What gets Calvin Klein's heart racing

Calvin Klein (above) talks about his career and the fashion world in his eponymous new book (left), which features model Kate Moss on the cover.
Calvin Klein (above) talks about his career and the fashion world in his eponymous new book, which features model Kate Moss on the cover.PHOTO: NYTIMES, RIZZOLI

Fashion guru's new coffee-table book chronicles his career spanning more than 30 years

NEW YORK • 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 advertisement campaigns did it anyway.

Klein has written and compiled his first coffee-table book, a 4.3kg, 463-page, US$150 (S$204) 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 the subject of his career and the fashion world in general since he retired in 2004.

He sold his company to PVH, later cutting his ties with the brand that bears his name (now designed by Raf Simons).

At 74, Klein has been busy building houses and designing uniforms for the Harlem Village Academies.

Calvin Klein (above) talks about his career and the fashion world in his eponymous new book (left), which features model Kate Moss on the cover.
Calvin Klein talks about his career and the fashion world in his eponymous new book (above), which features model Kate Moss on the cover.

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 people's attitudes and expectations.

He did it with notorious campaigns such as 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.

Most designer coffee-table books are just glossy accessories.

Klein's book comes with Kate Moss' topless Obsession advertisement; with the 1995 "teen porn" jeans campaign (denounced by former United States president Bill Clinton); and with shots of naked bodies and body parts, glowing and intertwined.

This one may well be something different: a lightning rod for debate, given the current conversation on the Harvey Weinstein sexual harassment scandal.

Why did you decide to finally publish a book? People had suggested it for many years. Former United States first lady (Jacqueline Kennedy) Onassis was the first one who asked me. God knows why. Vogue editor 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. Do you think people will be suspicious of that imagery, given the current groundswell of discussion on women being put in uncomfortable situations? 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 a reflection of what was happening. The 1970s was a pretty crazy time in New York.

The culture of the 1970s was one of the justifications Weinstein used for his behaviour. But what is happening in the culture does not give anyone the right to act in an abusive way. That's not about culture. It's about character. He used his position to take advantage of women right from the beginning. Did you deliberately set out to be provocative? 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.

I 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. How did you choose the images? I picked the images the same way I always did: what got my heart racing.

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. It 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 advertisements.

I ended up pulling the campaign and taking out a page advertisement in The New York Times trying to apologise.

Photographer Steven Meisel shot it and, to this day, he can't get over the attacks.

For me, it came with the territory.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 27, 2017, with the headline 'What gets Calvin Klein's heart racing'. Print Edition | Subscribe