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Moment 47: Calvin and Controversy

The infamous 1980 jean campaign starring a young Brooke Shields kicked off a long career of provocation for Calvin Klein.

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Calvin Klein in 1979

Calvin Klein in 1979.

Photo By Dustin Pittman/WWD Archive

Appeared In
Special Issue
WWD 100 issue 11/01/2010

"Puritan Fashions Corp. will kick off its Calvin Klein television advertising campaign August 11 featuring actress Brooke Shields." So went an innocuous-sounding item on page 17 of the August 1, 1980, issue of WWD. With his partner, Barry Schwartz, on the business side, Calvin Klein had built a thriving fashion company based on American sportswear stripped to its spare essentials—a look he pioneered long before the major minimalist movement of the Nineties. Already famous when he commissioned the commercials filmed by Richard Avedon and featuring Hollywood's prettiest, most precocious baby, their shocking content added another side to his renown: that of fearless provocateur and cultural chronicler. It is all but impossible today for a marketing effort to elicit reaction approaching the frenzy caused by Klein's many provocations across categories—fashion, beauty, underwear—from Shields to the waifish Kate Moss whispering breathlessly of her Obsession to a 1995 ck jeans campaign shot by Steven Meisel that took hits from right and left for resembling amateur kiddie porn. Even the Justice Department got involved, if half-heartedly. Yet Klein always maintained that he never sought controversy for its own sake. "If people set out to be controversial, they'll never make it," he said in 1994. "But if something is really good, interesting and thought-provoking, you get into risk-taking and pushing boundaries and questioning values, and it can be, in the end, controversial."