One of America's top fashion designers, Calvin Klein (born 1942) first made a name for himself by designing clean, uncomplicated sportswear. But he kept his name before the public by creating sometimes shocking and always news making advertising campaigns.
Klein was born in 1942 in the Bronx, New York, where he spent all his childhood. As a youth he taught himself to sketch and sew. He attended the High School of Art and Design, moving on to the prestigious Fashion Institute of Technology. He spent five years as an apprentice in a coat and suit house on Seventh Avenue in New York City, working long nights and weekends to hone his own designs.
In 1968 he and close friend and financial backer/adviser Barry Schwartz created a Calvin Klein coat business. The first order was obtained purely, and ironically, by accident when a coat buyer from Bonwit Teller got off on the wrong floor of a hotel and wandered into Klein's workroom. She placed an order for $50,000, which was a hugh amount at that time. Encouraged by the fashion press' exaltations and store executives' support, Klein expanded his line to include women's sportswear.
Klein's world soon included his couture line, Calvin Klein Collection for men and women, CK sportswear for men and women, and CK jeans. He also licensed arrangements for his menswear, coats, accessories, intimate apparel, hosiery, swimwear, eyewear, furs, socks, and fragrances, all under his careful control and management. Of the many categories licensed, denim jeans, along with fragrances, built a large following among consumers who sought an affordable way to attain the designer's cache. By 1997 sales of Calvin Klein Jeans approached half a billion dollars.
Advertising was a key to Klein's success. He stoked the media with controversy that kept his name in the news. He was the first to design women's underwear that looked like men's jockey shorts. His television ads for jeans starred child-star Brooke Shields, who exclaimed: "Nothing comes between me and my Calvins." In the process, Klein developed a reputation for pushing the envelope of acceptability in his campaigns. Ads of the mid-1990s featured underage teenagers (not professional models) in sexually provocative poses that were particularly risque, and were characterized by many as socially irresponsible. Dubbed "kiddie porn" by the press, the campaign was singled out by Forbes magazine as the worst marketing campaign of 1995. He even attracted government attention: the FBI and Justice Department investigated the company for possible violations of child pornography laws. The ads were universally denounced, but in the end, the Justice Department ruled that they were not pornography. And, yes, Klein pulled the ads, but not before the accompanying publicity had made the Calvin Klein brand name a part of everyday conversation..
His three major fragrances—Obsession, Eternity, and Escape—were huge successes, also due in part to the shock value of advertising. His television ads for Obsession featured British waif model Kate Moss nude with her Italian photographer boyfriend whispering, "I love you, Kate," as she wades through ocean waves, nervously chews her long straight hair, and runs through island huts and gardens to the sounds of beating hearts, insects, wind, and surf.
Advertising for his new fragrances, cK One and CK Be, continued to challenge the public's social conscience, with some reflecting a gritty, hard life reality in which decimated teens (this time older, professional models) appeared to be part of an idealized drug culture. Again, the ads drew criticism; this time, President Clinton admonished the fashion industry not to glamorize addiction, but to speak out against the "heroin chic" style of fashion photography being used. Klein continued to profess innocence, saying that his ads are never meant to shock or create controversy. The ads of the 1990s, according to the designer, represented a departure from phony airbrushed images that were not connected to the reality of today's world.
While he unceasingly altered his image in the media with the changing times— incorporating rock and roll, grunge, and waif models as well as the homo-erotic and cynical-chic images of drug use conceived by top fashion photographer Bruce Weber—his design philosophy remained rooted in minimalism. At the same time his advertising for jeans and fragrances was being criticized, Calvin Klein clothing was receiving critical acclaim for its clean, modern lines. Time magazine called him the Frank Lloyd Wright of fashion, and named him one of the 25 most influential Americans in 1996.
Klein won the prestigious Coty Award three times in a row (1973-1975), becoming the youngest designer to ever have that honor. In 1982, 1983, and 1986 he also captured the Council of Fashion Designers of America Award. In addition to his professional achievements, he built a financially strong company with the continued advice and help of partner Barry Schwartz who guided the company through tough financial times in the late 1980s. His worldwide empire was rivaled by few designers.
In his personal life Klein also weathered the times. He married Jayne Centre in 1964 but divorced in 1974. They had one child, Marci. After battling rumors of a gay, drug-related lifestyle and AIDS, he shocked the industry by marrying one of his design assistants, Kelly Rector, in 1986. None of the bad publicity seemed to affect sales. Perhaps coincidentally, Klein assumed a lower profile and quieter lifestyle during the late 1980s and early 1990s. He also began sponsoring programs such as "Unlock the Silence," to support the Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN), as well as various benefits for AIDS. In early 1997 his marriage appeared to be faltering, and a separation was announced.
Klein was unquestionably a stylish survivor as he approached the twenty-first century as a top fashion designer, still appealing to his clean-minded, career-oriented customers. But he also reached a growing group of hip teens and twenty-somethings with his increasingly street-chic women's fashions of tuxedo denim jackets, crinkled poet blouses, velvet priestly evening vestments, and Edwardian men's jackets worn with cuffed jeans.
For further information on Calvin Klein and the fashion industry see Fairchild Dictionary of Fashion (1988), McDowell's Directory of 20th Century Fashion (1987), Contemporary Designers edited by Ann Lee Morgan (2nd ed. 1990), and NY Fashion: The Evolution of American Style by Caroline Rennolds Milbank (1989). A 1994 book by Steven Gaines and Sharon Churcher, Obsession: The Lives and Times of Calvin Klein, was reportedly displeasing to its subject. More can be learned by reading the following periodicals: Fortune (January 13, 1997, AdWeek (September 23, 1996), Time (June 17, 1996), the New York Times (February 10 and 18, 1997), and Billboard (September 7, 1996 and January 11, 1997). □