Hero Worship

A Stylish Obsession

Calvin Klein

Founder of Calvin Klein Inc.

Launched: 1968

"Anything I wanted to do, I did. If there's something I want to do, nothing stops me." --Calvin Klein

Calvin Klein's casual and chic style brought American fashion into its own and on a par with Paris. He managed to single-handedly create the designer-jeans craze of the 1970s and revolutionized fashion advertising in the 1980s. Now his name adorns everything from underwear to perfume. And his stylish designs and business acumen have built an empire. But unlike his clothes, Klein's rise to the top of the fashion world has been anything but uncomplicated.

Born on November 19, 1942, Klein was largely influenced by his mother, who instilled in him a love of art and fashion. While other kids played stickball, Klein tagged along with his mom while she shopped at discount clothing stores in New York City. A loner who taught himself how to sketch and sew, Klein claims he always knew he wanted to be a fashion designer.

After graduating from New York City's Fashion Institute of Technology in 1962, Klein married Jayne Centre and went to work as an apprentice in the garment district for $75 per week. He sketched designs from European runways for coat mogul Dan Millstein. The tactic of copying was typical for fashion at that time, because no original ideas were coming out of America. But Calvin wanted to change that. He had dreamed of starting his own fashion company, and nothing was going to stop him--not even the fact that he was nearly broke and still working at his father's grocery store to make some extra cash.

In 1968, at the age of 26, with $2,000 of his own money and a $10,000 loan from his boyhood friend Barry Schwartz, Klein founded his own company, Calvin Klein Inc., with Schwartz as his partner. Their first order came literally by accident, when a coat-buyer from department store titan Bonwit Teller got off on the wrong floor and wandered into Klein's workroom. Impressed by his line of trench coats, the buyer placed an order for $50,000, telling the young designer, "Tomorrow you will have been discovered." And indeed, it was that order from Bonwit, along with a glowing editorial in Vogue, that put the Calvin Klein name on the map.

In 1973, Klein designed a line of sportswear, creating what would become known as "The Calvin Klein Look" and giving birth to American leisurewear. The money was pouring in as his clean, muted, simple designs became hits with both the buying public and the fashion press, which gave him the prestigious Coty Award in 1973, 1974 and 1975. But success did not come without a price. In 1974, it cost him his marriage.

After his divorce, Klein embarked on a self-described "wild period," spending his nights partying at Studio 54, where cocaine and casual sex were part of the scene. As his power and notoriety grew, Klein maintained a high public profile--until 1978, when his 11-year-old daughter, Marci, was kidnapped. Although she was released unharmed, both Klein and his daughter were indelibly scarred. The once publicity-hungry Klein gave up partying and became a recluse.

The year 1980 marked a big turning point for Klein's empire. A series of commercials featuring 15-year-old model Brooke Shields saying, "Nothing comes between me and my Calvins," made Klein's new line of tight jeans a nationwide phenomenon, selling 200,000 pairs the first week alone. The provocative commercials marked a revolution in clothing advertising, but prompted criticism from feminist leaders. The negative publicity only fueled sales.

Klein once again courted controversy in 1982, when he put his name on the waistband of men's underwear and then started a campaign featuring near-naked men modeling the new designer skivvies. Many publishers rejected the sexy ads. But again, the controversy spilled over into Klein's favor, and stores couldn't keep the underwear in stock.

In 1983, Klein and his partner bought Puritan Jeans, their jeans licensee, for $65.8 million. But lifestyles were changing, and the reality of AIDS had minimized the casual sexuality of '70s. As a by-product of this, the demand for tight-fitting, designer jeans waned. By 1984, the designer jeans business had dried up, leaving Klein deep in debt.

When Klein married his second wife, model Kelly Rector, in 1986, he was once again experiencing a dark period in his personal life. He became addicted to vodka and Valium. When Klein's office announced that he had gone to the Caribbean on an extended vacation, the truth was revealed--Klein had been admitted to the Hazelden Clinic in Minnesota for alcohol and drug abuse.

Klein came out of rehab facing bankruptcy, but was saved by pal David Geffen. Klein spawned numerous product lines, including a more affordable clothing line called CK, and licensed his name on sunglasses, watches, handbags and more. By the mid-1990s, his CK one perfume and CK jeans were selling well, his brand-new headquarters store had opened in New York City and his company experienced its healthiest financial state in years.

Indeed, the man who popularized name-brand jeans, clean American lines and men's underwear for women is unquestionably a stylish survivor as he enters the 21st century as one of the world's top fashion designers.

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This article was originally published in the March 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Hero Worship.

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