Fashion: calvin klein

Calvin Klein is a survivor in an industry littered with casualties. His daughter was kidnapped, his advertising campaigns vilified, but today he stands at the head of a $5 billion empire. Exclusive interview by Rebecca Lowthorpe. Backstage photographs by Jonathan Torgovnik, studio photographs by Jonathan West

It is one thing to fly to New York for 24 hours to interview a fashion designer and watch his show from the front line; it is quite another thing when the invitation is issued by arguably the most recognisable designer name on the planet - Calvin Klein. Klein rarely gives interviews, but he has granted The Independent an exclusive audience so that he can announce the imminent launch of his menswear line in Britain.

Calvin Klein HQ, set in the heart of New York's rag trade district on Seventh Avenue, aka Fashion Avenue, is a pristine modernist temple. As I wait for my appointment, nervously clutching my questions, I take in the uniformity of the decor.

Apart from the dazzling white walls, everything else is in stark black. Black polished wooden floors, black leather chairs, black tables, black telephones. Someone dressed head to toe in black offers me a coffee in a black mug, on a black tray. The only respite from the strict monochromatic colour scheme is a cylindrical glass vase, like a large test tube, which holds a single long-stemmed white lily.

The dazzling white walls are a sign of things to come because the first thing I notice about Calvin Klein is his teeth: pristine white, impeccably straight. Like all those Hollywood film stars, Calvin Klein boasts a mouth full of cosmetic dentistry par excellence. His teeth reflect his quest for perfection in his clothes - beautifully formed, clean and utterly desirable.

Klein is tall - unlike most Hollywood stars - and lean, verging on skinny. He has a trendy new haircut which I'm sure has been chopped to stick up at off angles on purpose, and if it weren't for the flecks of grey, from behind he could be mistaken for a teenager. But his face close-up, unlike his haircut and teeth, is attractively worn-in - at 56, he has not lost his celebrated good looks.

"Hello! Hello. Come in. Sit down," he says, shaking my sweaty palm and flashing his million-dollar smile. "Coffee? Tea? Water?" he asks graciously in a film star voice - gravelly and low - like Michael Douglas.

I dutifully start, as requested by Mr Klein's press officers, with the menswear fashion questions. Who is the Calvin Klein man, the customer that is? "I am. Well, I'm the old Calvin Klein man," he chuckles. "It's everything I want to wear. I couldn't bear to feel uncomfortable at any time and I don't think anyone else would want to."

Calvin Klein's style is obsessively grounded in reality. No matter what theatrical tricks the McQueens and the Gallianos of this world are pulling out of the bag every season, Klein remains a devout realist where, above all else, form follows function. Since 1968, in the more than 60 runway presentations he has produced, unwearable outfits have been scarcer than a wonky hemline.

So, does he wear Calvin Klein head to toe? "Not necessarily. But these," he says pointing to his grey combat trousers, "are mine." They are teamed with a skinny navy cashmere sweater and plain, black shoes. I wonder if he keeps the colour palette of his own clothes as defiantly muted as those he puts on the catwalk. "I wear colour all the time. I'm wearing navy, grey, black," he quips. Although his style, both personal and what he designs for the catwalk, looks effortless, it is really all part of his quest for perfection, as he sees it. The master minimalist claims that the choice of a T-shirt can be a major challenge. "I'm crazy enough to try out 10 different things before I go out - 10 different T-shirts though."

Where does it come from, this obsessive attention to detail that informs everything from his office decor to his work?

Klein has been influenced by his mother Flo's fastidiousness. "She put plastic covers over everything in the house," he says. This even included lampshades and footstools, "in horrible, heavy brocades". Klein says that he rebelled against all the "outrageous kinds of environments" that he lived in. He remembers one particular fad for "lurid purple" paint on the walls, later to be followed by a dark "jungle green".

"The carpets would change, everything was changing all the time, because she would get into a different mood." But Flo's personal dress sense was the very antithesis of her interior decorating tastes. "She always dressed elegantly; actually `chic' was the word. She had a lot of personal style. She managed to spend whatever money - whatever little money - my father had, on clothes, shoes and hats. She was extravagant, with a very tailored style, very understated. That's to say a white suit lined in fur." If Flo elevated clinical cleanliness above comfort in the home, her son, while inheriting her obsession for meticulousness, has united comfort with her impeccable style when it comes to clothes.

