B. November 19, 1942 Birthplace: Bronx, New York
Sex sells, and Calvin Klein knows it. Throughout his career he has created functional, mainstream clothing, but his true contribution to fashion has been his ability to capitalize on sensuality and sexuality in his marketing. By creating an image of provocative sexuality, he has been able to build a multibillion-dollar fashion empire.
Klein attended the New York High School of Art and Design in the 1950s and the Fashion Institute of Technology from 1959 to 1962. Upon graduating, he worked as an assistant designer at Dan Millstein in New York, leaving to pursue freelance design in 1964. In 1967 he partnered with his school friend Barry Schwartz to form Calvin Klein Company. He founded the company to produce coats and suits in the contemporary price range. Quickly, he found a niche among younger women, who found couture clothes to be too expensive and matronly for their taste. His adaptations of masculine pea coats and pants were quite popular. In 1969 one of his coats appeared on the cover of Vogue.
In the 1970s, he established a reputation for simple clothes crafted from luxury fabrics, and he has maintained this formula throughout his design career. He focused on basic shapes and styles, like tank tops, blazers, trousers, and skirts made from "couture fabrics" like cashmere, suede, silk, and linen. Preferring neutrals, his favorite color choices were creams, beiges, and grays. Also, he liked the monochromatic look and developed entire wardrobes comprising of interrelated pieces in a single color.
Although Klein created simple, minimal designs, he viewed them as being complex. He felt that the attitude of the wearer brought out an individuality in the clothes; how she chose to wear them affected the image she projected. He focused on this idea of dynamism and individuality when creating a design, paying special attention to the way the clothing moved on the body. This focus on movement created a sensual quality to his clothes.
Klein continued to focus on sensuality and sexuality in the 1980s and 1990s by centering his ad campaigns on provocative images. In 1980 Klein aired a television advertisement for his jeans featuring a teenage Brooke Shields. In the spots, which were directed by Richard Avedon, Shields strikes suggestive poses and asks, "Want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing." Although the ads are mild by today's standards, at they time they were shocking, and many stations canceled the commercials.
Klein continued to mount sexually provocative ad campaigns. In 1982 he hired Bruce Weber to photograph Calvin Klein's men's underwear. He photographed the muscular models from below with an emphasis on the bulge in the underpants. The result was an unprecedented erotic portrayal of men in advertising. In 1983 Klein's ads for man-style cotton underwear for women implied group sex. His ads for the 1985 launch of Obsession perfume featured naked models. A 1995 ad campaign for cK Calvin Klein Jeans was criticized for bordering on child pornography, and a 1999 billboard featured half-naked children wearing Calvin Klein's underwear. Although all of these ads generated criticism, they also generated publicity that helped popularize Klein's designs.
Through the 1980s and 1990s, Klein continued to rely on basic styles, minimal aesthetics, and comfortable dressing. His designs included such essentials as pantsuits, sweater sets, chemise dresses, and pea coats. His skin-tight interpretation of jeans contributed to the popularity of designer jeans during the early 1980s, a trend that characterized the conspicuous consumption of the period. His cK line of the 1990s targeted a younger market of Generation Xers with more casual clothes and a less refined look.
Klein launched several successful fragrances in the 1980s and 1990s. He introduced Obsession in 1985, and sold $50 million of the fragrance in the first year. Following the success of Obsession, he launched Eternity in 1988, Escape in 1991, and cK One, a unisex fragrance, in 1994. The timing of cK One seemed to be perfect; it was very successful and spawned many imitators.
In the 1990s, most of the company's revenues came from licensing, with Warnaco producing most of Klein's apparel. Jeans, underwear, and fragrances generated the largest revenue, but the company also licensed footwear, watches, and eyewear. In addition, Klein licensed almost thirty retail stores in locations around the world. The company reorganized in 1991, but in the spring of 1992 it nearly folded when it was unable to buy a block of bonds that came up for redemption. David Geffen bailed out Klein by purchasing the bonds for $30 million. By the start of the new century the company's financial health was renewed, making $5.4 billion in global retail sales in 1998. Website: http://www.ckjeans.com
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