. He’s done a fantastic job. Again, it’s a collaboration thing.
WWD: Back to Calvin Klein, the man. Calvin has at times been the subject of tabloid gossip. Most recently, there was a piece in the New York Post about a supposedly licentious book proposal someone had written. Does that have any impact on the company, on the brand, on the mood in-house?
F.C.: Personally, I find that totally uninteresting. I find it very upsetting that this book [proposal] is out there. It’s totally disrespectful. I’m so not interested in gossip. It just gives me the creeps. I love the work; I love what I do. If somebody sends me an interview that has any connotation of something that’s not interesting or genuine, I’m not interested. I really detach myself from it.
WWD: Calvin was perceived as a social designer. You seem more private. Do you consider yourself a private person?
F.C.: As a young designer, I went out a lot. I thought it was so cool and important. Now I’ve reached a certain age where I love to work. I could just live here [at the studio]. Love, love, love, love. I’ve [worked] five weekends in a row and it’s great.
WWD: Talk about the spring collection.
F.C.: There’s a lot of beautiful work, beautiful materials. I went through a whole Bauhaus period with textiles. Picasso was a starting point, Basquiat was another point — the time with Madonna, and their affair. And it was the time that I was arriving in New York, in the Eighties. So there’s definitely a street element. I was out there and experiencing all of it. It’s very beautiful, youthful.
WWD: Is there one woman, or a few, who represent that to you?
F.C.: Oh, there are several. Dree Hemingway is a friend. Camilla [Nickerson] for me is just the most inspiring. She’s amazing. I just love her to death. She brings me that kind of confidence and strength.
WWD: I like that you didn’t feel obliged to go straight to the new perfume girl, Rooney Mara.
F.C.: That’s a different side of the business. When you start dressing celebrities, there’s all this talk, “Oh, he’s a celebrity designer.” You know what? Calvin started that. Look at Brooke Shields. Andie MacDowell, right? I’m not doing anything here new. It’s just following the great concept that he left us here. I happen to do evening dresses — I love evening dresses.
WWD: How important is the celebrity thing?
F.C.: It’s a major importance. It cannot be ignored. It’s just part of the business. I mean, look at your pages. Scarlett [Johansson] was our first hit [at the Met 2004]. Scarlett is a curvy, beautiful woman. She’s a goddess.
WWD: Katie Holmes.
F.C.: This dress [a floaty white gown with a huge pleated skirt] was not to be worn; it was for a campaign. She puts the dress on and says, “I want to wear this.” So I’m like, “S–t, what am I going to do now?” It was so not appropriate to be worn, because there was so much fabric. But she put it on, she felt great, she looked great.
WWD: Nicole Kidman.
F.C.: We’re just starting our relationship with her. She came to Cannes. This was a big success.… Hilary Swank, she won the Golden Globe . Elle Macpherson showed up in flip-flops [at the Met, 2005] and looked great.
WWD: Jennifer Lawrence.
F.C.: I remember this moment [at the Oscars 2011]; she was nominated so young. Her character in [“Winter’s Bone”] is so tough. She shows up on the red carpet, first one there. Nobody knew who she was. A true beauty. Gorgeous. And the dress was fantastic.
WWD: How much are you willing to compromise your aesthetic in order to get a dress on someone?
F.C.: We compromise.
WWD: Does that bother you?
F.C.: It has to be looked at in a different way [than runway]. You have to look at the big picture.
WWD: At some events, there are three actresses in very similar dresses, all by different designers.
F.C.: We haven’t had that happen to us. When I say collaboration, yes, we do listen, but it has to be genuine.
WWD: It’s interesting that you look at it as a separate aspect of design.
F.C.: It is completely different. It’s a different world.
WWD: Is that kind of collaboration difficult, when you’re working with someone concerned only about her own image, and not yours?
F.C.: It’s not difficult. It’s just a different aspect of designing. Don’t forget, I worked for Tom Ford at Gucci. Bill Blass was my first job. Oscar de la Renta was my second job. I have kind of seen it all.
WWD: That’s quite a lineup of employers. Who was the easiest boss?
