Born: Bronx, New York, 19 November 1942. Education: Studied at Fashion Institute of Technology, New York, 1959-62. Family: Married Jayne Centre, 1964 (divorced 1974); child: Marci; married Kelly Rector, 1986 (separated). Career: Assistant designer, Dan Millstein, New York, 1962-64; freelance designer, New York, 1964-68; Calvin Klein Co. formed in partnership with Barry Schwartz, 1968, daughter Marci kidnapped (released unharmed), 1978; Brooke Sheilds jeans commercial debuted, 1980; men's underwear introduced, 1982; purchased Puritan Jeans, 1983; Unilever secures fragrance license, 1989; company reorganized with help of music mogul David Geffen, 1992; debut of less expensive cK line, circa 1993; jeans and underwear businesses sold to Warnaco, 1994; flagship store opened on Madison Avenue, New York City, 1995; first freestanding cK store, Kent, 1999; second cK store, Manchester, 2000; trademark infringement suit filed against Warnaco, 2000; lawsuit against Warnaco settled, 2001; fragrances include Obsession, 1985, Eternity, 1988, cK one, 1994, cK be, 1996, also Escape, Contradiction, Truth Calvin Klein . Awards: Coty American Fashion Critics award, 1973, 1974, 1975; Bath Museum of Costume Dress of the Year award, 1980; Council of Fashion Designers of America award, 1993; named one of the "25 Most Influential Americans" by Time, 1996; Lifetime Achievement award, Council of Fashion Designers of America, 2001. Address: 654 Madison Avenue, New York, NY 10021, USA.
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An indisputable genius in marketing, a recognized wizard in fashion financing, a charismatic image-maker and image himself, Calvin Klein is the quintessential American fashion expression of the last quarter of the 20th century and still world renowned in the 21st century. The energy of his identification with jeans in the late 1970s and early 1980s, his later frontiers of underwear, and his consistent edge for advertising image in print and media have rendered him a vivid figure in the landscape of American cultural life.
A sleazy, potboiler biography of Klein was published in 1995, titled Obsession: The Lives and Times of Calvin Klein, not only taking its title from his popular fragrance and beauty products line but Klein's chameleon-like ability to be many things in the fashion industry. Years before, Michael Gross had already described Klein's life in New York magazine (8 August 1988) as "an extraordinary odyssey—a sort of one-man pilgrimage through the social history of modern America." Yet Klein is homegrown hero to young America, the elusive image of the creator as megapower and carnal charmer, the recurrent American worship of those few who achieve absolute power in a democracy. In his decades as a top designer, Klein has established himself as a veritable obsession. He has only intensified this stature in spiraling success that challenges, yet flourishes in, the very visible arenas of fashionable culture.
Is Klein a designer? Suffused with aura and surrounded by negotiation—commercial and social—Klein might seem to have sacri-ficed his essential métier as a designer. Significantly, he has not. His sensibility for minimalist aesthetics, in an active lifestyle with the ethos of sportswear, is as evident today as it ever was. Klein's clothing is as judicious as his marketing is advanced: streamlined clothes worn with ease prevail, with influences as far flung as Vionnet, Halston, di Sant'Angelo, and Armani. Klein's best eveningwear gives a first impression of delicacy and refinement, characteristically avoiding linings and complications, as the wearer enjoys an unexpected freedom and mobility.
Klein's fashion is the quintessence of American fashion expression and taste—his minimal construction promotes mass manufacturing; his ease allows comfortable dressing in all sizes and shapes; his penchant for quality wool, cashmere, cotton, and other feel-good textile luxuries affirms a sense of luxury in clothes otherwise so undistinguished in their simplicity as to pass unnoticed. Although in a 1994 press statement Klein avowed that "Everything begins with the cut," one does not think of cut and construction in the traditional fashion measure of Vionnet or Madame Grés. Klein's spare cut is not truly architectural; it is unobtrusive or, in the words of Bernadine Morris, writing in the New York Times in May of 1985, "without frills."
Klein's marketing of jeans, underwear, and fragrance were consistent in their aggressive even opportunistic address to gender and sexuality. Beginning with 1980 television advertising conceived by Richard Avedon and Klein using young model Brooke Shields, Klein steadily set and stretched the parameters of America's acceptance of overt sensuality in promotion of fashion and in public, with displays ranging from national television campaigns to Times Square billboards, and to print media. Klein's campaigns have been progressive, seeming in each instance to build upon and move beyond the first provocation and the inevitable acceptance of the prior campaign.
Defining the public protocols of the 1980s and 1990s, Klein made a distinct cultural contribution to advertising. He not only took the design of jeans and underwear to new heights, but brought gender into the fray as well. He was unerringly responsible for the surge of gender-sharing fragrances launched in the middle and late 1990s, as well as pushing the envelope with daringly sexual displays in adversitising.
James Brady wrote of Klein in Parade in October 1986: "His success is so enormous, his income so vast, his lifestyle so lavish, that we tend to forget that in life there are no free rides." And so controversy has often surrounded Klein as much as celebrity; but it is incontrovertible that Klein altered the landscape of modern American fashion and its perception as only a genius and a giant can—in an epoch of uncertainty and recriminations, Klein's imperfect but ever-upward course prompted dispute and jealousy. Yet he demonstrated, over and over, that his unerring fashion sense would prevail.
Klein's enduring success has been a balance of the no-nonsense fashion designer with the pretentious and unpredictable commercialism of the fashion industry. Since 1994 Calvin Klein Inc. has grown into a fashion empire producing everything—including menswear, womenswear, fragrances and skincare products, eyewear, socks, and pillowcases (Calvin Klein Home, a home fashion collection, was introduced in April 1995). Bearing the Calvin Klein name has grown into a lifestyle revered around the world; it is known in countries even where his products are not sold. Klein believes American clothes are an advantage in the global marketplace; nearly 90-percent of his business is through worldwide licensing agreements.
Klein has continued to receive notoriety from the publicity surrounding his advertisements. In 1995 his cK Jeans advertising campaign was pulled because of accusations of child pornography. New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani led the uproar in 1999 over a Times Square billboard showing seminaked youngsters. Even though Klein's advertisements are seen as inappropriate, his design philosophy has remained consistent—to keep the clothes modern, sophisticated, sexy, clean, and minimal. He once told Time magazine, "I've never been one to see women in ruffles and all kinds of fanciful apparel. To me it's just silly."
Klein confirmed in 1999 that he was looking ways to expand his business. He hired financial advisers to seek opportunities to develop his business through a merger, or by selling or developing other strategic options. Confirmed reports said Prada, Gucci, LMVH, and Ralph Lauren showed interest in purchasing Calvin Klein, Inc. Warnco, which owned the Calvin Klein underwear and jeans businesses, made an offer but the parties failed to agree on control of Calvin Klein trademark usage. In a statement, Klein said the "strongest path to growth lay in remaining an independent, privately held entity." As of 2001, both Klein and his company remained independent and private.
updated by Donna W. Reamy