The House That Calvin Klein Built

The designer discussed his career, fashion and more during a rare public tête-à-tête with Fern Mallis at 92Y in New York.

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NEW YORK — Omnipresent as Calvin Klein is throughout the world, the man behind the brand has a reputation for being anything but that.

Yet during a rare public tête-à-tête with Fern Mallis Monday night, the designer opened up about selling his now $6 billion business, marriage, addiction, designers today, his Bronx childhood and paragliding with his lover. No subject seemed to be too personal for the 68-year-old Klein, who appeared relaxed and affable throughout the interview — his first at 92Y in 12 years. At a private reception afterward, Klein told WWD, “Every day is a new adventure and I enjoy life. It’s all fun.”

Here, selections of what Klein discussed during the 90-minute interview.

My mother would paint the apartment every few months. Burgundy. I hated the way the place looked. I couldn’t bear it. But my parents were wonderful people. As my mother once said, “Don’t ever forget that you are a product of your father and I.” And I am, I know that. And they both encouraged me to study and to continue my work. My growing up was actually kind of a wonderful experience.

Well, one thing, my father was a businessman and my mother managed to spend all his money on clothes. She loved clothes and she was very subtle about it. She would have fur but it would be fur-lined coats. She loved neutral colors, tweeds and she would sketch. My grandmother, her mother, was a dressmaker for a designer on Seventh Avenue and then opened up her own little shop as a dressmaker. I knew from the time I was five exactly what I wanted to do. I went to great public schools in New York, and I was in special art classes, drew all the time.

My best friend Barry Schwartz, who became my business partner, always supported me. Most people didn’t understand. They were playing baseball and I was going to art class.…I don’t think anybody thought of it as straight, gay. Ralph Lauren grew up in the same neighborhood and Ralph always dressed in a peculiar way. I was the edgy one. I wanted to look like some kind of tough guy, like James Dean. And Ralph looked like he was from some other country. And I remember him distinctly. No, [we weren’t friends.] He was older than I. I grew up in a very Jewish kind of intellectual environment.

What I did save was the clothes, all the clothes we’d done since 1968, most of the samples. All the photography and commercial work that we did before we sold the company. The archives are still housed in the building where my offices are and the design studio uses it.

My first real job was designing coats and suits for a company that was run by a man whose name was Dan Milstein. Typical garment center company at that time. He had what we called morning sickness. Until he smoked his first cigar, which typically was around noon, he was a nightmare and whatever I sketched was never good enough. After the cigar, of course, everything was fine. It was a good learning experience, but I knew then that I wanted to be on my own. I always had the sense, maybe it was because my dad was in his own business, that I would never be understood. I would have to do it myself.

I decided that while I was on the job, I could make some samples at night and on weekends and then I would leave my job. The people I was working for figured out what I was doing and they fired me before I quit. So I took a little room at the York Hotel that had rooms for manufacturers who made clothes in the South. My little room was right opposite the elevator and, sure enough, one day the general merchandise manager from Bonwit Teller walked in. I showed him the clothes and he said, “I will have a buyer down here tomorrow, then on Saturday you will come up to the store and show the clothes to president Mildred Custin.” And he said, “You will then have been discovered.” I promise you this is exactly what happened.

My showroom was on Seventh Avenue and 37th Street, Bonwit’s was on Fifth Avenue and 56th Street and being this crazy perfectionist I didn’t want to crease any of the clothes in a taxi. So I wheeled a rack and unfortunately one of the wheels broke. It was a nightmare getting the clothes up there.

And finally I was up in her office at the top of the building and they would say, “Miss Custin just entered the store. Miss Custin is now in the elevator.” And I’m dying. She comes in, I show her the clothes, she doesn’t smile. And she says, “Mr. Klein, I will pay you $20 more for each, just make the production exactly as these samples look.” And then there was a $50,000 order. I had projected $50,000 for the year would be great. Now, mind you, this was 1968.

I called Barry, he was my business partner who had put up the money. He put up the money; I had the talent. He had taken money out of the cash register at the supermarket. I called him and said, “Are you sitting down? Well, I just got a $50,000 order from Bonwit Teller and he said, ‘Who is Bonwit Teller?’” In the grocery business it’s about peas and beans. The great thing about the fashion business — and I still believe this today — is that the word caught on like fire. People were coming in immediately. Everyone wanted to see the clothes, everyone wanted to buy.

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