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New York — Modesty seems to be the zeitgeist, so what’s a company overtly selling sex to do? Well, if you’re Calvin Klein, you scale back — sort of.

This story first appeared in the June 18, 2004 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

The ads, created in conjunction with Fabien Baron, for Calvin Klein Collection, the Calvin Klein better line, Calvin Klein Jeans, and Calvin Klein Underwear, represent a softer, more sensual mood than in the past, just as the company, under new owners Phillips-Van Heusen, ramps up its advertising spending by 15 percent to $200 million this year.

The change in mood is relative, though. As Mark Weber, PVH’s president and chief operating officer, said at the company’s annual meeting this week, “Calvin Klein, as the world knows, owns sex, and it’s always been a very, very out-front creative advertising company.”

The increase in ad spending this year is due in part to the launches of the women’s and men’s better line, a jewelry collection and the new Choice innerwear line for juniors’.

Much of the budget has been spent on campaigns that will still quicken the pulse, in the same way a PG-13 movie might. And, on a much smaller scale, that’s exactly what one of the ads is meant to be. A short video to promote the jeans line will begin airing during previews on 3,427 movie screens on July 2, reaching an estimated 24.7 million viewers over the subsequent five weeks. Shot at night on a black sand beach in Hawaii, the cinematic commercial shows the face of the company, Natalia Vodianova, dancing suggestively with a group of models in the rain.

“These are sexy young men and women having fun, flirting,” said Kim Vernon, senior vice president of global advertising and communications at Calvin Klein. “It’s a new way to communicate with consumers.”

In the 30-second spots, models are fully clothed, and the camera rarely dips below the waist.

For the U.S., at least, the use of theater airtime will translate to fewer print ads. “We completely believe in the power of print,” said Vernon. “We love outdoor, and we really taught the industry how to do it with Marky Mark. But we did shift a small amount of money out of print to do cinema.”

Overall, global spending on print for fall is up, with 1,106 pages running worldwide for all the Calvin Klein campaigns, excluding fragrance in Asia and watches.

Shot by Mikael Jansson, print ads for Calvin Klein Jeans are, like the video, just hot enough to preserve the sexy identity of the brand without pushing envelopes or potentially alienating consumers. The ads show two bare-breasted models — a man and a woman — in a clinch. But nothing but skin is visible — and their jeans are even buttoned.

Images from the Collection campaign feature Vodianova reclining on a tree limb in benign poses and were shot by Stephen Meisel. Said Baron: “It’s a more couture approach to a visual, with a focus on precision and really showing the clothes.”

The women’s better line — made by G.A.V. in collaboration with Kellwood — campaign builds on the recent spring launch, with model Amber Valletta photographed in sleek studio shots by Craig McDean; for men’s, Shaun De Wet is shown in similar settings.

Choice, the new line of intimate apparel that will expand with jeans and swimwear in spring 2005, launches with a series of ads from illustrator Charles Anastase, who embellished photographs to create a fanciful bubble-gum, psychedelic look designed to appeal to the 14- to 22-year-old market. It’s also one of the few Calvin Klein underwear campaigns featuring underage models that’s unlikely to draw any flak from the FBI. Said Vernon: “We weren’t trying to be safe.”

Still, observers agree Klein’s ads have become more toned down over the past few seasons, in a sharp departure from the house’s infamous past. From Brooke Shields suggesting at age 15 she wasn’t wearing any underwear, to Mark Wahlberg brandishing his on a billboard in Times Square, the company’s advertising aesthetic has traditionally been youthful and sexy and just a little bit dangerous — particularly in the case of the 1995 Steven Meisel jeans campaign, which prompted a Justice Department probe, and the 1999 children’s underwear ads, shot by Mario Testino, which were pulled amid a maelstrom of controversy.

“His clothes have been so clean, and his ads have been so dirty,” said Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

Lately, though, the ad campaigns have seem to be focused more on the clothes and less on the hype. “When you saw their earlier [Calvin] advertising,” said Marc Gobe, president and chief executive officer of Desgrippes Gobe and author of “Emotional Branding” and “Citizen Brand,” “you could agree or disagree, but it always engaged you and made you feel a sense of vitality. I think the communication now is a little more aloof, passive, not quite as assertive or inspiring.”

Observers said the change is simply another indication of the nation’s new mood, which is reflected in everything from more modest fashions to a backlash against outré advertising. “If the climate turns more modest, it’s like sailing — you have to tack,” said Steele. “In the past, when [Calvin] has done sex, it’s been down and dirty, really pushing toward pornographic. I think what we’re seeing now is a strategy that focuses on glamour, as opposed to out-and-out sex appeal.”

Said David Wolfe, creative director at the Doneger Group, a buying office in New York, “Sex in the media may be out of style, but sex in life is never out of style. I think they can be sexy without being vulgar. It’s a very narrow line, but my feeling is they will walk it successfully.”

Whatever the industry response to the new ads, the ultimate test will be at the checkout. “People inside the fashion industry overestimate the influence of art direction,” said Simon Doonan, creative director at Barneys New York. “The consumer is largely oblivious to art directional nuances. They want good product. I think a lot of people are really going to enjoy Hilary Swank [who’s doing intimates ads for Klein] looking tarty and edgy.”

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