Calvin Klein grew up in a strict Jewish community in the Bronx in the Fifties with his father Leo, a grocer ("really a wonderful guy"), Flo, older brother Barry and younger sister Alexis.

"Everything in the Fifties was weird. Everything was perfect like that movie The Truman Show. It was like people were fake - they didn't seem real." As a small boy he and Barry Schwartz, his childhood friend who today is chairman and chief executive officer of the business, dreamt of opening a pet shop - "I loved animals. I had dogs, fish, rabbits, anything I could have" - but it became apparent early on that he had an artistic flair.

"I was always sketching as a child and somehow I knew instinctively that I was not going to be a painter and sit by myself for the rest of my life staring at a blank canvas trying to paint. I always liked sculpture more than anything and I was always intrigued with what you could do with fabric. Three-dimensional shape and form are more interesting to me than something flat," he says, pointing to his black Tantric stone on the coffee table and a white body sculpture on a plinth.

After New York City's High School of Art and Design, he enrolled at the Fashion Institute of Technology and took a job as a copyboy in the art department of the influential fashion trade bible Women's Wear Daily. After college, he had a series of jobs in the rag trade, one of which, at Millstein's, involved going to Paris to sketch the catwalk creations of the day and then adapting them for the American market. It was at that time, in 1964, that Klein first got married, to the prettiest girl in the neighbourhood, Jayne Centre. Two years later, their daughter Marcia Robin Klein was born. And two years after that, at the age of 25, Calvin Klein went into the fashion business for himself. Klein was always on to a winner: in his first season Calvin Klein Ltd grossed a whopping $500,000. At that time, he was known as the "American Yves St Laurent", an impressive title, since the French designer was the King of Paris fashion in the late Sixties.

Then came the Seventies, and Calvin Klein - the brand name, the business and the man's personal life - exploded onto the world stage. He became a household name overnight when he launched his notorious sexy-fit jeans with the legendary advertising campaign featuring Brooke Shields, a 13- year-old bombshell who pouted and posed the question: "Do you know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing." Klein says that, at the time, "some people laughed and some said this is going to cause trouble". And it did. The kind of trouble Klein has repeatedly courted. The commercial was banned by US TV stations, but his name, along with those sexy images, was burned into the world's consciousness. And the jeans? For the first couple of months, they sold in excess of 200,000 pairs a day.

Unsurprisingly, he was targeted by kidnappers. They sought a $100,000 ransom for his 11-year-old daughter Marcie, who was recovered unhurt when her father paid up. When the FBI held a press conference commending Klein's heroism, this painful event led to an avalanche of publicity which did even more to engrave his name on the public's minds.

His lifestyle made good newspaper copy too. As part of the in-crowd at Studio 54, the notorious New York club, he was surrounded by hedonism at its most extreme. It was the place to be seen, where anyone who was anyone - Andy Warhol, Bianca and Mick Jagger, Diana Ross, Cher - and anyone who wanted to be someone went to party. When I ask Klein which has been his favourite decade, his eyes light up.

"The Seventies," he says without hesitation. "When they talk about Paris in the Twenties and Berlin in the Thirties, history will definitely talk about New York in the Seventies. There's just never been, in my experience, a time like it. There will never be another time like it. It was wild."

"The Eighties, for sure, was my least favourite decade," he says. No wonder. All that hard-edged gloss, all bright colours and full-on power dressing, was the exact opposite of Klein's quiet, tasteful minimalism. But rather than let it get him down, he turned once more to breaking the fashion rules. Like the jeans launch the decade before, he took another everyday item and gave it must-have appeal. Again sexual innuendo oxygenated the publicity machine when Klein changed the way the world viewed - and bought - underwear. Using provocative images, which sent their own overtly sexual message, on billboards, in magazines and on the packaging of the product, Klein established a formula now copied by most big-name designers.

But sometimes Klein's advertising has pushed too hard at the boundaries of what is acceptable, at one point landing him in trouble with the US Justice Department in 1995 for images that some felt bordered on child pornography. They showed teenage models in cheap motel room settings that strongly suggested auditions for a low-budget porn movie. After a slew of media interest, the ads were withdrawn.

