There was never a doubt in Italo Zucchelli’s mind that he would become a designer. And over the past 13 years at Calvin Klein, the men’s creative director of Calvin Klein Collection has taken the lessons he learned from the “god and goddess of minimalism” to make his own mark on the fashion industry.
Although Zucchelli dabbled with the idea of becoming an architect as a young man, “I knew fashion was my passion,” he said.
In the early Eighties in Italy, the fashion business was booming and he became “obsessed” with the proliferation of magazines in the market. He traveled to London and absorbed everything that was happening with street style and music, and there was no turning back. “There was a new energy and I knew I wanted to do something creative.” He cut his teeth at Romeo Gigli and then moved on to Jil Sander, where he got a call from Calvin Klein telling him that he wanted Zucchelli to work on his women’s collection design team.
“He’s a living legend and in my opinion, a genius,” Zucchelli said. “I worked with him for three years and learned a lot from him. He’s my mentor. He changed my life.”
Being able to work with Klein and Sander, both of whom were famous for their minimalist designs, opened Zucchelli’s eyes. “It was interesting for me to see how the same aesthetic could be translated in a very European, conceptual, arty way from her and a very American, immediate, to-the-point way from him. There are a lot of similarities, but the way it’s expressed is different, and what I do is a mixture of both.”
With his own aesthetic established, Zucchelli said he starts the design process each season by traveling to cities such as Tokyo, Los Angeles, Berlin or London. “I go to exhibitions, buy books, vintage, and I come back to my office and look at what we collected. We start to put together a concept of colors, theme, fabric inspiration.”
The use of innovative fabrics such as Neoprene or PVC in his designs has become one of his hallmarks.
“I think fashion is supposed to move forward so the fascination I’ve always had with fabrics and materials can help push a new message,” he said. “Fabrics represent the soul of the clothes. I like to push with innovation and that’s what the materials have always been for me. I like to put together something familiar with something slightly unfamiliar.” For example, offering a tuxedo jacket in Neoprene makes the piece “new and exciting but familiar at the same time.”
That familiarity is also evident in Zucchelli’s choice of faces for the brand — both on the runway and in its advertising.
“Calvin is legendary for casting,” he said. “So I do a lot of pre-casting before shows. Usually they’re not even models, they’re guys.” Often, these “guys” are almost “clones,” he said. “The Calvin Klein guy is strong, masculine, very American, and in my mind, Americans have always looked healthy, built, good-looking — and that’s what I look for when I cast my models.”
That strategy also holds true with celebrities, he said. “I like handsome guys like Bradley [Cooper] and Alex [Skarsgard], people who can really represent what I do in the best way — the athleticism, the Americanism. But at the same time, I also like characters like Jared Leto.”
He also likes musicians. “Music has a cool factor, and if you want to enhance what you do, music is the most powerful way to do it,” he said.
Recently, he designed the wardrobe for Drake’s tour and he’s also worked with Sam Smith — two divergently different artists who allow him to express different faces of the Calvin Klein brand: one dressy and the other rooted in American sportswear.
Zucchelli has inherited the mantle of retaining Calvin’s groundbreaking advertising. He created an eye-opening campaign of his own in 2010, using a naked and greased up black model, David Agbodji, photographed by Steven Klein, who had worked with Calvin Klein himself in the late Nineties. “It was a celebration of black skin and beauty,” he said, “but this was in a big way since he was naked.”
Moments such as this allow Zucchelli to make a statement of his own, something he’s also managed to do on the runway. In 2007, he dressed models in tight-fitting, brightly colored leggings that were inspired by Australian surfers. “I didn’t have any agenda. But it was sort of a perfect Calvin Klein moment, something controversial and provoking. It happened again several years after with another show when I used really fluorescent colors. By the third [outfit] they clapped and screamed and everybody backstage started crying. That was a great moment. People don’t clap at fashion shows.”
Zucchelli also made a mark with his use of the words Obsession and Escape — the names of the brand’s fragrances — on sweatshirts that have become collectors’ items.
“The words are iconic when it comes to Calvin Klein and they’re very relevant today,” he said. “We’re all obsessed today. We’re obsessed with social media, with selfies and we need to escape.”
Looking to the future, Zucchelli said he has no desire to start a brand under his own name, opting instead to push the Calvin Klein brand ahead.
“I’ve worked for so long in this minimalism aesthetic that it’s kind of my second home,” he said. “It comes natural to me. It’s an effortless process. But I want to push fashion forward. I want to strike a balance between iconic and innovation. Fashion and men’s wear are changing so fast, and this is one of the leading brands in the world, so there’s a lot to do.”