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Calvin Klein: Back On Top

NEW YORK -- Calvin Klein might be the hottest name in fashion.<BR><BR>On Monday, the Council of Fashion Designers of America will honor him with both its women's wear and men's wear designer awards -- unprecedented dual plaudits.<BR><BR>And following...

NEW YORK — Calvin Klein might be the hottest name in fashion.

On Monday, the Council of Fashion Designers of America will honor him with both its women’s wear and men’s wear designer awards — unprecedented dual plaudits.

And following the sale of Klein’s underwear company to Warnaco for $64 million — making him flush with cash — his firm is in the kind of secure position it hasn’t enjoyed since the early Eighties. The sale signaled a move to convert the firm into a lean, mean, licensing machine, and the next rumored deal is one to produce jeans with Rio Sportswear. To most people, it’s an amazing turnaround for a company that only two years ago had to sell its junk bonds to Klein’s best friend, David Geffen. But it’s no surprise to Calvin. In a wide-ranging conversation with WWD, he insists that what’s happening is less a comeback than the result of a long-term strategy that’s now paying off.

“I set my goals, and I’m doing it,” he says. “I’m just happy there are enough people who do get it.”

WWD: The women’s and men’s CFDA awards. The sale of your underwear company to Warnaco. No more debt. Do you think of this as your year, your moment?

CK: All I keep thinking about is the opportunities. And I keep thinking about the work, the process, how much I love it and how I can expand it. I really don’t think any person owns a year. I see what I’m doing now as part of a process that I started actively about four years ago.

WWD: There’s been some speculation that the sale to Warnaco was a way of wiping clean the company’s debt in preparation for a public offering.

CK: I promise you, all I think about is how to build a really successful business, one where we take advantage of the opportunities that we have, of the franchise we have built, of the name. And one where we can make a real substantial profit. That’s the strategy. If going public one day appears in that strategy, I wouldn’t rule it out. But I’m not thinking about that now at all.

WWD: Do you foresee other sales or new licensing deals?

CK: I’ve talked about all sorts of things — about partnerships and about expanding our businesses — with various people from time to time — because I’m always thinking about what’s next.

WWD: What does the Warnaco deal say about your strategy?

CK: 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. There 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: Why was it obvious to David Geffen three years ago?

CK: David Geffen is a smart businessman. And that’s what it takes, no matter what the business is. If you’re smart, you can see the future by looking at the things already in place. It’s easy to see it now. You don’t have to be a genius to recognize that this is a successful company. He was able to see it before and help make it happen.

WWD: Let’s talk about the process and the change of direction four years ago. It was a tough process, wasn’t it? You’ve had your share of critics.

CK: For 25 years I’ve been criticized, not just in the last four to five. But what’s happened in the last four to five years is that something told me to focus on what is needed. I set my goals and I’m just doing it, regardless of whether people think it’s the best thing that I’ve ever done or the worst or something in the middle. This is what I believe in and, season after season, sales have reflected my confidence in my beliefs. And by no means does that mean in every area of the company; some parts of CK have not been easy to get off the ground.

WWD: What’s needed?

CK: What’s needed by American women, and what I feel I need to say. This has nothing to do with reviews, with criticisms, with any of that stuff. This has to do with how I feel, with what I want to offer women.

WWD: Which is?

CK: I really love women, and I love being able to say that a real woman is someone like Lisa Taylor who, at 40, or Lauren Hutton, at 50, is a fabulous, sexy woman. When I saw Lauren wearing my clothes at the Metropolitan party, she just looked so modern, so sexy — she gets it. I’m able to say that I make clothes for these women, women who think modern and think young and sexy and sensual, who have busy lives and want to feel good and comfortable and who like clothes. I’m addressing that woman.

WWD: Let’s talk about spring, which was a very controversial collection. It won the CFDA award, and some people have called it ground-breaking, saying that with this collection, you virtually perfected the concept of spare. Others say they didn’t get it. One criticism was that while you talk about this 40- or 50-year-old woman, this collection was young — too young — for too many designer customers.

