Kelly Klein, Calvin's wholesome other half, is challenging her husband as patron saint of erotic underwear chic. What's going on?

Justine Picardie
Sunday 23 October 2011 04:33

THERE is something strange about Kelly Klein. Not on the outside, where she is pretty, wholesome, all-American; a Connecticut dream-girl who rides thoroughbred horses and wears pearls with her jeans; a loyal assistant who in 1987 married her boss, fashion designer Calvin Klein, thus bestowing upon him a respect-ability that had been sadly lacking from his previous persona as prince of New York nightlife. For some time afterwards, she was seen as nothing more than an impeccably tasteful trophy wife who appeared on her husband's arm at cocktail parties and fashion shows. And in 1992, when Kelly branched out on her own and edited an expensive book of photographs of swimming pools, it was, as you might expect, as decorous as she.

But now it turns out that Kelly Klein might not be quite what we thought her to be. For one thing, she turns out to be obsessed with underwear, and the bodies contained with-in. Her new book, Underworld, is a carefully- displayed collection of pictures of men, women and children with very few clothes on. In her foreword, she says, "I was intrigued by photographs that captured people almost nude in various states of un-dress. We all like to fantasise; what you cannot see can often be more exciting when it is left to your imagination."

There are "154 alluring images" in this book, taken over the past century by the famous (Man Ray, Helmut Newton, Steven Meisel, among others) as well as by the unknown and anonymous. There are touching pictures, like the Eve Arnold portrait of a girl in a steamy bathroom, draped with drying underwear; and shocking pictures, such as Bob Carlos Clarke's model as pervy coffee table (on hands and knees, with a glass top on her back). There are glossy fashion shots (Christy Turlington in a skimpy vest); and amateur shots (a self-conscious Fifties male pin-up in see-through nylon shorts, posed next to a house plant). There is page upon page of women in corsets and suspenders and knickers and bras; and men in boxer shorts and Y-fronts and briefs. There are also men in bras and, more disturbingly, little girls in little knickers. Klein says in her foreword that "the pictures of the children are not at all sexual", which is true. Others may disagree, though, after seeing them juxtaposed against erotic photographs of scantily-clad supermodels.

Flicking through the book, one begins to wonder what came first: Kelly Klein's interest in the semi-naked body; or the Calvin Klein ad campaign that used similar images to sell his expensive range of otherwise unremarkable knickers and vests (and perfume and jeans, for that matter). There was, you might remember, a hullabaloo over his recent ads, which featured very young models - boys and girls - wearing very few clothes, against a backdrop reminiscent of a cheap porn movie.

The ads were withdrawn after widespread American public outrage; but Kelly Klein's book will continue to appear on elegant coffee-tables on both sides of the Atlantic. It's rather unsettling: like seeing a Stepford Wife engaging in a striptease. And that, perhaps, is the point: to prove that there's more than meets the eye to the Klein aesthetic. Kelly is the perfect clothes horse for Calvin's designs - the unfussy American beauty wearing simple, neutral garments. What lies beneath, however, remains tantalisingly hidden.

Those hoping for a glimpse of Kelly's wondrous flesh within the book's pages will be disappointed. There is a small picture of her on the inner sleeve: in a white slip, true, but with her long hair draped over her body, and her legs tucked discreetly side by side. She is on the grass - no doubt in the garden of the famous Klein house in the Hamptons - surrounded by blurred photographs of semi-naked bodies laid out around her as if in supplication. Perhaps one of those bodies - unidentified, of course - might be Kelly Klein's own. We will never know, but she does; which may explain why she is smiling.

! 'Underworld', by Kelly Klein, is published by Ebury Press, pounds 50

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