Then came adverts for his unisex fragrance ck be showing strung out-looking teenagers, and suddenly he was in the news again for promoting "heroin chic". "How erotic is that?" he gibes ironically. He was chastised from on high by President Clinton, who launched a blazing attack. "He said that he didn't want his daughter Chelsea to see those images," says Klein sardonically. "I think that campaign, as it was an election year, became like a political football. All of a sudden if you had family values, you were against what I was doing."

Good or bad, these advertisements have bought Klein attention - so much so that even he couldn't afford all the global publicity they have generated. The day before I arrived in New York to interview him, he was facing fresh protests over the new Calvin Klein Underwear for Kids campaign which featured two boy toddlers playing and laughing on a sofa in their underpants.

The photographs, shot by super-snapper Mario Testino, were intended to "capture the same warmth and spontaneity that you would find in a family snapshot," says the official company statement, issued that day. "It never entered our minds that those kinds of photographs could possibly impact on some people out there to do or think things that concerned mothers would not want to happen," says Klein. The ads have been pulled, but it was too late to stop one running in the New York Times Magazine.

Not all of his campaigns have been controversial. Some appear to have been inextricably bound up with his personal life - such as Eternity, the fragrance ads, which show the wholesome, beautiful Christy Turlington frolicking on a beach with man and child in tow - a happy family scene. These images were created after he was married for the second time, aged 43, to 29-year-old Kelly Rector. "The name for Eternity, I got from an eternity ring I bought for Kelly," says Klein.

Even though he has been separated from his second wife since August 1996, Klein now seems to yearn to project a clean image of family life. Justin Chambers is the new male model fronting the Calvin Klein Contradiction for men fragrance campaign. Klein says: "He's interesting, a real character and he has three children, his wife is pregnant with their fourth child ... a young Marlon Brando and a family man." He adds. "Justin respects women. His values are in the right place and women find that sexy."

Then, very recently, Klein plucked his new consultant from the British Royal family, no less. Lady Helen Taylor, the 34-year-old daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Kent, was signed up by Klein as a consultant because she represents "simplicity, purity and a relaxed elegance". She is also married with two sons and now wears only Calvin Klein, down to her underwear.

Klein tells me that he has been discussing his next project, the advertising campaign for jeans and the CK line, with his daughter Marcie (now co-producer of the hit US show Saturday Night Live), who has very clear ideas about who should "represent" the clothes.

"Models don't do it any more. They're just beautiful faces, which is not interesting to most people ... It's why US Vogue and Harper's Bazaar haven't featured them on the cover in the last eight months. Young people want something more, they want an inner quality, people who are accomplished."

Could this be why Kate Moss, who has been Klein's favourite muse for a number of years, does not appear in the autumn/winter '99 catwalk show, later on in the day? Have all her confessionals about her drinking put him off? In fact, a statement was swiftly issued to counter the rumours about Kate's absence. "Her participation in a runway presentation for a single fashion season does not define her entire relationship with Calvin Klein Inc. ... Although no contract is currently in effect ... [Calvin Klein] looks forward to working with her in the future." Opening and closing the show this season was Russian medical student Colette Pechekhonova, a 19-year-old from Moscow.

As the models glide forward, one by one, down the runway, I take in the Calvin Klein purity and remember how he described his new collection earlier in the day: "Graphic, sharp, very direct, sexy and I've gone back to black in a big way." The look is ideal for his staff back in the pristine temple. Just like his office decor these clothes have been reduced and distilled so that nothing jars with their purity. It all stems from his fanatical pursuit of faultlessness and wearability, through every aspect of Calvin Klein Inc.

Calvin Klein's worldwide retail sales are $5.1 billion - from the men's and women's collections to Calvin Klein jeans, Calvin Klein underwear, ck Calvin Klein women's and men's collections, footwear, sleepwear, swimwear, socks, eyewear, watches and fragrances. Klein himself is also interested in "the world of beauty, home furnishings - everything you'd put on a dining table or a bed or in the bath". His formula for success lies in creating desirable products. But it is his mighty publicity machine which makes people feel they must own them.

Calvin Klein rules with a velvet-coated iron fist. He is personally involved in every aspect of his world - from choosing just the right button on a jacket to the typeface on the new Contradiction fragrance bottles.

Throughout this interview, he only divulged exactly what he wanted me to know. I thought I knew him - I certainly liked him - but then, this is his great gift

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