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Francisco Costa: On the Making of a Designer

Francisco Costa, women’s creative director of Calvin Klein Collection, spoke to a FIT audience this week about his path to the top.

NEW YORK — What is it like to cut your teeth with a fashion giant?

“You listen, listen, listen and then you execute, execute, execute,” said Francisco Costa, who worked for Oscar de la Renta, Tom Ford and Calvin Klein before becoming women’s creative director of Calvin Klein Collection. “You work very hard. It’s a learning experience.”

Costa took to the stage at the Fashion Institute of Technology on Monday for a conversation with Valerie Steele, director and chief curator of the Museum at FIT, the designer’s alma mater. During the 90-minute talk, Costa offered insight into his upbringing, his path to the top of one of fashion’s biggest brands and the mentors along the way, his role at Calvin Klein and the design process.

The designer, who grew up in Guarani, Brazil, credited his late mother, Maria-Francisca, for much of his early fascination with fashion.

“I don’t know where she’d find international magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, but she’d have them around,” Costa recalled of his mother, who had an interest in charity that prompted a teenage Costa to create clothes and plan charitable fashion shows.

After his mother’s death in 1981, Costa moved to New York, taking English classes at Hunter College and enrolling at FIT in the evening. He landed his first job at Susan Bennett Studio before joining the He-Ro Group to work on Bill Blass dresses and knits. He then began working with de la Renta, followed by a stint with Ford at Gucci. In 2002, he was looking to return to New York to be with his partner, John DeStefano.

“Oscar called me and said, ‘I’d love for you to come back and do Balmain,’” he recalled, adding that he eventually turned down the offer and instead decided to join Calvin Klein in New York. “There was always an excitement and genuine interest,” he said of Klein. “He is so curious, direct, sharp and very funny.”

Asked if he would ever consider taking on more creative control at Calvin Klein International, Costa pointed to the company’s successful structure, which has separate creative directors for men’s wear, accessories and other divisions. For instance, he meets with Italo Zucchelli, his men’s wear counterpart, to discuss matters such as upcoming campaigns. Costa also said that when he sometimes reflects on why he never started his own line, his mind wanders to Karl Lagerfeld, whose biggest success was at Chanel.

As for the recession, great design should never be compromised, said Costa, who hopes to continue doing what he does now. “I just love what I do,” he said. And while scores of celebrities have selected Costa’s designs for the red carpet, he admitted there is one woman he would like to see in his designs. “It would be fun to dress Michelle Obama, actually,” he said.