“You know what gets between me and my Calvins?” Brooke Shields asked on billboards in the early 1980s, wearing only tight-fitting jeans. “Nothing!” The American actress was only 15 years old at the time, the advertising campaign caused a scandal – and made Calvin Klein and his jeans world famous in one fell swoop. “I wanted to surprise, not shock,” Klein, who will turn 80 on November 19, once told fashion magazine Vogue.
“I wanted to create fresh, new images that would make people stop and flip through a magazine.” Slim-fitting jeans and Calvin Klein’s signature style—simple, straight cuts, minimalistic little color—formed the lifestyle of the 1980s and 1990s. Over the years, Klein has built his fashion brand into an empire with underwear, watches, sunglasses, swimwear, perfume, home textiles and jewelry.
Calvin Richard Klein, a descendant of Hungarian Jewish immigrants, was born in 1942 in the Bronx, New York, not far from where his colleague Ralph Lauren had been born three years earlier. Both are among the most important American designers today.
As a child, Klein designed clothes for his sister’s dolls. He graduated from the renowned Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan – and one day met his first big client in the legendary “Studio 54″. “The club was a mecca for sex, freedom and fantasy – but also for work. Exactly one day at three o’clock in the morning, an industrialist asked me if I was interested in designing jeans. Of course I said yes.”
His penchant for minimalism was a reaction to his mother’s interior design style, Klein once said. “My mother had a passion for decorating and dressing. As a child I lived in a very decorated house, every spot was filled with a pattern, drawing or object. That hurt my eyes, I hated it. Later, as an art student, I got to know other styles, the Japanese aesthetic, black and white, nice. That’s how I realized that I’m a minimalist at heart.”
Klein’s design blurs the lines between genders. He was one of the first to design unisex perfumes. “My ex-wife Kelley always asked to borrow my t-shirts – that’s how the idea of sharing perfumes was born.” His private life also takes place between men and women. Klein married two women, both of whom he divorced after a few years. In 1967 his only daughter Marci was born, nowadays a successful TV producer who does not always have it easy with her famous father. “Every time I sleep with a man, I see my father’s name on his underwear.”
Family life does not make Klein sedentary, on the contrary. He starts a wild party life, mixes “Studio 54”, drinks, uses drugs and Valium. After his daughter was briefly kidnapped, Klein abruptly withdrew from public life in 1978. According to his own statement, he still struggles with drugs and alcohol to this day and has undergone several withdrawal treatments. He rarely gives interviews.
Klein has since sold his fashion empire – and now lives between Southampton, New York and Los Angeles as an unapproachable, icy fashion pope. “When I got to the point where I felt like I had said everything I wanted to say, I just stopped – and turned my attention to travel and architecture. And I no longer travel to visit factories, but to see the beauty of the world. And that changes everything.”