Known for his sexually charged ad campaigns that continually pushed the envelope and his minimalist aesthetic, Calvin Klein, now 74, has put it all out there in a new book called simply “Calvin Klein.”
Published by Rizzoli New York and designed by Fabien Baron, the 480-page book features 330 color and black and white photographs and sells for $150. While not heavy on text, it includes the back story behind many of these provocative images and Klein’s personal stories about his upbringing, how he launched his business, the early days of building the company with partner Barry Schwartz, his minimalist design philosophy, and how the company became a global phenomenon.
“I worked hard and surrounded myself with enormously talented and like-minded individuals that helped to make it happen. I took many risks and made many mistakes, but I never compromised. That’s what it takes and means to have a vision. I stand by everything I did and would not have done it any other way,” he writes in the book.
Seductive and controversial imagery, combined with his minimalist fashion collection, jeans, fragrances, underwear and home, turned Klein’s label into one of the most recognizable and successful fashion brands in the world. This is the first time that Klein, who began the company in 1968 and sold the business and retired in 2003, has told his story in a book.
From a teenage Brooke Shields with nothing between her and her Calvins — which elicited the 1982 “Pig of the Year Award” from Women Against Pornography to Kate Moss’ sensuous semi-nude series, to shockingly seductive photography of male models in his underwear, Klein’s advertising constantly broke barriers. Photographers such as Irving Penn, Richard Avedon, Bruce Weber and Patrick Demarchelier, and models such as Christy Turlington, Marky Mark, Kate Moss and Natalia Vodianova all contributed to images that were seductive, original, controversial and at times, shocking.
WWD interviewed Klein last week about his powerful imagery and his minimalist point of view and whether he feels he’s gotten his due as a designer.
WWD: What made you decide to write the book now?
Calvin Klein: I’ve thought about it on and off for years, but I was too busy. I was just always doing the work and I didn’t have the time to go back and reflect on all the images. Kelly [Klein] really pushed me into this, and she helped me a great deal with the book too. And Anna Wintour too. She said, ‘You have to do it.’ Finally, I decided now is the moment.
WWD: What was the most surprising or interesting thing about the process of putting the book together, and what did you enjoy about looking back on your life and work?
C.K.: Somewhat surprising and definitely interesting was going through 40,000 images to edit. But I had edited all those images before. I edited everything that we ever ran. I would always have the shoot from the photographer and would take it home and I would decide what I liked the best. I would have the photographer’s input or maybe the stylist’s input, and ultimately I went through everything and decided.
WWD: Did you find other images that, on second thought, you felt might have been even better for the ad campaigns?
C.K.: No, I’m pretty consistent. I liked what I chose to run as national advertising. I loved the commercials that we’ve done over the years and looking back, there are a lot of images in the book that we never ran, which I thought were really interesting and exciting photographs. What was surprising was we had this idea, that we would juxtapose images, and there’s a year on every image. So we took a photograph from the Seventies, and put it with the Nineties, the next spread is Eighties and maybe 2000. What it shows is the vision was consistent. No matter which photographer I worked with, it was an image we cultivated which had to do with minimalism, with the clothes, and being somewhat provocative when it came to fragrance, jeans and underwear, so I had fun. Fabien Baron said to me there were these different sides of me that he’s known over the years, and so we made it into sections: The last section was stories about the different campaigns.
WWD: What are the different sections of the book?
C.K.: One is Minimalist, another is Rebellious and the last one is Stories. We didn’t want to do copy on the photographs and we didn’t want to put which Calvin Klein company it was. It’s a book of photography, and mixing the years and then telling stories at the end about many of the photographs.
WWD: What period in your life was your most productive and most meaningful?
C.K.: I worked like crazy all the time. I always worked and I was always producing. If I look at the early years starting the business from nothing to taking it to Brooke Shields’ first ad campaign on TV. Those years we built a global brand before the Internet. Those years were extraordinary. Everything evolved, I expanded — fragrance, jeans, all these other products. And made the Collection larger and more sophisticated.
WWD: Eroticism has continually infused your ad campaign images. Why was that so important to your work?
C.K.: Fabien [Baron] once said that that was me, that’s who I am, that’s one side of me. Whether it’s erotic, sensual, provocative, it’s all connected. And there’s this other thing of minimalism. That had to do with the way I lived and the clothes that I made. Working with the talent that I worked with, the photographers, the models, the stylists. We pushed the envelope. We wanted the photographs to stand out and to scream, “This is who Calvin Klein is.” It was effective because it was real.
