His name isn’t on any label, but Kevin Carrigan is responsible for the bulk of the company’s apparel products.
Kevin Carrigan doesn’t have a runway show where he can take a bow amid the popping flashbulbs, and he’s unlikely to be photographed on the arm of a hot celebrity in one of his dresses.
But make no mistake about his seemingly low media profile: The 43-year-old Brit is probably one of the most powerful designers at Calvin Klein Inc. today. His designs reach an extensive audience of both men and women — plenty more than the upscale and significantly more high-profile Calvin Klein Collection designed by his colleagues Francisco Costa and Italo Zucchelli.
As global creative director of ck Calvin Klein and the better-priced Calvin Klein, also referred to as “white label” and which is exclusive to the U.S., Carrigan oversees the largest apparel chunk of the CKI empire: from men’s and women’s sportswear to dresses and outerwear for the two labels, as well as Calvin Klein Jeans and recent additions such as the ck Calvin Klein makeup line. Carrigan guides over 30 licenses worldwide, and ensures a common thread runs through the various divisions.
“When a Calvin shopper walks into a store, she buys the perfume, looks at the makeup and tries on a pair of jeans or some sportswear, but she doesn’t know that there are different licensees,” Carrigan explained. “That is the beauty of what I am doing — to oversee these licensees, to unify them and to have one consistent message.”
In his job, Carrigan travels five to six months a year to work directly with the different licensees, and his days tend to be jam-packed with meetings: for instance, an hour with executives from CRK, the company’s in-house advertising agency, to discuss upcoming campaigns, meetings with the makeup licensee on colors and concepts for upcoming seasons, calls planning overseas prototype meetings, and fittings.
Those who know Carrigan characterize his charm as boyish, a trait that is enhanced by his northern English accent. (He’s a native of Carlisle, a town in England’s scenic Lake District.) Before moving to New York in 1998 to take the reins as design director of ck Calvin Klein women’s, Carrigan honed his skills as a designer at MaxMara and, before that, design director at Nicole Farhi. The graduate of London’s Royal College of Art and Design credits the school for mirroring much of his personal fashion philosophy — and preparing him for the role he would eventually take at Calvin Klein.
“I was really influenced by Bauhaus, the celebration of industrial things, and doing things that are accessible,” he said. “The Royal College is very industrially based, and you mix with a lot of graphic designers, product designers and architects.
“It really goes back to Calvin and my interest in design,” he added. “ [Charles] Eames took a piece of plywood and did something with it. It was such an everyday object, but he made it precious by the way he bent it and twisted it, and folded and molded it. That, to me, is what I do on a daily basis, with fabrics, with colors and all the product categories that I touch, from ties to socks to hosiery to makeup to men’s and women’s ready-to-wear.”
And if Carrigan’s minimalist industrial bent sounds a lot like Calvin’s, then so be it. After all, he spent the early years at CKI directly working for Klein himself.
“It was very tough at first because he’s so knowledgeable and experienced,” Carrigan recalled. “He’s such a great editor. He would say, ‘Don’t give me three peacoats, give me the right one. What do you believe in? Why do you believe in it? Stand by your convictions. Strip it back.’ And that’s what he stood for. He’s very charismatic and has great energy, but he was also a very tough boss.”
And one full of surprises, apparently. When Carrigan presented Klein with a collection featuring discreet logos, he didn’t anticipate the reaction. “You think, ‘Calvin is a minimalist house, and logos should be small,’” he said. “But he told me the logo was too small. I said, ‘Calvin, I was thinking about it being small and minimal,’ and he said, ‘What, are you afraid to use my name? Look at Chanel, look at all these other brands and how they use their logos. We shouldn’t be afraid of who we are.’”
The experience of working for Klein continues to inspire Carrigan today, though he also frequently turns to the company’s extensive archives to inform his collections. While Carrigan is less likely to cull from a specific season, he said he prefers mixing details from several collections to create something new.
And specific references just seem to roll off his tongue. “I can use that ’93-’94 collection styled by Tina Laakonen, then go back to the Kate Moss collection that was all camel and based on Audrey Hepburn, when Zack [Carr] and Narciso [Rodriguez] were here, and bring the two together,” Carrigan noted. “I have quite a fashion memory. I was after a white satin tuxedo suit and called the archive and said, ‘I think it was the 9-11 show, I think it was look 23.’ They called me back and said, ‘You’re a freak. It’s actually look 30.’
“The archive also helps when signing a new licensee and you have to educate them on the shoulders that we use, the internal construction of the garment that is so Calvin, the buttons, the zippers,” Carrigan added.
His interest in the archives hasn’t gone unnoticed by Klein himself. Carrigan recalled running into Klein at a movie screening Calvin Klein Jeans hosted for “21” last March. “I told him how much I use the archive, and he said, ‘Yes, you are one of the designers who really uses the archive,’” Carrigan said.
While Collection sets the tone for the entire brand, Carrigan said he doesn’t seek inspiration from the company’s top-tier label.
“I go to Italo’s and Francisco’s shows, and if I am doing any of my events, they are invited so we see each other’s work when it’s finished,” Carrigan said. “Sometimes we are all on the same creative platform. There is a certain synergy but it’s actually not planned. Collection sets the tone for the house, but not necessarily for the design point of view. Also, when you consider the global market, in my price point, I have to think about climates and colors. Francisco’s point of view has to be so strong, so unforgiving in a certain way that this is what is right for the season. I am much more retail-based.”
While Klein’s own minimalist DNA offers enough material for Carrigan to play with, the designer still likes to pepper the collections with a little bit of his irreverent personal sensibilities. “I love that twist of doing something that is elegant and sexy but still keeping it an edgy cool,” he said. “I love when I am going to a cool event or a party. If that girl walks in and looks cool and a little edgy, I have won.”