A Stylish Obsession
Founder of Calvin Klein Ltd.
"Anything I wanted to do, I did. If there's something I want to do, nothing stops me."-Calvin Klein
His casual chic style brought American fashion into its own and onto a par with Paris. He single-handedly created the designer jeans craze of the 1970s, and then revolutionized fashion advertising in the 1980s. Today his name adorns everything from underwear to perfume. And his stylish designs and business acumen have built a fashion empire. But unlike his clothes, Calvin 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 preferred to tag 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 in the garment district as a $75-per-week apprentice sketching designs from the 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 Klein wanted to change that. He 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 Ltd., 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 a $50,000 order, telling the young designer, "Tomorrow you will have been discovered." And indeed, it was that order from Bonwit, along with a glowing editorial he received in Vogue, that put the Calvin Klein name on the map.
In 1973, Klein leapt from making only coats to designing a line of sportswear, creating what would become known as "The Calvin Klein Look" and giving birth to American leisurewear. With youthful silhouettes, a pristine use of color and fine fabrics, his relatively affordable sportswear first caught the attention of American women who were fed up with outrageous and impractical Parisian couture. Shortly after, men became attracted to the relaxed, masculine look of Klein's designs, which were in tune with the health and bodybuilding craze that was sweeping America at the time.
Klein had finally hit the big time. The money poured in as his clean, muted, simple designs became hits with both the buying public and the fashion press, who 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 disco club Studio 54, where cocaine and casual sex were part of the scene. As his power and notoriety grew, Klein maintained a high public profile, worrying little about the liabilities of fame-until 1978, when his 11-year-old daughter, Marci, was kidnapped. Although she was released unharmed, both Klein and his daughter were left indelibly scarred. The once publicity-hungry Klein gave up partying and became a virtual recluse.
The year 1980 marked a turning point for Klein's empire. A series of commercials by photographers Doon Arbus and Richard Avedon that featured 15-year-old model Brooke Shields cooing, "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. It was a more sensual approach to marketing that would later be emulated by Klein's competitors. The commercials also prompted criticism from feminist leaders such as Gloria Steinem, who proclaimed they were pornographic and inspired violence against women. The negative publicity only served to fuel sales.
Klein would once again court controversy in 1982, when he put his name on the waistband of a line of men's underwear and started a campaign featuring near-naked men dressed only in his designer skivvies. Many publishers rejected the sexy ads. But once again, the controversy spilled over into Klein's favor, and stores simply couldn't keep the underwear in stock.
In 1983, Klein and his partner bought Puritan Jeans, their jeans licensee, for $65.8 million. It was Klein's first and nearly fatal misstep. Lifestyles were changing as the reality of AIDS emerged and halted the casual sexuality of 1970s. 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. He refinanced the debt with $80 million in junk bonds, leaving his empire in serious danger of crumbling. To make matters worse, rumors were spreading that Klein was dying of AIDS.
The rumors ceased when Klein married his second wife, model Kelly Rector, in 1986. But Klein was experiencing a dark period in his personal life. He had become addicted to vodka and Valium. When Klein's office announced that he had gone to the Caribbean on an extended vacation, the rumors about AIDS resurfaced, so 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 a pal from his Studio 54 days¬-multibillionaire David Geffen. Given a new start, Klein spawned numerous product lines, including a more affordable clothing line called CK, and licensed his name on sunglasses, watches, handbags and more. All the new products did well, but Klein's ads continued to spark controversy.
In 1995, he launched a series of jeans ads featuring real teens, some as young as 15, in sexually provocative poses. Dubbed "kiddie porn" by the press, several television stations pulled the ads, and the FBI and Justice Department began investigating the company for possible violations of child pornography laws. The ads were universally denounced, but in the end, the Justice Department ruled they were not pornography.
Klein pulled the ads, and in spite of the negative press, came out smelling like a rose-his cK one perfume and CK jeans selling well, his brand-new headquarters store opening in New York City, and his company with the healthiest financial picture in many 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.
Good Press, Bad Press
At the same time his advertisements for jeans and fragrances were being criticized, Calvin Klein's 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.
When Calvin Klein won his first of three Coty American Fashion Critics' Awards in 1973, he became the youngest designer ever to receive the honor. Two years later, he became the youngest designer ever voted into the organization's Hall of Fame.