Calvin Klein effected a seismic shift in marketing fashion.
This story first appeared in the September 3, 2008 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Justin Timberlake may have been the latest to bring sexy back, but he has nothing on Calvin Klein, who practically invented the word.
Until the designer sold his company in 2003, it was his vision that creative directors such as Sam Shahid, Neil Kraft and Fabien Baron were all responsible for translating. Klein was tough but fair — he was the first to praise anyone who produced great work, but was also quick to kill something that wasn’t right. He had no qualms about throwing away the results of a photo shoot, even if it cost his company hundreds of thousands of dollars. “I remember this jeans campaign with Steven Meisel. It wasn’t good but if it was me, I probably would have tried to salvage it in some way,” said Kraft. “Calvin just said it wasn’t right and killed it.”
The brand, which today spends approximately $250 million annually on advertising, courted scandal in 1979 with an ad campaign, shot by Richard Avedon, that featured Brooke Shields, who looked into the camera and said, “Do you want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” Shields was only 15 and the images and commercials were rich with innuendo.
Shields recalled that, presswise, it became a burden, but looking back on it, she recognizes the impact. “It was such a statement,” said Shields, who is currently filming the second season of “Lipstick Jungle.” “It placed me in the books permanently and put me in such a different place, adwise.”
Shortly after Shields made waves with Calvin Klein, Shahid, now owner of Shahid & Co., joined the firm. “[Calvin Klein, Bruce Weber and I] all loved the same things,” he said. “It was always so mutual.” Together, they created a brand image that set the course for the company’s future in advertising, which included taking risks — such as running an expensive 116-page Calvin Klein supplement, shot by Weber, that appeared shrink-wrapped with the October 1991 issue of Vanity Fair. The supplement lives on the Internet — and print copies today go for around $200.
Shahid remembered how much the designer loved Christy Turlington — his muse at one time — who signed an exclusive contract in 1988 as the face of the fragrance Eternity. Over a 20-year period, Turlington went on to do ads for Calvin Klein Collection, Jeans, Underwear, swimwear and Contradiction.
“Early on, the campaign shoots were epic in many ways,” said Turlington. “Working with [Richard] Avedon for months on the Eternity fragrance television commercials was especially grueling as we filmed 10 of them back-to-back….The Bruce shoots were also quite epic. We would virtually take over entire towns with our productions.”
It was something to behold — a Calvin Klein shoot coming to town. Her favorite, along with Shahid’s, was an image that Weber took with a child on the beach in Martha’s Vineyard. “There was something sweet in playing the role of their mother for a short period of time,” Turlington explained. “I was all but 10 years older than many of them and it was the first time I saw potential in myself to be a mother some day.”
While Turlington often appealed to the softer side of the brand’s image, Calvin Klein has more of a reputation for its incendiary campaigns, from Kate Moss’ waifish “heroin chic” to so-called “child pornography.” In the early Nineties, Moss became a prominent face for the brand, first with Obsession and then in the Underwear ads with “Marky” Mark Wahlberg. Klein sent photographer Mario Sorrenti and Moss to St. John in 1992 to shoot the Obsession campaign — and it was only the two of them, which is virtually unheard of — but Kraft said that is where the famous image of a naked Moss, lying on a couch, was taken. The exceptionally skinny model became a focal point for the “heroin-chic” aesthetic, and the images figured into a speech by then-President Bill Clinton, who spoke out against the look.
At the suggestion of David Geffen, then-rapper (now film star) Mark Wahlberg was hired to pose in jeans and underwear for the brand. A spokeswoman for Wahlberg said the actor never actually approved the images, but Kraft said that’s completely untrue. He recalled Wahlberg being flirtatious with Moss during the shoot, and in a recent interview with Glenn O’Brien in Interview magazine, Moss remembered being nervous, adding: “At the time, he was such a dickhead. He wasn’t very nice….They had to get Downtown Julie Brown to come in as a consultant to get him going.”
In 1995, the Justice Department investigated ads that showed teenagers posing suggestively and accompanying commercials that were filmed in what looked like a wood-paneled basement, with the teens answering provocative questions from a casting director behind a camera. “It was all my idea,” admitted Baron, who said he likes to push people’s buttons. “I liked the idea of having a casting director call them in one by one and saying things like, ‘Oh, you have a sexy body,’ or ‘What do you do in life?’ The issue was that some of the kids weren’t 18, so censorship and controversy followed and people called it kiddie porn. It wasn’t calculated to be pornography. It was supposed to be a cool way to show the jeans.”
And even today, Baron and Calvin Klein push buttons. His latest campaign for Calvin Klein Secret Obsession, featuring Eva Mendes, was rejected by the networks because Mendes is naked. Baron said he honestly thought that this time around, there was no way the commercial wouldn’t be aired on network TV. In August, he told WWD: “She is being a little sexy, but they are not provocative. They are really well done. The spot is really beautiful — I really can’t believe this is happening….I don’t know what else to say.”
Baron continues to work on campaigns at the brand, but said it’s not the same without Klein. “It’s very sad,” he said. “I do miss him. I keep him in mind, try and keep the DNA, keep his vision alive. Since he left the company, he hasn’t said a word to me about the campaigns. We both do not want to talk about it. He’s the kind of guy that, when he leaves something, he moves on and goes on to the next thing.”