The Real Calvin Klein On The Most Destructive Force In Fashion

Photo: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images.
Calvin Klein has been one of the most powerful names in American fashion for decades, but he hasn't been that involved with his eponymous company since he sold it 14 years ago. The designer is a savvy marketing mind: His name is synonymous with some of the buzziest, most controversial ad campaigns, ever. He also changed the game when it comes to underwear (boxer briefs, anyone?) and denim. And though he's not fully out of the public eye (he just presented a CFDA Award to Donna Karan on Monday, after all) he doesn't do much press these days. We spoke with Klein after he recorded a candid and quite enlightening segment with Andy Cohen at SiriusXM's NYC studios yesterday. You can tune in to Cohen and Klein's lively chat,SiriusXM Calvin Klein Town Hall hosted by Andy Cohen, on June 10 at 8 a.m. on Radio Andy (channel 102). Their conversation covered a lot of ground — from Klein’s rollicking Studio 54 days to his forthcoming book to his thoughts on Kanye West’s design forays. But the most revealing tidbit was when the designer all but name-checked Raf Simons as the still-unannounced creative director for all things Calvin Klein (all rumors and industry murmurings have pointed to Simons): “They won’t announce [who it is] publicly because it’s under contract, but the whole industry knows,” Klein said. Check out our one-on-one with the iconic designer, ahead.
Will you be giving advice to the incoming creative director tasked with overseeing all of Calvin Klein’s many labels? It’s a brand-new role at the company since, well, you.
"The company has asked me to help, and I’m happy to help in any way that I can. I have done every aspect of the business side and the creative side over the years and I’m more than happy to help this new person who will come in with a singular vision about how to tackle things. Because [the company] needs change."

What kind of change?
"It’s now a 'Wall Street company,' and Wall Street has ruined a lot of fashion businesses, because it’s always about achieving certain numbers every quarter. I looked long-range when I owned it, and I think the company is in a position to think that way because it’s a very wealthy company. This new person is coming in at a time where he has the opportunity, over a period of time, to change the structure [of the business] so it’s a reflection of one person’s point of view."

Are you happy with the person that’s been chosen for this role?
"I am. It’s a good choice. Excellent."

Do you mentor any up-and-coming American designers who could be the next, well, Calvin Klein?
"Not young American designers, but I’ve always worked with students in schools. I was a critic at Parsons for many years; I like working with people who are studying in school. It could be fashion, or marketing, or business [students]. But fashion is still my passion, so I’ve spent more time working with fashion-design students while they’re in school than fashion students who’ve graduated, left, and started their own businesses. They’re off on their own."

So, you’d rather help aspiring talents rather than already-established ones.
"Well, when Anna Wintour calls me and says ‘this designer needs advice,’ I’m there."

What sorts of hurdles do today’s designers have to deal with that you didn’t?
"We live in a different time! I think one of the great challenges is that stylists have become too important in what appears on the runways. It used to the designer’s point of view on the runway, and that goes back to Chanel, Dior, Balenciaga, Saint Laurent; all the greats. Now, stylists who work with magazines to style and do things to the clothes and mix them up and make a pretty picture — they’ve had a strong influence on designers that I think is destructive."

You were always looking for — and delivering on — the shock factor in your ad campaigns. Are you surprised that the brand’s ads still rile people up so much in 2016?
"The Justin Bieber ads were clearly very inspired by the Marky Mark campaign from many years ago. I tried to establish an image for the company that people around the world could relate to, and I was hoping that whoever took the company over could interpret that and update it, and make it even better. So it’s interesting to see what they’re doing."
You said you've made deliberate choices about what to put your name on as you expanded your empire. Were there any categories you were seriously hesitant about initially?
"Everything, ev-ery-thing! When we decided to do home furnishings, I used to go around the world and collect all kinds of crazy things — pots, pans, utensils — and I’d hide them in a closet, because I’m a minimalist and I don’t want to see anything. Ralph Lauren had already been in the home business, and people kept saying I should do it, because it’d have a different approach. It would be modern, not traditional. I promise you, I took fabrics that I’d used to make clothes and I’d use them for home designs — the lace top you’re wearing, say, I’d throw a piece of that fabric over a bed, and we'd then create sheer fabrics for bedding. We tried all kinds of things for bedding that we used for clothes, and it worked. I thought, ‘No one is ever going to buy this.' "Then, we started doing everything that goes on the tabletop, then things for the bathroom. It was all the same kind of process, but the business that was the least similar was fragrance. I originally owned that business myself [before selling the license] and [lost] millions of dollars before I partnered with a public company [in the fragrance space] that allowed me to do whatever I wanted to do. There, I was able to be creative; truthfully, I had no one helping me."
Despite a rocky start, your fragrance business clearly paid off.
"When I was in school, if a designer had one fragrance, they were lucky. Most designers didn’t have any. We had one mega-hit after another, and it turned out to be a billion-dollar company." A lot of things that are so closely associated with classic CK have had such a comeback in the past few years — beyond logo mania, there’s such nostalgia for all things ‘90s. What do you think of designers today being so referential to your earlier work?
"I love it! I think it’s great. I love vintage clothes — I have all these clothes from 1968 on. I saved everything, and they’re lent to various people for different occasions. I always designed thinking that these clothes should last a long time. That’s what I think is missing today: It’s now all about right now, this moment, and next season it’s something else." So you’re probably not a fan of the "see now, buy now" model, then?
"Well, I wanted women to feel good in my clothes and to wear them for a long period of time."

You were really instrumental in making heavily logo-ed pieces so desirable. Do you wear your own logo-plastered clothes much these days?
"No! I never wore anything with my name on it."

More from Designers

R29 Original Series