Pioneer to pensioner: Calvin Klein turns 75 | Culture| Arts, music and lifestyle reporting from Germany | DW | 19.11.2017
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Pioneer to pensioner: Calvin Klein turns 75

His fashion brand was characterized by clear, simple lines, and Calvin Klein was second to none at marketing it. Today, the designer – who is celebrating his 75th birthday Sunday – lives quietly in New York.

Andy Warhol with Brooke Shields & Calvin Klein (picture-alliance/g49/Globe-ZUM)

Calvin Klein (second from left), flanked by Andy Warhol and Brooke Shields

Former party animal Calvin Klein is out of the limelight these days. The fashion designer has lived a reclusive life in New York for some time, and will presumably be celebrating his 75th birthday on Sunday, November 19 a lot more quietly than in his heyday. 

Back then, in the 1970s, Klein was a regular at Studio 54, the legendary club where hedonistic New York went to hang out. It was also a good place for making business deals: It was here that, one night, Klein was asked by an industrialist whether he fancied designing a pair of jeans.

Read also: On the heels of Levi Strauss

This was followed, not long afterwards, by an advertising campaign that was to set the style for the entire fashion industry.

At barely 15 years of age, the young actress Brooke Shields posed in the label's skin-tight jeans, provoking a carefully orchestrated scandal and calls for a boycott of the label – but a few hundred thousand pairs of jeans were sold in the first week after the campaign was launched.

New York Werbung für Calvin Klein mit Kate Moss (Imago/UPI Photo)

Kate Moss on the catwalk: Seems normal now, but in the early 90s her "waif" look was both vintage and revolutionary

Outrageous PR, precise tailoring

In the 1990s, Calvin Klein sold his underwear line with adverts that, by today's standards, seem equally harmless: photographs of bare-chested male models, in particular the well-toned, muscular rapper Marky Mark. Around the same time a young model stepped into the spotlight: an androgynous creature, thin as a rake. A series of Calvin Klein campaigns made a superstar of Kate Moss, who became the prototype "skinny model.”

Calvin Klein fashion show New York 1993 | Model Lauren Hutton (Getty Images/AFP/M. Bastone)

Nontraditional models: Veteran model Lauren Hutton graces the catwalk for Klein in 1993

Calvin Klein was a trendsetter, but his outrageous PR contrasted with the clarity and precision of his tailoring. A Klein collection seldom contained anything zany.

The aim was to create fashion that spoke to a broad public. Born in the Bronx in 1942, the son of Hungarian immigrants, Klein studied at the renowned Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) in Manhattan before founding his first company in 1968 with a friend and a $2,000 investment.

Calvin Klein fashion show in 1993 | Mark Wahlberg (Imago/Zuma Press)

Rapper and actor Mark Wahlberg's turn as a male underwear model was a headline-grabber

No dwelling on success

When Americans' wardrobes were chock-full of jeans and underwear, and turnover began to flag, Klein broadened his empire. The CK logo soon started appearing on watches, glasses and household items. His perfume line was particularly successful, with brands like Eternity, Obsession, and especially CK One, the first unisex perfume, with Moss as poster girl.

Klein had a simple explanation for why he did so well: "I don't think about my fame very much, and I don't dwell on success.”

Klein finally sold his empire in 2003, to the shirt manufacturer Phillips-Van Heusen, for a sum rumored to be between 400 and 500 million dollars. Klein was still involved as an adviser to the company at first, but he has since stepped away.

He has been married twice, and has a daughter, the TV producer Marci Klein.

Apart from the occasional report about his private life, these days the former fashion pioneer is out of the spotlight. As he once commented: "People in their seventies can still lead incredible lives,” which suggests that his 75th birthday will be far from dull.

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