CK: Obviously those people just don’t get it. I never expect to please everyone, and I’m just happy there are enough people who do get it. It’s amazing how people do get a sense of what’s working. I’ve been meeting with different people and spending more time in Europe and the Far East, and even there they really have a sense of how significant our women’s collection business is.

WWD: Significant in terms of direction or volume?

CK: Volume. In terms of the look, of course, but it’s the business also. And what that says to me is that I know what I’m doing. I understand how a lot of women want to look, because a woman who wears my clothes is often way ahead of the typical department store. These women are smart. They understand clothes. They understand what looks good and what doesn’t look good, what’s appropriate and what’s not. And what fits into the way they live. They get it. They can get clothes.

That’s why it ends up being the significant business it is. There are a lot of great-looking women out there in their 40s and some in their 30s and 50s. But their heads are all in the same place, and their bodies all look great, too. 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? There are people who make those clothes. The woman who wears my clothes doesn’t want to look old.

WWD: Did you think of this as being a controversial collection? Are you conscious of controversy when you design?

CK: No, believe it or not, I’m not conscious of controversy when I do anything. I just think about making it good, about what people would want. What is going to make women beautiful, what’s going to make them feel great when they put it on. And I think about things that are new. It’s fun to buy new things — it can make you look charming or delicate or fragile or sexy or tough. So many wonderful things can happen through fashion. So controversy doesn’t enter my mind. As a matter of fact, I find it amusing when people try. What could possibly be controversial about clothes, unless you’re doing some really stupid things on the runways that no one in her right mind is going to wear? It’s funny to hear me, of all the designers, say I never think of controversy, because from Brooke Shields to Marky Mark and Kate [Moss] to the clothes, things have caused such a stir. But that’s what you really should expect. If people set out to be controversial, they’ll never make it. But if something is really good, interesting and thought-provoking, you get into risk-taking and pushing boundaries and questioning values, and it can be, in the end, controversial.

That’s what happened in our advertising and in our fashion. 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 clothes.

WWD: You mentioned questioning values?

CK: Yes. You’re always testing what’s appropriate — sheerness for example. That became a real issue, and the underwear influence in ready-to-wear — what are we saying when bras and underwear are showing? 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: Where do you take the women’s collection from here? You look at spring and it’s so spare and so highly developed.

CK: It’s always been spare. I would like to think it’s highly developed. When I did APLA [AIDS Project Los Angeles], I looked through my videos from the last 15 or 20 years, and it’s amazing how 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. What has changed are the proportions, the cut, silhouette, the fabrics. But my philosophy is definitely the same. It’s not going to change next year either.

WWD: It seems that if the designer’s philosophy is consistently elaborate, it’s easier to alter the clothes. How does Calvin Klein keep changing the manifestation of his spare philosophy?

CK: That’s the hard work. And that’s the only thing it is: work and a kind of a gift. Sometimes it’s better and more inspired than others. I believe it’s more difficult to reinvent a purity. In design school I learned that you can tchotchke things up. When you don’t know what to do, just put a lot of stuff on it. When we take it away, when you strip something of all the decoration and all the stuff, that’s when what’s basic, what’s at the core, has to be good, and that’s what’s tough.

Being a minimalist, it’s hard for me to be satisfied. Forget about satisfying you guys [in the press]. I’m really tough on myself, much tougher than anyone else could be on me, but I enjoy the process and the challenge to keep doing it. It’s possible to do it — we’re talking about fashion.

WWD: And to make it all look natural.

CK: It’s so hard to be natural, but you want it to look offhand. The style appears through structure, the finishing. The fabrics look worn, lived-in. It’s so pathetic when a woman becomes a [fashion] victim. I respect women too much to ever make them look like victims.

