Calvin Klein was born in the Bronx, New York, on 19 November 1942. He attended the High School of Industrial Arts and the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, where he studied fashion design.
Klein's first major position in the fashion industry was with Dan Millstein, a Seventh Avenue coat and suit manufacturer. He worked there from 1962 to 1964, starting as a pattern cutter and advancing to a full-fledged designer.
Klein's second position was with Halldon, Ltd., where he began to be recognized in the press for his designs.
Klein soon became frustrated by the design restrictions of moderate-priced fashion manufacturers. Encouraged by his parents and financed by his boyhood friend Barry Schwartz, Klein developed a collection of coats and suits under his own label.
Klein's first line was discovered by a buyer from Bonwit Teller, who was so impressed by the collection of finely tailored coats in fresh colors that he sent Klein to meet with Mildred Custin, then president of Bonwit Teller. Custin placed a large order with Klein, giving a jumpstart to the newly formed Calvin Klein Limited.
Early on, the savvy Klein developed relationships with fashion insiders, including the designer Chester Weinberg and Vogue fashion editor Nicolas de Gunzburg. The publicity agent Eleanor Lambert took Klein on as a client and was instrumental in guiding his early career. Klein's first Vogue cover was in September 1969, with his classically cut outerwear featured prominently in the New York fall preview editorial inside. Throughout the 1970s, Klein's designs were noted for their sportswear influence, muted pastel color palettes, and simplicity of design. Looks that are considered classic Klein were introduced at this time: the pea coat, the trench coat, the shirtdress, and the wrap blouse. Klein was also an early advocate of all-occasion or "day into night" dressing, with evening pajamas being his preferred form of formal wear.
As the decade wore on, Klein eased up his tailoring for a relaxed, sexy look. Klein also began to incorporate looks from active sportswear into his collection-swimwear and tennis outfits that could be used off the beaches and tennis courts by pairing them with wrap skirts or pants. Corduroy cargo pants, flannel shirts, and elegant fur-trimmed parkas were shown on Klein's 1970s fall runways. For all his innovations, Calvin Klein won his first Coty American Fashion Critic's Winnie Award-as the youngest recipient ever-in 1973. He won again in 1974, and in 1975 he was inducted into the Coty Hall of Fame. In 1978 Klein began designing a menswear collection that was licensed to Maurice Biderman.
The most groundbreaking piece of sportswear Klein showed on the runway first appeared in spring 1976: a slim-cut pair of jeans with his name embroidered on the back pocket. Although the idea of logo-emblazoned jeans was not brand-new, this was the first time that jeans had shown up on a designer runway. By 1978, with Puritan Fashions as manufacturer, Klein was selling 2 million pairs of jeans per month. The phenomenal success that Klein had with his jeans line was due in no small way to a brilliant and controversial advertising campaign starring a young Brooke Shields.
Klein's designs, even in the excessive 1980s, continued to evoke a minimalist aesthetic, with a relatively restrained use of embellishment and color. The core of the collection was, as always, made up of timeless pieces in good fabrics. The Council of Fashion Designers of America (CDFA) recognized Klein when he won designer of the year awards in 1982 and 1983 for his women's collection. Klein won a CFDA award in 1986 for both his men's and women's collections, the first time a designer had won both awards in the same year.
"I didn't think I was doing anything different from what Voguedid when it used Brooke as a model…. Vogue put $3,000 dresses on her, but it wasn't expecting to sell those dresses to 15-year-olds. It was using her as a model and I was using her as an actress" (Quoted in Plaskin, p. 4).
With the Brooke Shields ads, Calvin Klein forever changed television commercials. Klein spent an unprecedented $5 million on marketing that year. Feminists were enraged by the jeans ads and felt that, rather than sales, the commercials-with slogans such as "You know what comes between me and my Calvin's? Nothing"-would provoke violence against women (Plaskin, p. 62).
In 1982 Calvin Klein launched a men's underwear line. The collection revolved around a standard men's brief, with Klein's name stamped on the waistband. Bold black-and-white photography on the packaging and an advertising campaign featuring celebrity models Antonio Sabato Jr. and Marky Mark in suggestive poses helped make the product appealing to both straight and gay men. The underwear line became a phenomenon when Klein took the same briefs and modified and marketed them for women. Warnaco purchased the underwear division in 1994.
By 1983 Calvin Klein, whose eponymous fragrance had produced a lukewarm reception four years earlier, was ready to give perfume another try. The result was Obsession and, again, with brilliant advertising-television ads directed by Richard Avedon and print ads shot by Bruce Weber-Obsession was a success. In 1986 Klein married Kelly Rector, one of his design assistants. The marriage, as well as the mid-1980s "return to family values" mood, inspired the designer's next fragrance, Eternity. A shared-gender fragrance, cK One, was launched in 1994.
In the 1990s Calvin Klein's worldwide expansion into Asia, Europe, and the Middle East markets brought his name international consumer recognition. The decade also saw Klein revamp the jeans/sport division of the company, creating the cK collection, made to appeal to a younger, hipper customer. Klein had been farsighted enough to realize the importance of archiving his work, so a constant recall of his roots was readily available. The cK line, largely inspired by these vintage collection pieces, was recognized by the CFDA with an award in 1993.
Klein surrounds himself with people who share his aesthetic, and he is known in the fashion world for his intensely collaborative relationships with those who work with him. Most noteworthy is Zack Carr, who was Klein's creative doppelgänger for almost thirty years. Jeffrey Banks, Isaac Mizrahi, and Narciso Rodriguez are also no-table Calvin Klein alums.
The twenty-first century began with litigation between Klein and Warnaco over underwear and jeans distribution. The case was eventually settled out of court. Klein and his partner Barry Schwartz sold Calvin Klein, Inc., to Phillips-Van Heusen in December 2002. Since that time Klein has stepped down as creative head of the company that bears his name and has assumed a consultant role.
The name Calvin Klein represents so many different things-controversial advertising campaigns, the leading name in the designer-jeans phenomenon, stylish boyish underwear for women, and brilliant and ruthless business practices. So much of what Klein designed has become fundamentally what Americans wear that his clothing can rightly be called an American uniform.
Carr, George. Zack Carr. New York: Power House Books, 2002.
Gaines, Steven, and Sharon Churcher. Obsession: The Lives and Times of Calvin Klein. New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1994.
Horyn, Cathy. "The Calvinist Ethic." New York Times Magazine, 14 September 2003, 64-69.
Marsh, Lisa. House of Klein: Fashion, Controversy, and a Business Obsession. Hoboken, N.J.: John Wiley and Sons, 2003.
Plaskin, Glenn. "Calvin Klein: The Playboy Interview." Playboy, May 1984.
Reed, Julia. "Calvin's Clean Sweep." Vogue, August 1994, 236-241.