Designer Profiles: Calvin Klein

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The spearhead of New York's re-emergence onto the fashion scene

Calvin Richard Klein was born on November 19, 1942, and raised in the Jewish community in the Bronx, New York, where he spent all of his childhood. Klein was the middle child and lived comfortably with his family. His grandmother was a seamstress and he acquired his love of sewing from her. From a young age, he would be busy studying, sketching fashion designs, and sewing whilst other children his age were playing sports. 

His parents encouraged his love of art and fashion, so much so that they sent Klein to attend the High School of Art and Design, which prepared students for careers in advertising and drafting. Later he moved on to the esteemed Fashion Institute of Technology. Straight after graduation in 1962, Klein spent five years as an apprentice in a coat and suit house on Seventh Avenue in New York City, working long nights and weekends to perfect his own designs.

Becoming a fashion designer

Klein’s hard work paid off as he became a protégé of Baron de Gunzburg, through whose introductions he became the toast of the New York elite fashion scene even before he had his first mainstream success with the launch of his first jeans line.

In 1968, Klein and his close childhood friend Barry Schwartz founded Calvin Klein Limited, a coat shop in the York Hotel in New York City, with $10,000. It was no easy feat and seemingly counterintuitive at the time, as the New York fashion industry was in a depressed period, with casual hippie-style clothing and the miniskirt defining the range of fashions. 

The first order the founders received was actually obtained by accident. A coat buyer from Bonwit Teller (a large New York City clothing store) got off on the wrong floor of a hotel and wandered into Klein's workroom. She placed an order for $50,000, which was a huge amount at that time. The fashion press caught on early and encouraged Klein along with clothing store executives to continue creating, in hopes that this would be the revival that the fashion industry needed. Klein decided to provide simple, understated clothing. The first Calvin Klein collection was a line of "youthful, understated coats and dresses" featured at the New York City store Bonwit Teller. Thereafter he gradually placed more emphasis on sportswear, particularly interchangeable separates.

He was immediately recognized for his talent after his first major showing at New York Fashion Week in 1994 From then on the brand instantly was known for its cool, minimalist designs and denim that helped shape '90s fashion as a whole.

Young Calvin Klein

The defining moment that made him famous

Calvin Klein became famous for his scandalous advertisements, as he dared to disrupt the industry and mainstream media through his expression of art far beyond clothing. One series of advertisements featured actress Brooke Shields, a teenager at that time, modeling a pair of blue jeans and proclaiming that “nothing comes between me and my Calvins.” Klein’s underwear advertising with photographs by Herb Ritts and Bruce Weber and models such as actor Mark Wahlberg helped position men as sex objects. Other controversial ad campaigns included several for his fragrance ‘Obsession’.

Calvin Klein Brooke Shields 1980 Advert

Klein was the first designer to win three consecutive Coty Awards for womenswear (1973–75) and was the youngest designer of ready-to-wear clothes ever elected to the Coty Hall of Fame (1975). He described his design philosophy as the making of “simple, comfortable but stylish clothes—but with nothing overscale or extreme.”

Of the many categories licensed, denim jeans, along with fragrances, built a large following among consumers, who sought an affordable way to attain the Calvin Klein look. By 1997 sales of Calvin Klein Jeans approached half a billion dollars. His clothes were relatively expensive, classic, elegant, and easy to wear, and they struck a responsive chord among buyers in the United States and other countries. His achievements were said to represent not only the triumph of his particular brand of classical styling but also just as the fashion press and executives had predicted Klein fully aided in maturing the American fashion industry. To this day Calvin Klein remains one of America’s top fashion designers.

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4 comments

  • Posted on by Chopra
    Thank you for writing on Calvin Klein. I see it is a big name world wide. I see most of the Calvin Klein wears sell in America but other countries are also in the list. Personally, I like Calvin Klein coats. They are very comfortable, affordable and stylish too.

    Admin – Peacoat.org

  • Posted on by Kathleen d Wallace

    I absolutely LOVE calvin kline clothes and fragrance. His jeans fit wonderfully as does all his other products. Thanks for sharing this article!

  • Posted on by Jacob D.

    I was looking back at old advertisements recently and saw a lot from Calvin Klein. I had no idea that the ad mentioned in the article was only a teenage girl! She was fully clothed but showing that much stomach on a young girl is not something people would be very accepting of today. It seems we go back and forth with our progress. Do they still do the underwear adverts for men?

  • Posted on by Jasmine Hewitt
    I still buy Calvin Klein! I love the style of the brand, it just seems timeless to me

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