By  on October 27, 2008

It's a mild Sunday during New York Fashion Week and photographers’ flashbulbs are setting a block on the far West Side of Manhattan ablaze. The occasion is Calvin Klein Inc.’s 40th anniversary party, and celebrities such as Eva Mendes, Halle Berry, Naomi Watts, Brooke Shields and Ashley Olsen make their way down the red carpet and into an imposing white shrine to minimalism, created by longtime Calvin Klein collaborator John Pawson.

In the middle of the paparazzi frenzy, Francisco Costa, the creative director of Calvin Klein Collection women’s wear, shuttles back and forth between the party going on inside and the red carpet, where he greets arriving VIPs.

It may have been the most anticipated celebration of the week with exclusive access to the High Line park project, an atmospheric James Turrell light installation and a special performance by au courant songstress Estelle, but Costa sneaks out early to continue working on his spring collection, which will be presented five days later.

The milestone and the grand party (with a rumored $5 million price tag) could have easily overshadowed any runway efforts, but Costa’s discipline clearly paid off. By the end of fashion week, people were talking about just one thing: Costa’s innovative spring show.

This season, the designer managed to pull off a seemingly impossible feat, blending futuristic proportions with a sense of lightness and serenity. Citing the musings of art critic Neville Wakefield in the show notes—“Compressed times and expanded geometries….Flat-pack elegance and minimal prisms….Cubic formalisms and future memories….Dimensions folded like clothes,” Costa offers cubic and origamilike details with architectural proportions.

But Costa started off the collection with an unusual method. “I took runway pictures from the fall, and just cut them apart,” he recalls. “I started moving them around like puzzles to create some interesting shapes, considering that the same woman who would wear the clothes for fall would wear the spring collection.”

But then came the real challenge—translating the rearranged snippets, and the resulting shapes and structures, into actual garments. “For quite some time, I had been playing with the idea of clothes that can collapse, something you can actually fold into itself if you travel,” he explains. “It felt like a far-fetched idea, but it was a tremendously interesting process. I was very pleased with it, and so was everybody in the sample room. The patternmakers were getting so excited about what was happening, because it was very challenging for them to make patterns that had to be layered for function.

“I knew that the fabrics needed to have a technical feel to them,” he adds. “They needed to be luxurious but with some synthetic in them. Color became secondary. Toward the end, I brought in some color with the blue, which is how we refl ected the Turrell installation we had for the 40th.”

Despite the design complexities, the Brazilian native articulates his thoughts with clarity, and with a confidence that he appears to have grown into since taking over the creative helm for women’s wear from Calvin Klein himself.

Filling the shoes of a fashion icon, particularly a living one, is a  near-impossible task, and there are numerous examples of failure—both past and present. But after five years at the helm, and two prestigious CFDA Womenswear Designer of the Year awards, succession no longer seems to be an issue for Costa.

Despite well-received collections that have earned him the respect of the fashion community, Costa’s early efforts were somewhat hampered by the licensing structure set up by CKI parent Phillips-Van Heusen Corp. The  floundering fortunes of the first Collection license, Vestimenta, impacted the kind of work Costa envisioned for the brand, which ultimately hurt its retail business. After changes in licensees, CKI acquired the Italian licensee CMI last January and, since then, has been putting together a team and infrastructure to build the distribution and strengthen the business.

It’s clear that Costa is already reaping the benefits. Unshackled from the restraints of working with an overseas licensee, he has more control over the execution of his ideas, and this season the results speak for themselves. “I was very true to an idea, and that was the difference,” he says. “I was not compromising. It was just one very focused idea in my mind over and over and over again.”

While many have lauded Costa’s guts when it comes to his designs, there were some who questioned the viability of his vision. “Some people asked, ‘How do you dry-clean the clothes?’” Costa recalls. “Whoever saw the clothes like this missed the whole point. The ease is the fact they collapse and fold into each other.”

At this time of economic crisis with global markets in tatters, however, it remains uncertain just how many people will be packing their suitcases to go on extensive journeys. But Costa maintains that this is exactly the sort of climate in which to push his boundaries.

“Times are very tough, but you have to bring in something that’s challenging,” he says. “It’s time to bring something out that would excite people. That’s why people come back.

“I think as a fashion designer, you have to design fashion—otherwise it could be called merchandiser or product developer. I know I am very lucky to be in a company that is very stable. I have the opportunity and support from PVH to really do something that is generally interesting and challenging,” he explains. “You have to take the title literally in this case, and be honest and true to it.”

That viewpoint is to Costa’s advantage, it seems. Collection is not a moneymaker for the house, which generates much of its profits from the lucrative fragrance, underwear and jeans businesses. Much like Tom Ford at Gucci, for whom Costa worked before joining CKI, the designer’s role is to set forth an image that stimulates consumer desire for all the other, more aspirational categories. Costa is all too aware of the notion and sees spring as the most effective tool for it.

“It’s been a process,” he says, looking back over his years at the helm of the women’s Collection. “Suzy Menkes once said to me that it takes five years for a designer to establish something, which has always been in the back of my mind. Now, some people are a little more at ease with what I do.”

But he certainly won’t be resting on the laurels of spring. “I think it keeps me on my toes,” Costa says. “You have to do more, you have to challenge yourself. The competition is tough. It’s out there and you have to master it. You have to look for the most and the best, and sometimes it will work, and sometimes it won’t. But people will give you the respect.”

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