Taste, after a fashion

PROFILE : Calvin Klein America is scandalised again. David Usborne on the designer who wins every time
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THE SANER inhabitants of New York will be avoiding the corner of Madison Avenue and 60th this Thursday lunchtime. In a neo-Gothic building that used to be a branch of the J P Morgan bank, America's hottest fashion designer and genius of modern marketing, Calvin Klein, will be inaugurating his latest venture: a Klein shop selling not just his clothes collections but a new, until now unseen, range of "at-home" items such as knives, forks and duvet covers.

If Klein is lucky, the event will be no more chaotic than is normal when he makes one of his rare public appearances before the city's rude paparazzi. But he and his handlers have one very specific worry: an appearance by protesters still fuming about Mr Klein's latest advertising campaign for his jeans featuring seemingly under-age models in sexually alluring poses.

The launch of the campaign caused no small stir among American conservatives. Tagged by Kal Ruttenstein, fashion director for Bloomingdales and a long- time friend of Klein's, as "trailer-park chic", it depicts the models in various stages of undress: a girl sits legs apart with her denim mini hitched high enough to expose an expanse of white panty; an afro-haired boy in cut-offs also lolls splay-legged to ensure a view of his crotch. In a video version for television in the same vein, a male youth stands for the camera and a man's voice intones: "How old are you? Are you strong? You think you could rip that shirt off you? That's a nice body. You work out? I can tell."

Klein was accused by the American Family Association of promoting child pornography. NBC television refused to carry the ads. The columnists went into overdrive. "This is what we have come to expect from Klein, our most relentlessly tasteless taste-maker. Why does he bother with this tawdriness?" boomed John Leo in US News and World Report. Klein, "taken aback" by the reaction, and doubtless with this week's opening in mind, curtailed the campaign. Ruttenstein reports, by the way, that sales at Bloomingdales of Klein products rocketed last week as the brouhaha reached its peak.

FOR KLEIN, it was only the latest in a long series of scandals that have marked his career. Previous advertising campaigns have included the full-frontal pictures of the emaciated Kate Moss draped across a sofa to promote his Obsession fragrance in 1990, looking all of 13 years old; the monster billboards of rap star Marky Mark, naked except for his Calvin Klein briefs, his hands coddling his crotch; and, as far back as 1985, the jeans ads with a 15-year-old Brooke Shields cooing: "You know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing."

It is Klein's own life, however, that has most riveted the gossip columnists and fashion mavens of New York City. There is the extraordinary rags-to- riches-from-rags tale of how he built - and in the early Nineties nearly lost - his business; the drama of one day in 1978 when he rescued his own daughter from kidnappers; and, above all, the hard-chronicled addiction to sex, alcohol and drugs.

Born in the Mosholu Parkway section of the Bronx on 19 November 1942, the young Calvin Richard Klein - the name is really his and not a marketing wizard's invention - hardly seemed star material. His father, Leo, a Hungarian Jew who emigrated to the United States aged 11, was a grocer and downtrodden partner of Klein's overbearing mother, Flo. Even by the age of five, however, Calvin, a skinny boy with a nervous stomach, was showing his interest in fashion, eagerly trailing Flo through the Bronx department stores. In his teens, he escaped to Manhattan to pursue his passion.

Klein's progress at first was slow, by way of school, college and serial apprenticeships at various fashion houses. But in 1968, he gambled on going it alone. His first break came with an extraordinary piece of luck: a buyer from Bonwits, the now-defunct 5th Avenue department store, glimpsed some of Klein's work when a lift door opened on the wrong floor. Bonwits adopted Klein; his collections, already carrying the Calvin Klein hallmarks of cool, clean-cut, monochromatic simplicity, were an instant hit. By 1973, Klein was a major force in American fashion.

