Francisco Costa is the steward of the founder’s women’s wear runway legacy.
Five years after moving into the spotlight at Calvin Klein, Francisco Costa no longer needs an introduction.
In New York fashion circles and beyond, the women’s creative director of Calvin Klein Collection is increasingly recognized. Costa has been making a name for himself for the artistic, architectural and often softer bent he brings to the label’s minimalist DNA — and he never seems to lose respect for Klein’s own work.
“I love the craft of the clothes,” Costa said. “I love a piece that is interesting, well-made, challenging and current. When you think of minimalism, there was a school of minimalism. It was in art, in architecture. I think it has evolved today.”
While Collection isn’t exactly Calvin Klein Inc.’s moneymaker — far from it — the line nevertheless sets the tone for the entire brand, and as a result, Costa finds himself in a powerful seat at the company. His designs ultimately make their way into influential editorials, and steer the powerful ad campaigns that grace the pages of luxury magazines. The dresses he creates often find themselves on the all-important red carpet, where a celebrity endorsement can fuel the sales of better sportswear, fragrance, underwear and jeans — categories Costa has little to do with otherwise.
Today — after several runway hits and two CFDA Womenswear Designer of the Year awards — it’s hard to imagine the pressures Costa must have felt filling the shoes of Calvin Klein himself. Designer succession, after all, is one of the industry’s most challenging issues, and more than a few talents have failed at it.
Costa has remained philosophical about the daunting task he has faced, even if there have been seasons when fashion critics didn’t embrace his efforts.
Sitting in the all-white Calvin Klein Manhattan office at 205 West 39th Street, the 44-year-old shrugs off the notion replacing Klein was a Herculean task.
“I never thought of filling anybody’s shoes,” Costa said. “That was never a consideration. Calvin did what he did. Am I Calvin? Absolutely not. Am I respecting the label? Yes. Am I doing what I am supposed to do? I think I am. Am I respecting myself? Yes. Am I having fun? Yes. Do I like being here? I love being here.
“I never look back,” Costa added. “Everything is a high for me, because I think it’s really a quest, and we are going through it, trying to sort things out and make things happen. It’s been an amazing five years of incredible support — from our team, from the press, from the whole industry. It really has been five years on a high.”
Costa’s résumé might explain his apparent ease at adapting to the high-profile role. A native of the Minas Gerais region of Brazil, his family operated a children’s wear factory. In the Eighties, he moved to New York to study English at Hunter College during the day, and fashion at the Fashion Institute at night. After graduating in 1989, Costa found work at the now-defunct He-Ro Group, designing for licensed Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta collections. De la Renta eventually brought him in-house. Costa stayed with the company for eight years before moving to Gucci, where he designed evening dresses and worked directly for Tom Ford.
Warm and soft-spoken, Costa came to Klein’s attention through Barry Schwartz, who met him through the designer’s partner John DeStefano, a horse trainer who shares a passion for horses with the former CKI chairman.
Today, Costa fondly recalls the time he worked directly for Klein. “There is something very sharp and at the same time very genuine about him, which was always very intriguing,” Costa said. “He had a passion for fabrics that I have never felt before, with anybody. He’s very much in-tune, focused and intuitive.”
Klein’s shadow will forever loom over the company, but through his work, Costa has been able to distance himself from the founder — even if he is challenged to pinpoint the season that marked a clear break with the house’s past.
“I think my second collection was very strong, but I got killed for it,” Costa recalled, referencing the fall 2004 season full of light fabrics like charmeuse, chiffon and silk for flowy dresses. “Most of the reviews were
terrible, but it was very directional and very good. It was soft and light and it was very New York in a way. One of the reviews said the clothes were so light they almost looked like spring clothes.”
Besides some mixed reviews, there were other factors hampering Costa — particularly the licensing structure set up by Phillips-Van Heusen Corp. after it bought Calvin Klein, Inc. in 2003. The New York sample room was eliminated. Vestimenta, the first licensee Costa worked with, was going through financial troubles and was eventually forced to file for bankruptcy — all of which hurt Collection’s production cycle. After the line changed hands several times, it returned back in-house last January, when CKI acquired Italian licensee CMI. Costa now has more control over the execution of his designs, and the company has been making moves to build Collection into a viable business again.
“We went through ups and downs but now we really have a team in place,” Costa said. “We will start having substantial representation with retail and stores. I feel like it’s a birth. Now is the beginning.”
And there’s nothing better than an anniversary to mark a new beginning. Costa remained tight-lipped about the spring 2009 collection he is about to present, but he did drop a few hints. “The collection has a beautiful, sharp feel, very much like the space we are doing the party in,” he said, referring to the John Pawson-designed structure that will serve as the venue for the company’s 40th birthday — with access to the much-anticipated High Line park project on New York’s West Side. “A person who will walk into the venue will notice that. I wish they would be dressed in the collection that night, because it’s very fitting,” he added. “It’s very High Line.”