Calvin Klein started his namesake business in 1968 out of a room in Manhattan’s York Hotel and sold the business 34 years later for $700 million to Phillips-Van Heusen. The designer, who has largely been out of the public eye since, sat down with Fern Mallis at 92nd Street Y to discuss his rise and career highlights. "I knew from the time that I was five that this is what I wanted to do," Klein told the crowd.
Klein discussed his childhood growing up in the Bronx recalling, "My father was a businessman and my mother always managed to spend all of his money -- it was clothes that she loved." Her aesthetic that included wearing neutral colors and discreet luxury pieces like fur-lined coats helped shape his penchant for minimalism," he said.
Klein also credited his parents with inspiring him to stick with fashion and open up his own business. The designer said he was about to open up a chain of grocery stores with his childhood best friend Barry Schwartz, when he sought their advice. He recounted his father saying, "'I'll never understand what you were studying all of these years, but if you don’t see it through you’ll be unhappy all of your life.'" Schwartz became his partner in the fashion business with an investment of $10,000, and the rest is history.
A chance meeting with a Bonwit Teller buyer led to a meeting with the president of the department store. "I wheeled [over] a rack of clothes because I didn’t want them to wrinkle," Klein said. That move led to a $50,000 order. From there, "word caught on like fire," he said.
As for how the infamous Calvin Klein Jeans came about, Klein said, "I was on my way to the airport to Frankfurt to go to a fabric fair straight from Studio 54. A man came up to me and asked if I would like to put my name on jeans." That man was Carl Rosen (father of Andrew Rosen, the CEO of Theory), and it was a move that led to a breakthrough for Klein, who reportedly sold 200,000 pairs of jeans in the first week of sales. Klein said, "I like the idea of reaching a lot of people."
After jeans, came an underwear license that Klein says he dreamed up with his second wife Kelly Klein. He said, "I still wear Calvin Klein underwear, but I wear other people’s too. I want to check out the competition."
Beyond the clothes there was the controversy -- whether it was 15-year-old Brooke Shields pushing Calvin Jeans in a television commercial saying "You wanna know what comes between me and my Clavins? Nothing" to waif model scandals in the 1990s and the accusation that he was pushing the heroin chic look. "We never created anything thinking that we were going to create controversy," Klein said. I wanted to "push the envelope, but not be vulgar." As for his model selections through the years, Klein said, "I wanted someone natural, always thin I must say. I was looking for the opposite of that glamour girl that came before Kate [Moss]."
On his decision to step away from his namesake company in 2002, Klein said, "I just decided that we needed to go public or sell to a public company. It was time for a change. I want to spend time not doing the same thing for the rest of my life." Klein attests to not actively following the direction of the company, despite continuing to have a large financial stake in it. It was "best for me to let go and move on," he said.
Klein’s advice to rising star designers looking to imitate his success: "You need to have a vision and say something different from what is being said out there, and then be convincing."