WWD: The past few seasons we’ve seen a bandwagon run by designers toward this spare look. Do you think too many have been copying the look without the vision?

CK: I do what I think looks great according to my own philosophy and taste, and I haven’t deviated in that. If there’s more spare around today, it is a reaction to all the glitzy stuff of the Eighties. But in the Eighties, I wasn’t doing it — that look that shouts ‘Hello, look at me,’ with lots of brass buttons, lots of brass jewelry.

WWD: Brass buttons and jewelry. A dig at Karl Lagerfeld?

CK: Not at all. I think he’s a genius. He happens to be a friend. I mean, I have such respect for him — what he’s done on his own and for Fendi, Chanel, Chloe. He’s brilliant.

WWD: Who else do you like?

CK: Comme des Garcons — she’s brilliant.

WWD: Galliano?

CK: I think it’s so exciting what some of these younger people are doing — there are some really interesting, exciting young people coming up. Ann Demeulemeester is another one. But really, I’m just too busy to keep up with everyone. I guess I work much the same way Karl does. There’s no substitute for that amount of work. For me, it’s very intense. I take it very seriously — every handbag, every accessory, the proper shoe. I agonize to make it seem so offhand, effortless, minimal. I agonize to get those all right, and it takes a lot of time and work.

WWD: Let’s talk about a few more people anyway.

CK: I’m not Pierre Berge.

WWD: Gaultier?

CK: I really don’t know. I know he’s done some stuff for Madonna, but that was a while ago.

WWD: Donna Karan?

CK: She’s a good friend. It’s amazing what she’s done in such a short period of time. I’ve been struggling at this for 25 years. Donna’s been doing it a relatively short time, and has become a very powerful force.

WWD: Ralph Lauren?

CK: I’ve said this in print before. I remember seeing him as a kid who was always loving clothes. I didn’t know him, but I’d see him and he was always dressed so well, you just knew he had a gift for it. And that was as a kid in the 1950s in the Bronx. You see this, and it’s not surprising what’s he’s done over the years. WWD: Do you think because of your similar backgrounds, there’s a natural tendency for people to compare you with Ralph? Do you feel a sort of competition with him, friendly or otherwise?

CK: I think people associate or compare us because we’re both successful. And Donna’s right up there with us. We all have strong businesses, so it’s natural for people to compare us.

WWD: Do you feel competitive with them?

CK: I run my own race. If I started worrying about what others are doing, my energy would just be directed in the wrong place.

WWD: Isaac Mizrahi?

CK: We’ve got the press to criticize us. We all work on a collection at least twice a year, and it’s hard work. I don’t want to be in that position. If I did, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing. I prefer to talk about the good things I see in people.

WWD: Is that a negative assessment of Isaac?

CK: Not at all. Isaac is a real talent. He worked in my design studio.

WWD: He’s had a tough couple of seasons.

CK: It’s never easy. Look what I’ve gone through. There’s no secret — it’s hard work. We’re all very creative. It’s the ones who work at it who get through the difficult periods.

WWD: You said CK hasn’t been easy.

CK: It’s not been the instant hit I would have liked, because things don’t generally become an instant hit. It takes a while. And it’s taken me 25 years to get the women’s collection to where it is today; CK is not going to happen in two seasons. But I’m working on it and I’m getting there. I believe in the future of CK, there’s a lot of energy in that company. But to get it to be young, a great value, great style, and to be commercial, it doesn’t happen overnight.

WWD: How important is that market to you?

CK: I don’t treat it as a secondary line. The next generation, my daughter and her boyfriend — that’s CK. Younger people in their 20s, they’re not ever going to get into structured, uptight clothes. They have an easy style. They’re cool, and they like experimenting. Men’s wear is getting closer to that, and I like it a lot. [CK is for] younger men who have never grown up in uncomfortable clothes and for middle-aged men in great shape. Sexy suits, softer shapes — there’s a lot of movement on the men’s side now.

