Legendary fashion designer Calvin Klein was the subject of the first installment of the “Fashion Icons with Fern Mallis” series at 92 Street Y last night. A packed room of Klein’s friends and enthusiasts–including pal Anna Wintour (who Klein gave a shout-out to during the discussion)–enthusiastically gathered to watch the Fashion Week guru moderate a candid discussion with the iconic American designer in one of his very rare public speaking appearances. Klein, who founded the Calvin Klein fashion label in 1968 and sold it in 2003 to Phillips-Van Heusen (Francisco Costa is the creative director now), is known for his minimalist aesthetic, successful licensing endeavors with denim, fragrance, and undies, and his totally boundary-pushing advertising campaigns which introduced Brooke Shields, Kate Moss, and the glamazon-era crushing “waif” revolution to the world.
Throughout the one-hour discussion Klein gamely answered questions both from Mallis and the audience. Here are some highlights from the evening, including the reason he chose Kate Moss and his thoughts about addiction in the fashion world:
Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren (née Ralph Lifshitz) are from the same Bronx neighborhood.
They didn’t really hang out though. For one thing, “He’s a little older than I am,” Klein pointed out to Mallis. And, apparently, the budding-designers had already developed their signature — and divergent — sartorial aesthetics at a young age. “Ralph Lauren always dressed in a sort of peculiar way….”, Klein explained as the crowd broke out into laughter. “I was the edgy one. And Ralph looked like he was someplace…[else].”
Klein’s parents were strong influences on his decision to be a fashion designer.
“My father was a businessman and my mother managed to spend all his money,” Klein recounted “On clothes. She loved clothes.” His grandmother, with whom he was very close, was a dressmaker on Seventh Avenue and eventually opened up her own shop, too. At one point, when Klein had an opportunity to pursue a more stable career path (grocery stores to be exact), he went to his parents for advice and his father told him, “I never really understood exactly what you’re studying all these years, but I have a feeling if you don’t see it through, I think you will be unhappy all your life. You have to go through it.” And Klein counts that as the best advice he’s ever received.
Like many of us, Calvin Klein started a first job with a nightmare boss.
After graduating from FIT, Klein designed suits and coats for a “typical garment center company” and a straight-out-of-a-sitcom boss who couldn’t function until he had his mid-day cigar. “He was a nightmare”, Klein says, but admits it was a good learning experience.
To sell his first collection, he personally wheeled the rack of samples over to the buying office.
While Klein was designing for the cigar-man, he figured he might as well work on his own designs on his off-hours, and came up with a three-coat and four-dress capsule collection. He worked out of a small room opposite the elevator bank at the now-defunct York Hotel. We have to say, it sounds like a charmed experience though. According to Klein, on a Thursday, the general merchandiser from the now-closed, but then chic Bonwit Teller department store predicted that by Saturday, Klein would show the collection to the president of the Bonwit Teller and, “You will then have been discovered.” And that’s exactly what happened. But since Klein is a perfectionist and he was afraid to take a cab because the clothes might wrinkle, he personally wheeled the rack of samples over to the department store himself.
Klein decided to enter the denim world after a hard night of partying at Studio 54.
He met a man named Carl Rosen (yes, that’s Andrew Rosen’s father), at about 4am at the infamous club (we can only imagine), where he made a pit stop before heading to some fabrics fair in Frankfurt (gotta love the 70s). Rosen proposed the idea of licensing the Calvin Klein name on jeans and Klein was intrigued. “I love the idea of designing jeans,” Klein said. “Then it was Lee, Levi’s and Wrangler. I thought this could be fun. I like the idea of reaching a lot of people with the clothes I was making.”
Then came his iconic underwear line, which, was influenced largely by ex-wife Kelly.
Along the lines of the famous CKOne fragrance, the underwear aesthetic was largely a unisex vision, although he hated the word “unisex”. “Kelly would often wear my white shirt,” Klein explained. “It would be sexy to see women in something that reminds me of men’s underwear.” In case you’re wondering, no, she never wore his underwear though. As for Klein? “I still wear it,” he said of his label. “I wear other people’s underwear, too because I want to check out the competition.”
Klein was personally involved in selecting all the models in his legendary ad campaigns sans modeling agencies.
Instead of using modeling agencies, Klein hired scouts all over the world to find fresh, new faces that weren’t already featured in other ad campaigns. “I’d go through hundreds and hundreds of Polaroids,” he recounted. “I’d meet them myself and I’d have to fall in love in five minutes. Then call Bruce [Weber] or Dick [Avedon] and say, okay.” Klein also directed the hair, makeup, basically “every aspect of the shoot”.
In hiring Kate Moss and an army of waify models, both male and female, he was actually making a statement about positive body image. True story.
During the height of the original supermodel craze dominated by Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell, Christy Turlington, and co., the towering, busty, in-your-face glamorous, yet mostly unattainable look was the “in” thing. At the time, Klein observed that, “a lot of the women were having implants in their breasts, they were doing things to their buttocks. It was getting out of control. And I just found something so distasteful about all that and I wanted someone who was natural.” But also, admittedly, “always thin.”
Klein on his infamous public meltdown at Madison Square Garden and struggling with addiction.
(At a 2003 Knicks game, the designer wandered onto the sidelines to scream at Lattrell Sprewell, who apparently thought Klein was just some random crazy fan.) We couldn’t help but pull references to another famous fashion designer who, ahem, had a recent drunken meltdown in Paris.
“I struggled with addiction and lots of people do,” he admitted. “That was a really shameful, horrible moment. But I want to say something about that. It had nothing to do with work. I’ve done enough therapy, enough work on myself. Addiction is something that’s not caused by stress on the job. Even though people in the fashion business have suffered the same problem. It’s nothing about the work, it’s about your childhood, about how you grew up. It’s other things.”