WWD: Do you think those provocative images would work today?
C.K.: That was the other thing about doing the book. I realized, of course, I could run many of these images today. They’re not dated. And they go back to the Seventies and Eighties.
WWD: Do you feel in this politically charged atmosphere they would fly? Or was it a different time in the Eighties and Nineties?
C.K.: It had nothing to do with politics. I was accused by Bill Clinton that he didn’t like my ads when he was running for president, and it was family values. We had the Justice Department investigate us when we did the campaign that gave the impression to people of “kiddie porn.” It was just as provocative then as it would be today. Some people loved it, and some people would get upset. And that was the risk you take.
WWD: Tell me about those “kiddie porn” allegations. How did that make you feel? What was it like to be in the midst of a national conversation about family values? Or what about winning the “Pig of the Year” award with the Brooke Shields campaign? Did these things bother you?
C.K.: We intended always to do something that was fun and had a sense of humor to it. I didn’t think we would get the kind of reaction that we did get. It seemed absurd to me between the Democrats and the Republicans talking about family values and using us as an example. That was the “kiddie porn.” There’s always a story to whatever we’ve done. I did what I did, I don’t have regrets, I didn’t want to offend. When you put yourself on the line and you take risks, these things happen.
WWD: Were you always a risk taker?
C.K.: Pretty much. Because I believed in myself. The reason for doing the book was two-fold. The proceeds of the book will go to God’s Love We Deliver. So it’s not for me or any personal gain. I did it to inspire students. I speak a great deal at universities and I speak to design students, graphic people, marketing, business students, I’ve touched on so many different areas throughout my years. They all know my name. That’s been established decades ago. But they don’t always know these photographs of how we communicated to the world and what we were doing. This was an opportunity for me to show them what can be done and how I did it.
WWD: You’ve got a lot of nude photographs in the book. Were those shot for ad campaigns?
C.K.: Many of the photographs were not in campaigns. I chose a number of photographs that I felt were really beautiful that we never ran. I felt that made it more interesting, rather than everything that we ran nationally. It’s a mix of the two.
WWD: Lately, we’ve been hearing a lot about sexual harassment on photography sets and sexual harassment in general. Did you ever observe that, and what was the atmosphere like on the Calvin Klein set?
C.K.: First of all, in the early years I styled the shoot and I was on the shoot, but then I got busier and expanded into so many areas of creating product. I didn’t do the shoots, and I discussed them with the photographer and the stylist and I chose the models and locations, and I was involved but I wasn’t there to see what was happening. I know that if anything like that ever went on, or we asked a model to do something that he or she was not comfortable with, we didn’t do it. We totally respected the model. As far as I know, nothing like that ever came up. We know it exists. It existed when I first started and it’s unfortunate. Now I would think people of every walk of life will be much more conscious about what they say and what they do as a result of what’s happening now. Will it stop everything? No, but it’s a page turner. This is something that will be a new chapter, and I think that’s really positive.
WWD: What do you think of the social media explosion happening today?
C.K.: I think that’s exciting. It’s another way to communicate to the world what you’re doing. It’s, quite frankly, easier than what I had to do. It’s much easier. You just have to know what you’re doing. You hit everyone at the same time. Ours was much more complicated, thinking about which magazines to advertise in. It would be fun to be doing it today.
WWD: Back then you ran a 116-page insert in Vanity Fair. You wouldn’t necessarily see that today.
C.K.: I always did what no one would do. Nobody did 116-page inserts back then. Now the money we would spend would be allocated differently. It’s not necessary to do that. For instance, no one’s reading magazines anymore. You put [the money] where it counts.
WWD: Do you feel like you started the whole designer jean craze?
C.K.: I think Gloria Vanderbilt was in it before me. She was a woman of great style — maybe not a designer. I loved designing jeans. I wore them throughout my teenage years through today. I’ve always had a passion for denim and I’ve always enjoyed working on the shape and the wash and working with laundries around the world. Whether I started it or not doesn’t really matter. I think I made a contribution.
WWD: Can you articulate or pinpoint where your minimalist, modernist point of view came from?