WWD: In our review, we wrote that the spring CK collection displayed a bold anti-designer attitude, that it was about a look a lot of kids could pull out of their closets. CK: Believe me, it’s not in their closets, but I wanted it to look like they could have just thrown it on in seconds. WWD: So was it less daring than it looked — all those cutoffs, and little T-shirts and tanks?

CK: These clothes are not out there. The jackets that I did are not out there. It’s new — the proportions, the cut, the shape. They’re the kinds of clothes that, if you don’t wear them with a little baby T-shirt that says CK, you can put them with a crewneck sweater or something else that will go to work. But they’ll still make you look younger and easier than one of my suits from the collection, which can more easily go into the boardroom.

WWD: Do you think your style of minimalism is the ultimate expression of security as a designer in that you’re always taking this very tight concept and pushing it?

CK: The only thing I can do is what I believe in. I think that’s the ultimate security of a designer — when you do what you truly believe in and not worry about trying to please everyone else. That kind of confidence just takes a long time. I’m not going to sit there and worry about what everyone else thinks, because there is no point. It’s better if I’ve trusted my own instincts.

WWD: Retailers have been talking about the need for a return to a more shapely silhouette. Do you agree?

CK: I don’t think shape disappeared. When I do a collection, there’s a tremendous variety of silhouettes, as many as 40 jackets for each collection. When a girl walks down the runway, she has 30 seconds on that runway, so you’re just trying to create an impression. The show may last for 20 minutes, not enough time to get across the subtlety of the shape.

Just because something is loose and easy doesn’t mean there’s no shape. For my clothes, you really need a great body. But as for clothes that are uncomfortable and restricting, it’s traditional and not modern. I would question their salability.

WWD: There’s also been much ado about a return to color. CK: It’s so interesting, I never understand what colors they’re talking about. 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 taking navy, there’s so much you can do with it, put more black in it, more brown, more gray. Some people just write off all these tones as neutrals, but there’s so much range. Navy can be midnight, almost black, ebony.

WWD: So don’t look for fuchsia from Calvin next fall.

CK: No, but I can absolutely see wonderful, soft shades of lavender, colors in that world. But not obvious, bright fuchsias.

WWD: You asked David Geffen and Fran Lebowitz to present your CFDA Awards. Why didn’t you enlist glitzier celebrities?

CK: We want this evening to be entertaining and glamorous, but above all, it has to be honest. And what is honest for me is to have two people who are close to me — two people who care and have been very supportive and really get what I’m about — say a few words about me. In David’s case, it is particularly appropriate for all the obvious reasons, and in Fran’s case, she’s so funny. For years, she and I have discussed her feelings about each show. Is she honest? Absolutely, but also she cares about style a great deal. Her observations have always made me feel like she really gets it. Aside from the fact that we’re pals, she really gets it.

WWD: What’s the most amusing observation she has ever made about a collection of yours?

CK: Amusing? I don’t know. But she once told me, “It’s a good thing you never listen to me,” because I had asked her, “What do you think of Brooke for the jeans?” She said, “No. Forget it. I don’t think it will work.”

WWD: Do you often ask friends for input?

CK: I bounce ideas off of my close friends all the time. Every time I’m working on the name of a perfume, Fran has spent a lot of time with me, going through it.

WWD: Do you enjoy all aspects of the business — collection, CK, fragrance, underwear, accessories…?

CK: The opportunity for variety is what really excites me. That’s what I love about what I do, and I won’t do anything unless I think it’s really important. Then it gets the same attention and the same energy — underwear, footwear, fragrance, advertising — because I respect people, and their expectations. I’m involved in all aspects because the philosophy has to be consistent.

But if one thing is most important, it’s always the women’s collection, to make women look beautiful. The other things, the accessories and all the rest of the stuff, you want to do because it complements the collection and you want to expand the philosophy. I love the perfumes, and it’s really fascinating to work on footwear because it’s like sculpture. But it all starts with the women’s collection.

