Best known for clean and minimalist designs, Calvin Klein is one of the most talented and creative American fashion designers. Although hugely criticized for provocative ads, the CK trademark denim and underwear are irreplaceable to-date. Many adore him for his hardwork from a small startup dealing with coats to a self-labeled brand dealing with men and women apparel, jewelry and fragrances. Undoubtedly, Klein’s story stands out as that of a young boy who couldn’t help but follow his dreams.
Klein was born to a Jewish family in Bronx, New York City. He is of the Hungarian ancestry but adopted the American way of life after being raised there. His father is Flore Stern and mother Leo Klein. Flore, an immigrant from Hungary, owned a grocery store whereas Leo’s parents had emigrated from Austria. Klein was the middle child in a family of three children and his siblings are Barry Klein and Alexis Klein. The middle class family lived a humble life in Bronx where Klein lived whilst growing up.
Motivated by his grandmother who loved tailoring, Klein developed an interest in fashion and design. In fact, when his peers were out playing, Calvin found it more fulfilling to sit in the house and practice various sewing and sketching designs. For this reason, he had very few friends when growing up and he therefore sought solace in his hobby for clothing. He would spend hours sketching women’s dresses and suits and sewing what he believed was the perfect outfit. By the time Klein was five years old, he knew what he wanted to be in life; a fashion designer. Her mother was thrilled by the young boy’s passion and she encouraged him to pursue fashion and art.
Klein would accompany his mother on shopping sprees around the city with the aim of bugging discounts on his designing materials.
After completing elementary studies, Klein then attended High School of Art and Design which prepared youths in advertising and drafting careers. However, Klein never graduated from the school, as he won a spot in the esteemed Fashion Institute of Technology where he graduated in 1962. At the age of 20, Klein was named the youngest graduate in the school’s history. Besides fashion, Klein met fellow student Jayne Centre at the school and they fell in love. The two later got married in 1964 after he completed his course.
For his apprenticeship, he worked with Dan Millstein, a cloak and suit manufacturer for five years. He earned $75 per week and his work was mainly sketching and copying designs from European runways.
Klein was happy to do what he loved best and above all provide for his young family. Better still, his apprenticeship gave him an opportunity to understand the fashion business that he would later put to use in his career.
At that time, there were no original fashion designs in America and designers were simply copying the European fashion. Klein felt unutilized as copying designs was not challenging his skills.
Calvin then started foreseeing another opening for himself. He dreamt of founding his own clothing company – a company that would design original, unique yet affordable apparel to Americans. To him, the European imitations had enjoyed a monopoly for long and hence the expensive outfits they manufactured. His goal was to make a US fashion industry that would become one of the best in the globe. Unfortunately, he was broke and couldn’t afford the money required for the startup.
In 1968, the then-26-year old designer had accumulated some savings totaling to $2,000. This amount was still not enough to begin his own enterprise. He therefore approached Barry Schwartz, a childhood friend, who lent $10,000 to him. With this amount, Klein launched his company Calvin Klein Ltd, and Schwartz with financial backing became his partner.
The company started off as a coat shop and was located in a popular hotel in the city of New York.
One day, a merchandise manager from Bonwit Teller accidentally got off the elevator on the wrong floor and immediately noticed Klein’s workroom. He was greatly impressed by his line of trench coats and immediately placed an order of $50,000. The manager received rave reviews from the public and fashion press, and this played an important role in Calvin Klein’s brand popularity.
Klein took advantage of the company’s fame and by 1971, he had introduced a women’s collection that included sportswear, classic blazers and lingerie. His designs were clean and uncomplicated that led to his nickname Calvin Clean.
The ’70s saw Calvin Klein introduce what many called the American leisurewear. His pristine use of color and fabric attracted many ladies who were tired of expensive and impractical European couture. Men were also favored with sleek, relaxed and masculine designs that exposed their strong bodies as a bodybuilding craze was sweeping America during that time. His trademark sleek jeans soon became the talk in every state after he added some designer details to them by cutting them tight and branding the name on the back pocket. The tight fitting signature jeans grossed an average of $200,000 in just the first week of sales.
Following his massive success, he was awarded the prestigious Coty American Fashion Critic’s Award for three consecutive years (1973-75), hence becoming the youngest designer to achieve the feat. Two years later, he was again the youngest ever voted in the organization’s Hall of Fame.
Unfortunately, his massive success cost his marriage and he divorced his wife Jayne Centre in 1974. Rumors had it that Klein no longer balanced his work and family life and Jayne could not take it any longer. Even then, the Calvin Klein brand was growing intensively and from a $10,000 start up, the CEO was earning an approximate of $30 million revenues by 1977. The company had also introduced accessories such as belts, scarves, sunglasses, furs and sheets.
In 1982, he added the Calvin Klein logo to boxers and briefs as well as designing masculine bikinis. He was also the first one to design women’s underwear that resembled the men’s jockey shorts.