The success of his career, however, masked a tumultuous private life. He had married a childhood friend and Bronx beauty, Jayne Center, and doted on their daughter, Marci. The marriage, however, soon became the victim of multiple strains, not least Klein's discovery of his homosexuality, which translated into serial covert relationships with men, and a slow descent into the nocturnal club life of Manhattan. The marriage to Jayne Center finally fell apart in 1974. By the late Seventies, Klein was embarked on an unconcealed life of decadence and self-abuse marked by random gay sex and quantities of alcohol and narcotics, especially cocaine. In 1984, Klein confessed to an interviewer from Playboy: "Anyone I wanted to be with, I've had. I stopped at nothing. I would do anything. Quite frankly, my best sex has been with people who didn't know who I was."

In 1978, on the eve of the launch of his meteorically successful jeans range, Marci was kidnapped. With the FBI close behind, he made a dangerous drop in the Pan Am tower of $100,000 in used notes. From there he was directed to the uptown address where Marci had been hidden. He found her safe and alive; a day later, the kidnapper, the West Indian brother of her babysitter, was arrested and the money retrieved. The fashion designer as heroic man of action.

ALL THE WHILE, the Calvin Klein empire had continued to expand. Klein himself entered a new, more settled life when he secretly married Kelly Rector, an assistant in his studio, in Rome in 1986. She was 29; he was 43. However, it was not until two years later that Klein checked in for a cure at the famous Hazeldon detox centre in Minnesota. His sudden and unexplained disappearance from New York raised a hurricane of gossip, much of it centred on spurious speculation that he had Aids. Though he was only at the facility for a month, the treatment apparently did the trick. "It's not an easy place," Klein said afterwards of Hazeldon. "But it's the best thing I've ever done in my life."

At that time he sealed his love for Kelly with a gesture that was at once worthy of a Mills and Boon romance and a stroke of marketing brilliance. He spent $1.4m on jewels auctioned off from the estate of Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor, in particular the gold and diamond eternity ring that Edward had given Mrs Simpson when he gave up his throne. To Kelly he gave an eternity ring; to his fans he gave Eternity perfume.

By 1990, however, the Calvin Klein empire was staggering under fearful debt, accumulated in part by junk-bond purchases made in the late Eighties from the since disgraced junk-bond king, Michael Milken. The business was only saved from collapse by a personal loan, put at $50m, from David Geffen, one of Klein's old friends from the so-called "Velvet Mafia" of powerful and gay corporate shakers in New York. Thereafter, however, the trajectory of Calvin Klein Inc has been only towards the stratosphere. To pay off remaining debts, Klein embarked on a series of licensing agreements, selling divisions to other companies to make his products for him and pay him huge royalties. The Calvin Klein perfumes, including the coyly cross-gender CK One, just launched in Britain, are made by Unilever. The jeans division was farmed out last year. Also in 1994, the Wanaco company purchased his underwear business. So successful has Klein been with his briefs, modelled by Marky Mark, that the "Calvins" name has become virtually a generic term, a Hoover among undies.

Though the gossip over his sexuality has hardly subsided, Klein remains married to Kelly, settled and apparently content in their sprawling, 100- year-old mansion in the ultra-fashionable and exclusive East Hampton, on Long Island. So far, they have spent $10m on it.

As last week's furore demonstrated, Klein's standing as a designer at times seems in danger of being eclipsed by his persistently provocative and distinctly androgynous advertising tactics. Among those unlikely to forgive him is Stanley Marcus, a grandfather of American retail and co- founder of Neiman Marcus, who has lamented of Klein: "When I see some of these eccentric, sex-obsession, driven interpretations of clothes, I feel that fashion has reached a very low point. When you have to stoop to sex to sell a pair of jeans, it's a pretty bad reflection on the mentality of the individual who has that sort of obsession."

The fact remains, however, that in the fashion world in the United States certainly, and increasingly around the globe, Calvin Klein remains the most important, most watched and most thrilling designer of clothes, rivalled perhaps only by Ralph Lauren. And, nearly three decades after his first break with Bonwits, he is still running. "It's not easy to become a fashion designer, but to remain one for more than 20 years is unheard of. And I think he is only just at the beginning," says Ruttenstein.

What a Calvin Klein fork looks like we will find out later this week.