F.C.: They were all different. Tom Ford and Oscar, they’re both amazing; I had a fantastic relationship with both of them. At Oscar, you felt like you were going to your home. It was so relaxed and family oriented. He had lunch for us every day. It was wonderful. Tom — he’s sexy, he’s great. He wasn’t a micromanager.
WWD: Tom didn’t micromanage?
F.C.: He wasn’t a micromanager in the sense that he let you do your job. He edited. He changed things. But for me, there was a lot of freedom. And I learned a lot from him. What I’m trying to say is he allowed me to do the job. There was a level of trust.
WWD: How was Calvin as a boss?
F.C.: Calvin was amazing. We worked together for a year. My first fabric selection for Calvin was over a weekend. There was probably half of this room — suitcases filled with stacks and stacks of fabrics. He loved old Forties fabrics. He once told me that a stitcher was a great inspiration to him — one of his stitchers. He was so meticulous. He is just so sharp. It was the first time, I think, that I saw a designer with that passion for textiles.
WWD: Bill Blass — your first job.
F.C.: I was a licensee. Remember the Hero Group? I was part of that. I was an assistant. I used to cut fabrics and design dresses. I would go to Bill’s office to see collections and Xerox the sketches. I was a young assistant.
WWD: Increasingly, designers make a distinction between runway and commercial collections. What is the ultimate distribution of your runway collection?
F.C.: Very little distribution. There’s an aspect of runway today that’s similar to [celebrity dressing]. I think the shows have become spectaculars. It’s propaganda. It’s [directed at] the editors, the population directly connected to it. It has to excite.
WWD: Talk a little more about fabrics. Fast fashion seems to cover any silhouette so quickly. Fabric has become so important now.
F.C.: They can knock off a style, but they’re not going to have the fabric. There’s time and development. So that’s an advantage of how we operate. We have to separate ourselves, and that’s how it is.
WWD: Do you design with specific global markets in mind?
F.C.: I would say it’s more of a merchandising approach than design. We’re opening a great number of stores in China. I plan to open a store in L.A. now. You’re sensitive to that, but it’s merchandising. We have a great partner in Asia, and there’s constant integration and feedback. What’s the pant style that sells the most? What fabrics work? And then we cut things.
WWD: Everyone is fascinated with Brazil right now. As a Brazilian, what stereotypes do you think other people have of Brazil?
F.C.: There are truths to the stereotype. It’s sunny; it’s bright. People are sensuous. “Sex” isn’t the right word, but “sensuous,” “sexy” — I think that’s a stereotype that holds up. Also, I think of Brazil as modern. Maybe it’s just my interests as a kid. I wanted to be an architect, so I looked to Brasilia. Completely modernist and all cement. It’s a city that was built without traffic lights. Those are the things I was interested in as a kid.
WWD: What does it mean today to be a modernist?
F.C.: I think it’s being sensitive to your surroundings and how we live and how we communicate. You always have to look into the future, but in the present. When I mentioned Brasilia as this modernist thing, it’s because it broke so many rules. It’s almost utopian but in reality, it’s a stroke of genius. Brasilia was built in the middle of nowhere and to decentralize the population of Brazil, to move the population inward, which it did. Very much like the railroads in America, there is a modernist approach. It has to have a function.
WWD: Changing subjects, social media. How important is it to the Calvin Klein brand?
F.C.: I do Instagram. I started that about a year ago and I enjoy it tremendously. I’ve started to look at it a little more corporate, perhaps.
WWD: Such as?
F.C.: For the show, we’re focusing on Instagram. We’re also working with bloggers from around the world — dressing them and sharing content. And we’ll use our Tumblr contributor, Hanneli Mustaparta.
WWD: Why Instagram?
F.C.: Because it’s visual.
WWD: You don’t tweet?
F.C.: I have a Twitter account, but I don’t think it’s very good for me. My English is not so good.
WWD: I think you really have to commit.
F.C.: It’s a full-time job. Talking about social media, this is slightly different, but I’ve just been invited by Google — Google does this incredible think tank called Zeitgeist, and I’ve just been invited, which is right after the shows.
WWD: Are you going?
F.C.: Yes. Just to sit and listen.
WWD: What makes a look resonate over time?
F.C.: They are all pretty visceral to me. It starts with the fabric. I think that most successful collections that I have done are the most visceral. It expresses something.