MUMBAI, India — Calvin Klein and Donna Karan arrived in Mumbai last Friday, bringing along more than 80 years of industry experience between them. Scheduled to speak at the Mint Luxury conference, in separate sessions with Fern Mallis, both designers delivered electric energy to the event.
The two designers have had many parallels in their lives: both born and inspired by New York, having built huge success stories with their brands, won an enormous global following and eventually sold their companies to conglomerates. Now, free from worrying about retail expansion and collections, both have been thinking about — and working on — giving more deeply and also helping the industry move forward.
And they are close friends, having just completed a three-week journey together through Vietnam and Myanmar, before arriving in Mumbai.
Klein has been addressing students in universities, including Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. “I still have a passion for the business, but now my passion is to give to people who are interested in managing a company, marketing, designing,” he said.
In a conversation with WWD, Klein is the picture of effusive warmth and apology, since he is late to the appointment. Despite a combination of jet lag and long travel, he animatedly talks about his upcoming book, due out in September 2017; his recent appearances at universities; creating clothes and campaigns, and about India.
WWD: Is fashion still that important to you, or do you care less about it now?
Calvin Klein: Well, I do care. And yes, I still have a passion for the business, but now my passion is to give to people who are interested in managing a company, marketing, designing. I can speak to all of these different aspects, and not necessarily fashion.
WWD: And in your personal life?
C.K.: I fit my clothes endlessly. I am exercising, so I have gained weight, gained size, I’ve slimmed down and I make all my clothes because my body is not the typical body that you can buy in the store and it’s going to fit perfectly — that doesn’t happen. Before I went into the fashion business, even 20 or 30 years ago, it was very difficult to find someone who could alter shape and proportion and make it look like it was made for you. I always had my clothes made for me.
WWD: You’ve working more with students at this time?
C.K.: Yes, I have now found great pleasure in working with universities around the world, speaking about my experience. I have been told that company chief executive officers come speak to different groups, but there aren’t a lot of founders. As a founder, I can share with students how I started the company from nothing and built it into a global brand that — as you said — everyone knows.
WWD: Do you share the secrets of your success with the students?
C.K.: I built the brand with creating the product, because it always starts with the product, having a vision, creating my own advertising agency to express that vision, designing all the packaging, designing and creating all the fragrances of the bottles, the names, because each name had a story attached to my life.
For instance, I recently came from Cambridge University in the U.K., I spoke at Harvard, and there I spoke to the School of Architecture because architecture played an important part in my ability to communicate what I was creating. Sometimes I needed to go to Santa Fe because of the color, and the light, and the earth, because it had something to do with the clothes…
WWD: Where do you go from here, though?
C.K.: Now I’m working on a book and it should be out by September 2017…But I like to stay in the moment and spend some time considering what’s next. I’m not big on looking back, even thought I have all the archives of every image we ever took. I have 50,000 images and 150 films in the archives, or interviews, like what I am doing today. So I have lots of material to work with, to do a documentary, to go to universities.
WWD: Do you see much change in India, especially as you’re visiting after six years?
C.K.: Honestly, I’ve just come from Burma and Vietnam, and I’m only here in Mumbai literally two days so I have very little time in Mumbai. In my last trip, I was in Jaipur, Rajasthan, and we covered quite a bit of territory. I do notice luxury retail stores….everywhere. They might have existed last time, but I wasn’t quite aware of them as I am this time.
Also, I am very happy to say, I’m able to eat the food, because the first time I had a lot of difficulty with spices, but this time we found restaurants with all kinds of food from all over the world, and the food is magnificent.
WWD: Was there anything in particular that intrigued or inspired you from India?
C.K.: When you go all around India, I would say, women over 40 were wearing traditional clothes, mixing amazing colors, saris, and they looked amazing, as the Japanese looked before the war, when they wore kimonos.
The younger people were dressed Western, so you knew that eventually, the way Indian women and men was going to dress was going to change. You could see it happening. And it’s certainly happened in Mumbai, you don’t see much color. Mumbai to me is like New York City. Everyone looks the same now.
WWD: In your own designs you’ve been quite a minimalist. Does this Indian sensibility of bling and color work for you?
C.K.: I would travel the world for inspiration — for color, fabric, to get outside of the U.S. and experience light and space, and of course to experience the way people looked. But I always had a vision of a particular woman that I was looking to dress. And I thought of her as an American woman, but when I traveled around the world, I realized that these women existed everywhere in the world, where they dressed simply, in a very modern way; they wore not just adornment for men, but instead they were wearing beautiful, minimalist style clothes themselves, everywhere in the world.
We used to do work in India, but I didn’t come — I would do design studios and they would make the trip and come back and show me what they had found. What I did do was buy hundreds of vegetable-dyed colors in cotton fabric — the colors that you see here, you just don’t see any place anywhere in the world. And those colors are right for certain parts of America, too, where the climate is very warm, or for certain seasons, where it is resort or summer, and so the inspiration was fabric and color that you can find nowhere else.
WWD: Do you feel a sense of pride in being Calvin Klein as you travel the world and everyone knows your work?
C.K.: I feel very proud. I always knew that I wanted to be a designer from the age of five. I went to art schools, I went to design schools and college to study art and design. My dream was to create clothes for the American woman — because that’s all I knew. Although, growing up in New York City you are exposed always to people from all parts of the world and New York is not typical of anywhere in the U.S., including Los Angeles which is a one-industry town — it’s the movie business, and that’s it.
So I’ve always wanted to design for this woman and I felt I was best at communicating what I was creating, whether it was fragrance, her clothing, whether it was makeup, blue jeans, underwear, whatever products I created with my design staff, which I oversaw completely. I also created the imaging and I had my own advertising agency in-house, so we created all of the media placement of the ads, because I wanted to reach the woman or the man that I thought would be interested in what we were doing. So sometimes we did things that were a bit controversial, we pushed the envelope but everything that I did, whether in the world of fragrance or anything else had something to do with my life. It came from me. There was one vision, one point of view, and we did many market studies on this. People understood that.
WWD: Often in the past, you have referred to your best campaigns as inspired by love. Does love still remain an inspiration?
C.K.: Love continues forever. What’s changed is the fashion business. I used to get great pleasure discovering models, finding young women and men who had never modeled before, and took them on trips around the world. But now, it’s the world of the Kardashians, and people are interested only in how many followers a model has on social media and that’s how they negotiate her or his fee. I am happy that I built a global brand without social media.
WWD: Do you plan to move to Los Angeles where you recently bought a house?
C.K.: I have bought a house in L.A., but I don’t see [myself] spending much time there.
WWD: How has love inspired you in your personal life, is it still as deep?
C.K.: Yes, of course. I have a daughter and two grandchildren who I love dearly, and I love having the experience of speaking at a graduate school, I love the feedback, when people tell me they like what I have done and what our company is still doing. So love takes many, many forms.
WWD: Does romantic love disappear as you get older?
C.K.: I think life changes. As you grow, as you mature and you have a better understanding of passion, of love, of romance, of creation, of being creative, of having confidence in yourself. I think those are really important things in life.