Calvin Klein's first coffee-table book is R-rated history

Calvin Klein at the 2016 CFDA Fashion Awards, at Hammerstein Ballroom in New York, June 6, 2016. Klein presented the Founder's Award to his longtime friend Donna Karan at the gala.
Calvin Klein at the 2016 CFDA Fashion Awards, at Hammerstein Ballroom in New York, June 6, 2016. Klein presented the Founder's Award to his longtime friend Donna Karan at the gala.PHOTO: NYTIMES

NEW YORK (NYTimes) - It's hard to talk about sex and fashion these days, or sex and modelling, or sex and ad campaigns, without a post-Weinstein lens on it all. Every discussion, every photo, looks different - potentially suspect. Yet sex has been a fundamental tool in the selling of fashion for years.

And no one wielded it more effectively than Calvin Klein. In a pre-internet world, he built a global brand on the power of astonishingly provocative imagery. Before there was such a thing as going viral, his ad campaigns did it anyway.

Klein has written and compiled his first coffee-table book, a 9 1/2-pound, 463-page US$150 tome. Three years in the making, it was whittled down from 40,000 images created over a career that lasted more than 30 years.

It is an eye-opening statement from a man who has been relatively mum on both the subject of his own career and the fashion world in general since he retired in 2004. At age 60, he sold his company to PVH, later cutting his ties with the brand that bears his name (now designed by Raf Simons).

The book is a series of reminders not just of the clothes Klein made and the debt today's fashion minimalists owe him, but also of the disruption he caused and the way it shaped our attitudes and expectations.

He did it with notorious campaigns like the Brooke Shields "Nothing Comes Between Me and My Calvins", banned by broadcast networks ABC and CBS in New York when it was released in 1981, castigated by activist Gloria Steinem.

With Kate Moss' topless Obsession ads and the underwear campaign she did with Marky Mark; with the 1995 "teen porn" jeans campaign (denounced by president Bill Clinton and investigated by the Justice Department); and with the various shots of naked bodies and body parts, glowing and intertwined.

Most designer coffee-table books are really just glossy accessories to egos and living rooms. This one may well be something different: once again a lightning rod for debate, and possibly censure, given the current conversation. Certainly it will raise questions that should be raised. Especially since, at 74, Klein, who has been busy building houses and designing uniforms for the Harlem Village Academies, is ready to think about many of them - if not to completely address the implications.

Q: Why did you decide to finally publish a book?

A: People had suggested it for many years. Mrs (Jacqueline Kennedy) Onassis was the first one who asked me. God knows why. Anna Wintour had been pushing me to do it for a long time. But I don't like looking back; I like to be in the moment, and think about the future. Plus I thought it might be emotional, and I didn't want to go there. But I do a lot of speaking to students, and I realised they knew my name, but they certainly had no idea of the imagery we used. And I wanted them to be able to learn from that.

Q: Do you think people will be suspicious of that imagery, given the current groundswell of discussion on women being put in uncomfortable situations?

A: I never thought publication would coincide with this conversation, though I also think it's about time we had this conversation. But all of these images came from my life in one way or another, especially my life with (former wife) Kelly. It was really a reflection of what was happening. The 1970s were a pretty crazy time in New York. There was Berlin in the 1920s, and Paris in the 1930s, and New York in the 1970s. The orgy campaign started with me thinking about Studio 54. People ask me if it was really like that. Probably, yeah.

Q: The culture of the 1970s was one of the justifications Harvey Weinstein used for his behaviour.

A: But what is happening in the culture does not give anyone the right to act in an abusive way. In terms of Harvey, not everyone did what he did in the 1970s and after. That's not about culture; it's about character. He used his position to take advantage of women right from the beginning.

Q: Did you deliberately set out to be provocative?

A: When I was thinking about our campaign for our first fragrance, I was looking at the competition and they always had these young, pretty girls running through a field of wheat. And I just thought: "Is that why women buy fragrance? Because they want to run through wheat?" No. They buy it because they want to attract men, or they want to be attractive to themselves. So I always put men and women together. Is that being provocative? That is being realistic.

In those days I would look at Vogue, and it was thick with hundreds of pages, and I wanted my company to stand out. So I did six-, eight-page spreads - once I did a 27-page outsert. They weren't always about sex, but they often went in that direction because that's me. That's who I am. I did what I did, and I put it out there for students.

Q: How did you choose the images?

A: I picked the images the same way I always did: what got my heart racing. No matter which photographer was doing the shoot, we would discuss what we were trying to say, where we would shoot, who the model would be. In the early days, I would be on shoots, styling. Then I would edit the film at night. We always pushed to be more creative and exciting, and sometimes we went over the top. Sometimes we pushed the envelope too far. I understand that.

There was a shoot that got referred to as kiddie porn, for example. It was for jeans, photographed in what looked like a basement with knobby pine panelling and shag carpeting. We thought it was funny and provocative, but the Justice Department did not. They investigated us.

But it was during a year when everyone was talking about family values, and Bill Clinton, who was president, stood up and said he didn't approve of the Calvin Klein ads. I ended up pulling the campaign and taking out a page advertisement in The New York Times trying to apologise. Steven Meisel shot it, and to this day he can't get over the attacks. For me, it came with the territory.

Q: You were used to it by then?

A: My feeling was: If you start to think about what everyone else might think before you design something or put an image out there, you'll never get anything done. I built my company with my childhood friend - just like Donna Karan did and Ralph Lauren did - and we built it based on creativity, with the assumption that if people wanted what we created, it would be profitable.

That's how we ended up working with Kate. I went to Paris to see how other designers did shows - I went to Chanel and a few others - and I saw all these women whom I had thought were really special, and they were in every show. So then I started to think: That's not really so special. It was a period when lots of models were enhancing their breasts and doing crazy things to their bodies, and I found it pretty offensive. So I came back from Paris and thought: I have to do something different.

After awhile Patrick Demarchelier called and said he thought he'd found someone like we'd been looking for, and he sent Kate over. She had some personal photographs that Mario Sorrenti, her boyfriend at the time, had taken of her. He wasn't even a professional photographer then. So I asked to meet Mario, and then I gave him a camera and sent them off to an island together.

Q: Why did you stop?

A: I left because I thought I'd done everything creatively I wanted to do. I didn't want to expand into areas that didn't feel natural, and I didn't want to design the same thing for the rest of my life. I had design studios for every collection, and I was there for the beginning and middle and end, and there'd be young people sketching and they would show me what they'd drawn, and I would say, "But we did this already." And they'd say, "No, it's new." And I'd say, "But I remember it." And I just thought, "If I don't do it now, when?" I wanted to live a different way.

Now large corporations have gobbled up designers, and they stay two years and then move on. I think that's unfortunate.

Q: Do you feel any responsibility for that, given your own contribution to branding?

A: It's better for me not to comment. I don't really look at fashion magazines. I haven't for ages.