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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Brooke Shields in a Calvin Klein ad.

Photo By Courtesy Photo

Calvin Klein and wife at the time Kelly

Photo By Farchild Archive

Months before I started in the business, there was a total tragedy in Barry’s family. His father was murdered in the store. Both of our parents were in the same business. He said to me, “Why don’t we become partners? I’ll give you half the business. We’ll open up lots of stores. We’ll become the next A&P.” I was married. Marci [his daughter] was a year or two years old. I knew this would mean security, that we would be successful and the idea of a business partnership with such a close friend was ideal. I went to my parents for advice, which I rarely did because I thought that I knew it all. I was sure my mother would say don’t you dare go into the supermarket business and I thought my father would say do it, this is a great opportunity. My dad said, “You know, I never knew exactly what you studied all these years, but I have a feeling if you don’t see it through, even though this is a great opportunity your best friend is offering, I think you will be unhappy all your life. You have to go through with it.” I left their apartment on cloud nine. That did it for me. It was the best advice I ever got.

I wasn’t thinking of it as a brand. I always managed to separate myself from the name of the company. But I knew I wanted to create something that would go on long after I was personally involved with it. I was just intrigued by the idea of doing other things and started with the advertising. Back then, the magazines would come to the designers to say, “Now it’s time for you to advertise and we will do it for you.” I always thought, “How could they possibly communicate what I have to say better than me?” So I always got involved in areas that American or even European designers hadn’t been concerned with.

Those were the Studio 54 days. I was on my way to Frankfurt for a fabrics fair. It was about 4 o’clock in the morning and a man came up to me and said, “Would you like to put your name on denim?” I called Barry on my way to the airport — right from Studio 54. I said, “You know, there is something interesting about this idea of designing jeans.” Then there was Lee, Levi and Wrangler. I thought this could be fun. I liked the idea of reaching lots of people because the clothes I was making, because of the prices, you could reach very few people. We made an arrangement to start that company with Carl Rosen and Puritan.

Andrew Rosen used to work for us. I am so proud of what he’s accomplished. His dad was a really cool guy. He was in the dress business. They knew nothing about jeans. My favorite expression with all of them was, “Trust me. Just trust me.” And Carl did.”

My second wife Kelly worked with me in the design studio for a long period of time and she was greatly responsible for us doing underwear.…I still wear it. And I wear other people’s underwear, too, because I want to check out the competition.

She was quoted in Time or Newsweek to something of the effect of, “Every time I go to bed with some guy, I’m looking at my dad’s name on their underwear.” I said to my psychiatrist at the time, “I don’t think that’s very funny.” And he said, “Lighten up.”

One thing I did say is if we really want to reach a lot of people in the jeans world, I think we should be on TV. I said print is one thing and television is another. I said it’s going to cost a lot of money. He said, all right, whatever. I did a lot of work with Dick Avedon and I did a lot of work right from the very beginning with Bruce Weber. I went to Dick and told him what I wanted to do and he introduced me to Doon Arbus, who is Diane Arbus’ daughter and is brilliant and a great writer. The three of us would do a lot of drinking and staying up very late and deciding who the cinematographer should be. I worked with all the photographers and directors pretty much the same way. I had to do it. I just felt this passion. I knew what I wanted to say. I had to find the right people to help me to convey that message.

I was obsessed anyway. The word “obsession” reminded me of myself, and of my friends who were obsessed with work or success. It’s instant. I get an emotional reaction, something happens to my body when I see a photograph or clothes or word and I know it’s right.

The reason for Kate [Moss] and this whole group of women I found that someone named “waifs” was because before that, a lot of women were getting breast implants and doing things to their buttocks. It was getting out of control. I just found something so distasteful about all that. I wanted someone who was natural, always thin. I was looking for the complete opposite of that glamour type that came before Kate.

It’s just never been my thing because then I think it’s about the celebrity. What I wanted was being about the clothes or the fragrance, not about selling the celebrity. But celebrities on the covers of magazines were selling magazines, so it’s valid. It works, but it’s not for me.

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