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Calvin Klein: “I like the element of surprise”

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Calvin Klein
Photo by Steven Klein
Short Profile

Name: Calvin Richard Klein
DOB: 19 November 1942
Place of birth: Bronx, New York, USA
Occupation: Fashion designer

Mr. Klein, do you think true invention in fashion is still possible?

I think of fashion as something that evolves. It is a continuation and it is constantly new. It does change, but there’s no invention. Everything has been done one way or another. And many designers are inspired by vintage clothes to begin with. But I think the world of fashion has changed a great deal in the last couple of decades.

In what way?

We have clothes that are offered at stores like Zara, H&M, and Uniqlo that we didn’t have 15 years ago. And those stores are offering really good design at incredible prices. Great value.

Is that a positive development?

I think it’s such a positive development! I think it gives people choices; it gives them value. It may not be original design, but they offer a lot of basics and they have style! And they are constantly sending new merchandise into the stores. This is where Europe has a great advantage over the US, because we have fallen asleep at the retail end. If you can afford them at the designer level, great! But I think it’s very exciting because you should be able to buy great clothes at all prices. I think it’s a great change and it’s all positive.

“If I could work in a design room all the time and just make collections, I’d be doing it forever.”

We hear a lot of people complaining that stores like H&M and Zara have such fast turnaround, that they immediately copy the things that are popular on the runway. You were copied a lot throughout your career. Did you ever care?

I think it’s an honor badge. I think it’s complimentary. I’ve worked with photographers doing advertising campaigns and often one photographer might be inspired and imitate another photographer. It happens. It’s flattery! And it happens in all walks of life. I think the fact that there are clothes that are available at very low prices weeks after they appear on the runway at very high prices is just a fact of life. We live in that world today; one makes adjustments. But they’re not the same. They’re really not the same.

An original television spot for CK One, Calvin Klein’s trend-setting unisex cologne that came out in 1994, that clearly pays homage to Richard Avedon’s photographs of Andy Warhol’s factory.

You were known to control all aspects of Calvin Klein. Was it difficult to give it all up in 2003 when you sold the company?

Well, I named my first fragrance “Obsession” because I had that obsession about my work, about a sense of what my idea of perfection was. I worked on every detail and every aspect of the business to see to it that we could offer people the best of what we could do. I thought for a long time as the business grew, “Is this something I want to do for the rest of my life?” And I knew it was not. I had done almost everything I wanted to do in terms of creation of products. And re-doing was less fun.

Did you have to distance yourself from the brand in order to not go crazy? You had run it for so many years…

It was quite a change! I spent a few years thinking about making that move. I don’t think you can ever be completely prepared for such a dramatic change, but it was becoming more stressful and less fun. If I could work in a design room all the time and just make collections, I’d be doing it forever. But there’s a lot more to running a successful business in the fashion world and making a brand global than just sitting in a design studio working with colors and fabrics. So I realized I had to let go. Once I sold the business, I was no longer in control of what the next people would do and I knew they certainly wouldn’t be doing what I did — because no one would!

Have you followed the company closely afterwards? It still bears your name after all…

I didn’t pay close attention. I wouldn’t go to stores to see the clothes that the company was making — I wasn’t going to stores to see what anyone was making. And it really wasn’t that difficult to let go. It was just an adjustment, and part of that adjustment has been great and then sometimes I miss the wonderful people that I got a chance to work with.

“That’s what’s so great about the fashion industry: there’s always an opportunity for someone to express themselves, to grow, to do business, to create.”

When you left you were replaced by Francisco Costa and Italo Zucchelli, who both left the company very recently. How do you feel about the fact that for the first time since your departure somebody else will take the reins at Calvin Klein?

They’ve hinted that, at last, they want one creative director to oversee the vision of all product globally and in my opinion that’s a very positive step. You can have different price points, you can have different product lines, but it still has to look like there’s one point of view. And that’s doable. I did it. And I think it’s still doable. It takes a huge effort: obsessing over every detail, being driven to make everything as good as it possibly can be, and having the confidence to go on when things don’t always go your way, because there are always bumps in the road. It takes a lot to build a global business.

Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, and yourself are three designers that managed to build global brands with a distinctive all-American style. Yet in the past 20 years, with the possible exception of Michael Kors, no designer has risen up to carry on that mantle. How do you explain that?

My daughter, who’s in the entertainment business, says that the reason for that is because the three of us were all Jewish! (Laughs) And we had something of a drive that was just in our DNA. Eventually, like with models, you go through dry spells, nothing, no one inspiring, and then all of a sudden some new faces come along that are so captivating. And I think it’s the same thing with designers. I think it’s doable — but no one’s doing it now. We just need to see in time where it goes.

For a little while it seemed like Alexander Wang might have a chance at it. Is the timing just wrong at the moment?

I don’t know what he’s capable of. Or what anyone’s capable of. But I don’t believe the time is wrong. And that’s what’s so great about the fashion industry: there’s always an opportunity for someone to express themselves, to grow, to do business, to create. It’s not easy but it’s doable.

“Just because you have money and you can afford expensive clothes doesn’t mean that you have taste.”

Does a creative director of a fashion house still need to be a designer or is it maybe enough these days to simply give direction and represent the brand well?

I can’t think of one house that has a creative director that didn’t start out designing. You’re involved in every aspect of the creation of the product with design studios. I think it’s much harder to expect a person who was not a designer to oversee development across a broad product category. It’s better to be a designer, but one who thinks in a modern way and one who can take charge of overseeing a lot product development.

But somebody with a social media following in the eight figure range might sound tempting to some struggling brands…

I don’t think anyone really knows for sure how much social media really translates into business. When I started working in the fragrance business a designer was lucky if they had one fragrance, but we built a fragrance business that was close to a billion dollars. During that time there would be celebrities, movie stars, or musicians that would have fragrances as well, but in the end they didn’t go anywhere. They may have had a couple of good years, but there was no longevity. And just because they have a lot of followers, I don’t think that really means very much because they may be all the wrong people. There are people who can afford a $3,000 handbag that think they’d like to be Kim Kardashian — just because you have money and you can afford expensive clothes doesn’t mean that you have taste!

Was it important that your consumer had taste?

No. I was always flattered that someone would buy anything that I made. There’s no guarantee! We often took risks and once you put the clothes out there, whoever buys them buys them. Not everyone looks like a runway model. I just tried to make clothes for real women. I wasn’t thinking so much about fashion magazines and building my brand through editorials with fashion magazines. I was thinking of doing it directly. That’s why I advertised so much. I decided I could communicate what I want to say better than a fashion magazine.

This series of controversial TV ads first aired in 1980 and featured Brooke Shields saying the famous tagline, “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” The ad campaign would prove to be a watershed moment in the careers of Shields and Klein, catapulting them both into superstardom.

Nowadays, it seems like many brands only advertise to get an editorial spread out of it. You really advertised for different reasons?

I really didn’t care! (Laughs) Often I’d be told that we got more attention through the images that we produced than the editorials in magazines. A lot of magazines and newspapers, they’re going through their own difficulties. People are bored. People want to see things fast, people want to see it online, social media’s so important…

If you were still in that position today, would you go down the road of print advertising or would you shift your focus to online?

I like to try to be a step ahead, experiment, and maybe do things that might not work — but see what’s out there! I think if I were doing it today, I would still do it the same way. I would choose the models to represent what I’m creating based on my feeling that they are the right image. I like the element of surprise. I like to find new ways! Now we have online and there are going to be other things. You still have to decide where you will be seen, who’s your audience, so online is not that much different than television or even print. And clearly, having a message online is important.

The Calvin Klein message seems like something that was always very clear for you.

I used to do the media buy myself because I understood whom I’m going after. I had a feeling about what kinds of television programs they might watch or what magazines they read. I don’t mean that I did everything by myself, but I was a part of every aspect of it. I worked on campaigns with photographers, with stylists, I had created my own creative agency that became like a mid-size advertising agency. I knew what felt instinctively right for me, and I pursued that throughout my entire career. It’s the way I live; it’s the way I work. Everything that I’ve done and everything that I have is an extension of my personal taste.