With this, the company conquered the US underwear market with a bang. Calvin was also honored the Council of Fashion Designs of America Award for impressive men and womenswear in 1982, 1983 and 1993. In 1983, he was named on the International Best Dressed List.
By the ’80s, Calvin Klein had turned into a huge establishment with over 12,000 stores across Canada, UK, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand and Australia.
Determined to fully conquer the US and overseas fashion market, Klein entered the fragrance world by introducing perfumes and colognes. His major fragrances that spread like bushfire included Escape, Eternity and Obsession.
Klein sales were now approaching a billion dollars and this was partly due to the signature denim jeans, fragrances and many categories Calvin Klein Inc. had introduced.
The early ’90s were a successful few years for the Klein brand. They expanded their label and their line of clothing included hosiery, swimwear and eyewear. The brand also began manufacturing more affordable casual apparel, bath towels and bedding linens under the label CK. In 1996, Time Magazine named him among the 25 most influential Americans.
The label however was faced with gross financial problems that pushed the company to a brink of bankruptcy, but Calvin was saved by his friend David Geffen. The CEO then filed a lawsuit against licensee Warnaco Group with accusations of breaching their contractual agreements.
Although the label rebounded after the case was settled, Klein announced that his company was up for sale in 1999. Calvin Klein Inc. was bought three years later by Philips Van Heusen for $400 million cash, $30 million stock and the licensing rights were handed over to him for the next 15 years.
Calvin is a celebrated designer and his hardwork and determination is envied by many in the industry. As a seasoned designer, Calvin clearly understood the essence of keeping his name in the news through advertising the CK label.
Even then, the creative designer has on many occasions attracted controversial statements from the public due to his sexually provocative advertisements.
In 1982, after introducing a line of men’s innerwear with his name on the waistband, sharp criticism arose as the ads featured half dressed men. Feminists condemned the ads, proclaiming that they were pornographic and evoking violence against women. Although some publishers rejected the ads, word had already spread and the underwear was widely bought.
His commercials featuring young models in evocative poses were also termed to evoke amateur pornography and the then-President Bill Clinton spoke out against the images. The ads were characterized as socially irresponsible and many dubbed them as “kiddie porn”. Forbes named the advertisement the worst marketing campaign. The FBI and Justice Department however investigated any whatsoever violation of child laws but later ruled out any pornography intentions in the marketing campaign. Soon, the commercial ads were banned from the media.
His fragrances CK One and CK Be showed teenagers taking part in scenes idealized as a drug culture, and this did not go well with the public. There was a public uproar urging the fashion industry to avoid glamorizing addiction at the expense of young people. However, Klein defended himself stating that the images were not connected to today’s world reality but rather represented a departure from phony airbrushed images.
On the good side however, some of Calvin’s ads promote serenity, adoration of the body and classical sensuality. For instance, an ad featuring Christy Turlington for the Eternity fragrance campaign symbolized stability in the family and ultimately a sense of grace.
Calvin is the designer of a majority of US celebrities such as Julia Roberts, Gwyneth Paltrow and Helen Hunt. Even more models, music artists and athletes, from Justin Beiber to Antonio Sabato and Eva Mendes to Tom Hintnaus have been featured in Calvin Klein’s campaigns.
Klein has also impacted on the lives of many fashion designers, motivating them to be more creative and original. Some include Miuccia Prada and Donna Karan.
Considering Klein’s fame, his private life has been in the public eye, leaving almost nothing in the hideout. Klein has openly spoken of having intimate relationships with both men and women. He also stated in an interview that most of his sexually provocative ads were inspired by events in his personal life.
In 1964, Klein married Jayne Centre, a former college mate and textile designer. The two were blessed with a daughter, Marci Klein, who currently holds a high profile status as a Talent Producer for NBC’s Saturday Night Live. Unfortunately, the relationship with Jayne did not last long and the two divorced in 1974.
After the divorce, Klein went wild with plenty of partying, cocaine and casual sex. His notoriety grew and so did his fame. However, his life changed in 1978 after his 11 year old daughter was kidnapped. It was a scarring time for the publicity hungry Klein and he decided to go slow on his high public profile when his daughter was released unharmed.
It was also rumored that Klein was suffering from AIDS, but Klein later refuted that as mere gossip. Soon, Klein was admitted to Hazelden Clinic in Minnesota and the AIDS rumors resurfaced once again. It was however revealed that Klein had become addicted to vodka and valium and was under rehab for alcohol and drug use.
Even after coming out of rehab, the former avid night-liver continued to struggle with substance abuse at the time of his company sale. He however checked in for rehab in Arizona which turned out successful.
In 1986, Calvin married his assistant Kelly Rector. The two tied the knot in Rome, Italy, while on a business-buying trip. Kelly later became a socialite photographer and this was the foundation of their marriage problems. Kelly and Klein separated in 1996 before finally divorcing in 2006.
As a luxury lover, Calvin bought an ocean front estate in Southampton, New York in 2003. He however demolished it later and built a glass-concrete mansion worth $75 million.
Written by: Peris Ngaruiya