C.K.: It came from my mother. She used to wear lots of tailored clothing. She wore names that wouldn’t mean anything to you, but they did to me. They were expensive, beautifully tailored.
WWD: Who did she wear?
C.K.: There was Ben Zuckerman, Seymour Fox. These companies weren’t designer labels, but were companies that employed designers. They didn’t promote them. But they made beautiful clothes. She had this thing for tailored clothes. I wouldn’t call them minimalist, but in truth they were. They were not decorative. It came from her, and I guess I just had it myself. I’ve lived that way as soon as I could. I don’t like lots of decoration. We used to design dresses in school and they would say “above the table,” meaning when a woman sits at dinner she has to have something of interest “above the table.” We were taught that in design school, but I never thought of that.
WWD: As you were maturing as a designer in the Seventies, what were the social and cultural factors in play that most influenced your work?
C.K.: Think of Studio 54. I go back to the Sixties. It started with Woodstock, and then in the Seventies, New York was at the height. There was so much excitement and freedom, sexual freedom, all kinds of freedom. From there came my first Obsession ads with Josie Borain, and lots of men’s limbs. You didn’t see their faces but you saw their bodies. That was indicative of what was going on. I don’t mean that everyone was having an orgy, but it existed. I was influenced by everything that was happening in my life to begin with. And aware of what was happening around me.
WWD: So often you are praised for your marketing and advertising brilliance and capturing the zeitgeist that way. You led the way with the Nineties minimalism, but are seldom credited with that. Do you think you’ve gotten your due as a designer?
C.K.: I certainly do. I’m absolutely grateful for all the success that I’ve had as a designer of clothes, of fragrances, of things for the home. I’m thrilled with the run that I’ve had. [As far as leading Nineties minimalism] I never thought about [it]. Those are the labels people put on me. I do think of myself as someone who loves purity and simplicity, and I’ve been called minimalist and that’s great, I appreciate that.
WWD: How did you go about finding models for your ad campaigns?
C.K.: We did searches all the time. I have used models who belonged to agencies. The pattern was not that. I used to send scouts, they used to send me photographs, Polaroids and stacks and stacks. When I would see people I was interested in, I’d have them come to New York. It was discovering people.
WWD: Was there one particular model who best exemplifies what Calvin Klein stood for?
C.K.: If I had to choose one, it was Christy Turlington. She was under contract with me when she was 17. She is still perfection. My kind of perfection. Young people would like to look like her. People her age or older aren’t threatened by her, and there’s a refinement that’s truly Christy. She’s well educated and comes from a good family. Natalia [Vodianova] was the last woman I chose and had a contract. She was fantastic. I didn’t have that many years with her. Even though people point to Kate [Moss] because that’s so obvious. Kate always for me was about jeans, about the CK collection, younger, fun. Natalia and Christy had more of the sophistication of the Collection.
WWD: A perusal of your clothes shows that they reflect the times. You never gave into the more hideous aspects of the Eighties. Your shoulders may have gotten a little bigger and your runway hair, as well, but not in ways that now look like cartoons — or lampoons. How did you manage that?
C.K.: [As far as shoulders getting bigger] They sure did. I’m embarrassed. Looking back, it makes me ill. I wasn’t really that influenced by trends. I was always doing my own thing. That happened in men’s clothes. I like shoulders that are strong. I think during that period we all got a little carried away. They’re clothes, you buy new ones.
WWD: Was it difficult to stay true to your minimalist aesthetic through the opulent Eighties?
C.K.: No, there was always a woman who didn’t want to look like you could see her from three blocks away or she didn’t want to display opulence. She was more sophisticated and quieter in the way she would dress, and there were women like that all over the world. That was the woman I was after. Those women evolved but they didn’t go from A to Z overnight.
WWD: Around the mid-to-late Nineties, some art influences starting appearing in your work. Where did they come from?
C.K.: I was always influenced by art and architecture, from the very beginning. I talk about that in the book. It became more prevalent at a certain point when I met Georgia O’Keeffe in Santa Fe, and I spent time with her, and I loved her work which is having a wonderful resurgence now. The colors. She made all the clothes herself, she sewed them by hand and she had great style. That’s when I paid even more attention to the artists. [Mark] Rothko, I used to use his colors all the time.
WWD: What do you think about today’s current art-fashion obsession?
C.K.: I’m not aware that there is an art-fashion obsession.
WWD: What do you think about Raf’s role in fostering it?