WWD: Earlier, you mentioned the importance of finding the right “partners” for these endeavors. Is that especially hard now?

CK: It is always hard because you need partners who really understand your philosophy. My eyewear partnership [with Marchon Eyewear] is the best example. We’re so much on the same wavelength, and they’ve allowed me to do things that I never could have done with any other manufacturer. They have factories in both Europe and Japan, which is unique. I was fortunate enough to make the right choice. Sometimes, when I was less fortunate in my choices, it was a bumpier road.

WWD: When do you know when you’ve made the wrong choice?

CK: You know pretty early on. There are always signs. And sometimes you think you’re going to work it through. It’s hard to explain, but when you talk about my clothes, some people get it and some don’t. For the people who don’t get it, you can’t explain it. WWD: Recently, many European designers have been spending more time in New York. Do you think New York is the place to be right now?

CK: I was born here. I never felt that New York was not the place to be, but now I’m really all over the world. I was in Tokyo for a day last week, Singapore for a day. I’m moving pretty quickly and I really appreciate how exciting New York is.

WWD: How does Kelly affect your work?

CK: When we think about all of this, I think about Kelly — will she wear this, how will she look, will she love it? I trust her — we share so much in terms of working on the fragrance together. She has always played a part in the advertising and has worked with me on the clothes. She represents that modern woman to me, who will wear both the collection and CK. Sometimes when I’m trying to figure out the most complicated, sophisticated, textural combinations, I see that she has five seconds in the closet to figure this out and she brings me back to reality. I think about her all the time.

WWD: Who else is exciting and glamorous today? Who is beautiful, who has style?

CK: Real people. One of the reasons I showed real people in the CK show is that, for me, it’s not just about superstar models anymore. That’s not what I think real glamour is.

WWD: Then you still prefer newer, less-recognizable faces on your runway?

CK: I’m always changing. I think that one of the great abilities of some of the superstar models has been that they can be whatever you want them to be. I just felt that I was looking for newness, for as many new people as I could find, to separate ourselves. I mean, I started back in 1975 using Ford models. I was the first to do that.

WWD: Whom did you use at that time?

CK: Patti Hansen, Lisa Taylor, Janice Dickinson, Rosie Vela, Beverly Johnson. They all modeled for me in shows. They never did anyone else’s show; I started that whole trend. But two years ago on my trip with Kelly to Paris when I went to see shows, I saw all these girls in everyone’s show, wearing any clothes. After that, I had a totally different perspective on it and it became much less interesting to me, and so I veered away. It became like, “Gee, I thought this woman was special, and now I’m seeing there’s nothing special because they will do anything, any show that pays them.” .

WWD: Did you know when you started with Kate that you were putting a new genre of models on the map?

CK: I knew she was a star. It’s all emotional. I found a picture of her and it hit me in a second that she was exactly what I wanted at that moment. She represented something for me, and that’s when I chose a whole new group of models who were more fragile and, I hope, the opposite of what was in the Eighties. Kate represented so much of that to me that I ended up finding 30 of them to put on the runway. Yeah, I knew exactly what I was trying to say.

WWD: Did you anticipate the anorexia uproar?

CK: No! But skinny always, always upsets people. In the Sixties Twiggy went through the same thing. Anytime we get into women who are thin, people go nuts. But I tell you, Kate eats. When we went through the Eighties and I watched all these beautiful women come in to do my shows after they’ve had all kind of surgery to their bodies because they thought that bigger would make them better, it was frightening to me and I found it kind of revolting. And that didn’t seem to upset people.

WWD: So again, you weren’t trying to be controversial?

CK: I’m not trying to be controversial. But I will stand for what I believe in. I’m trying to say what I think is beautiful. 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. And so does her boyfriend, who shot it. He was obsessed with her. That’s why we did it. And you know, that’s it.