On Thursday evening, enough people stood in line to hear Fern Mallis interview Calvin Klein that it wrapped around an entire city block. There were young women in four-inch stilettos and men in bow-ties, women toting well-worn notebooks and men with bulky DSLR cameras. These were students at the Savannah College of Art and Design, and they had a full night of Fashion With a Capital "F" ahead of them (courtesy of the school's annual SCADstyle conference). Once inside the auditorium, a fashion marketing major named Anthony told me that when Alexander Wang spoke at the event in 2014, people started lining up at 11 a.m. when his talk didn't begin until 6 p.m. So, I asked him: How did Klein's audience compare to Wang's?
"Everyone knows Calvin Klein," he said. "Everyone dressed their best for Calvin and came over here."
Anthony wasn't kidding. Ahead of Klein's introduction, we were shown a two-minute video of the brand's most iconic commercials. It opened with a baby-faced Brooke Shields in that controversial 1981 campaign. As she mouthed the line — you know the one — I could hear a nearby row of students saying the phrase out loud, too.
In December 2002, Klein sold his global brand to Phillips-Van Heusen, the U.S.'s largest shirtmaker, for $400 million in cash, another $30 million in stock and up to $300 million in royalties. His involvement with the homegrown label he started in New York City in 1968 then curtailed, tapping a 39-year-old Francisco Costa to succeed him as the principal designer for the women's Calvin Klein Collection.
It's been nearly 14 years since Klein's company was truly Klein's, but you'd never know it from the students that filled that theatre. They were there for the man who revolutionized the campaign; who put Kate Moss in that strappy black camisole; who doled out a revolution of sensuality to the American fashion world. And in 2016, Klein's inimitable stamp remains in the very DNA of the house — just take a peek at Justin Bieber and Kendall Jenner's spot for #MyCalvins, which Klein told Mallis was heavily influenced by his imagery from the '90s.
But what does Klein think of Bieber and Jenner's campaign? "I think they're very good," he said, when asked about Bieber's in particular. "So many people wanted to be on a billboard or in an ad or in a commercial, and for sure Justin Bieber wanted to do it. I thought that was really good."
And Jenner, Mallis asked? "You know, I'm really not that familiar with it," he replied. "I'm honestly not." There's silence, then laughter. "I'm sure she's a lovely young woman. It's not the kind of thing I would have done, even today. Justin Bieber, yes."
Had he launched this empire in 2016, Klein is confident that his business would have developed in the same way that it did 40 years ago. And while enlisting Bieber and Jenner to front a category of Calvin Klein's business earned it millions of young, digitally-savvy social media followers — for many brands, the target demographic — Klein isn't convinced that a hefty Instagram presence leads to an enduring brand.
"When [I say] I like Justin Bieber in the Calvin Klein Underwear [campaign], it's because I like him — not because he's got millions of followers," he explained. "Now, models are paid for how many followers they have. They're booked not because they represent the essence of the designer, which is what I tried to do — they're booked because of how many followers they have online. I don't think that, long-term, is going to work. I don't think that's a great formula for success for the product you're trying to sell." It's not all bad news, though, so long as you prioritize the artistry. "However, if you take really exquisite photographs of the right people in the right clothes in the right location, and you put it online, that's fine," he said. "Just putting any old clothes on Kim Kardashian, long-term, isn't going to do a thing."
And how has this climate affected the "It" designers of today, if at all? On the topic of their rapid-fire creative turnover, Klein is frank. "Designers today don't stay long enough on the job, even the best ones," he said. "They stay two years and their contract's up, and then they think they have invented the name Dior or Saint Laurent or Balenciaga." I heard someone behind me whisper, Oh, shit. "Everyone's replaceable. A lot of designers get replaced, and often get forgotten." This, Klein says, isn't always the case — some go on to have their own business, perhaps referencing Wang, who departed the aforementioned Balenciaga in Oct. 2015 to focus on his namesake line.
Even so, Klein is skeptical of the dedication (or lack thereof) that the industry's kingpins exhibit today. "When I see motorcycle jackets for $2,000 that are distressed or ripped jeans from couture designers, I think to myself, 'Are they kidding me?' We've been doing this for 30 years. It's not new," he said. "I understand why it's young and cool, but there is a thing about respect for women and trying to make women look as beautiful as they possibly can, and also [creating] new things. There's a lot that's going on that's disappointing."
Mallis described Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren and Klein as a "triumvirate," the "Mount Rushmore of American fashion." As Karan and Klein have now departed from their brands and Lauren has taken on a downsized role, that domestic leadership is increasingly vacant. And who could possibly fill those groundbreaking shoes?
"It's a difficult time, but things change," said Klein. "One thing about the fashion business [is that] it changes all the time, so if we're here two years from now, we may be talking about three names that replace Donna, Ralph and Calvin." That may be true, but if the pupils of SCAD have taught me anything, it's that Klein's lasting impact on the industry will not soon be forgotten.
Everyone knows Calvin Klein.
This story has been updated to correct Brooke Shields' quote from her Calvin Klein commercial.
Disclosure: SCAD paid for my travel and accommodations to attend and cover the event.