C.K.: I have no comment on that.
WWD: Can you comment on the Calvin Klein company today?
CK: No comment.
WWD: Do you pay attention to fashion today and if yes, what do you like and not like?
C.K.: I haven’t looked at magazines in years. I look occasionally online. I look at the way people dress wherever I am. I spend a lot of time now in Los Angeles. I live there during the winter months and am there five, six months a year. I have a house and it’s a much more casual lifestyle. But I’m always looking at the way people look — the hair, the makeup, the whole thing. It’s more interesting to me to see how people wear things and choose clothes and wear them, rather than looking at runway photographs. That’s not that interesting. I spent so many years…I never really looked at the runway photographs anyway. I was too busy just doing what we were doing.
WWD: Are you enjoying your life in L.A.?
C.K.: I’m enjoying my life everywhere. I get to travel. I used to travel to factories and showrooms around the world. I’ve done trips to Africa, India and I take photographs. I’ve done a lot of that well. So I’m able to do things now that I just didn’t have the time before and I’m just as busy. The time just flies.
WWD: What do you think about your legacy and what do you think it will be?
C.K.: I’ve never thought about it. I don’t think about it. I don’t think I would consider the book a legacy. It’s the work. It’s a part of the work. I had 40,000 images to choose from. I wish people could see the commercials. They were great. There are references to Brooke and what she was saying and some of the images from TV. In print, you can’t do very much with the film and that aspect. That was always interesting. I’m doing a lot of things that I love. I’ve worked on houses and apartments. Before I was living in a hotel. I used to live in a hotel for years. I lived in the Carlyle, I lived in the Mercer. I couldn’t get it together. I just couldn’t. Now that I have time, I’m going to get it together, and I love it. I live downtown in the Richard Meier building. It took five years. I love it.
WWD: Do you think your clothes get lost in all the imagery? You’re so well-known for all the imagery that people might feel that your clothes take a backseat. Does that bother you?
C.K.: The collection was always the umbrella. It was the first thing, and the most important thing I would do. It always got the least amount of marketing and advertising. Because it’s not a big business. When you’re on television with fragrance, and you’re on TV with jeans, you can’t compare. You become a name that the whole world knows. How many people are going to Bergdorf’s and Saks to buy my clothes? It was very small. I had a great run. I’m grateful to people who bought the clothes, people who liked them, as well as I am to people who bought the jeans and everything else that I made. So I had never had any feeling that people didn’t get what I was doing and I was treated unfairly. No, I think I was treated really well.
WWD: What do you think people will consider your greatest contribution to fashion?
C.K.: I think myself, Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan became the face of American design to the world. And I think that was maybe the best contribution of being recognized for what we were doing — which was something different. Like it or not, it was something different than what Paris was doing, or London. I think we brought attention, and now there are lots of American designers designing in Europe. There’s a real appreciation. That appreciation was always there for music and film. Now I think fashion as well.
WWD: Do you plan to go on a book tour to promote the book?
C.K.: The proceeds of the book and then some, are going to God’s Love We Deliver. I would rather the proceeds go to God’s Love, rather than a book party. I don’t need to go on television and sell the book. It will be seen. You and other magazines and newspapers are covering it. I don’t feel I need to do that. Also, doing parties and trips are expensive. I’d rather the money go to God’s Love.
WWD: You just gave $1 million to God’s Love?
WWD: Is there anything that you haven’t done in your life that you’re eager to do?
C.K.: That’s one of the reasons why I wanted to sell the company. I thought I did everything I wanted to do creatively. There was so much more to the world that I hadn’t experienced. So that’s my main reason for selling. And I miss the collaboration with people that I loved — photographers, design assistants. That’s the wonderful thing about designing. You’re not alone. You’re working with people. So while I miss that, there’s so much more that I enjoy that I was never able to enjoy before. This is the way it works in life. I get so inspired when I travel. I did a couple of trips to Africa with Donna Karan. Amazing. Because the people won’t look that way 10-20 years from now. They’ll all start looking like us.
WWD: Do you miss being in the throes of the fashion world?
C.K.: No, no no. I was more involved with the people that I would work with than I was in the fashion world. There were creative directors, art directors, photographers, models. Those are the people, I miss the collaboration. As far as being in the fashion world, I had enough of that. I loved it when I did it. I need new things to stimulate me.