Calvin Klein Gets Candid

Courtesy of Calvin Klein Book Rizzoli
Calvin Klein

The fashion designer discusses Donna Karan's Harvey Weinstein comments, sexuality in the Trump era, his new book and new life in L.A.

You might be surprised to learn that Calvin Klein, the brand, will celebrate its 50th anniversary in 2018. The label has always positioned itself at the leading edge of modernity, and that philosophy extends to its most iconic images, many of which have pushed social conventions to the brink — and beyond. 

This month Calvin Klein, the man, likewise will celebrate a milestone: He turns 75 on Nov. 16, though knowing that number was on the horizon had little to do with his decision to release his first-ever book. Calvin Klein (Rizzoli, $150) is a celebration of both a career and his fearless approach to fashion imagery, 480 pages showcasing 330 images, many of which have played an integral role in how we regard fashion in the latter part of the 20th century. (Klein sold his namesake company in 2002 and retired in 2003.) 

Beautiful, provocative, forward-thinking, suggestive, erotic — no matter whether the intent was to sell jeans, fragrance, underwear or the runway collection, each image was certain, and sometimes designed pointedly, to elicit a response.

With Fabien Baron overseeing the creative direction, the book is divided into three sections — "Rebellious," "Minimal" and "Stories" — with many images accompanied by Klein’s personal anecdotes, from memories on how a shoot was produced to his recollections of specific reactions to various images, controversial or otherwise. Baron designed the book with Klein’s spare, minimalist aesthetic in mind, with plenty of white space around images and the text never feeling too intrusive. The result is a thoroughly enjoyable page-turner; no matter whether you lived through, say, the supermodel era of the 1990s or this is your first encounter with it, Calvin Klein is the seminal archive of a designer who influenced decades before “influencer” became part of our everyday vernacular.

Klein talked with Pret-a-Reporter about the decision to produce a retrospective book, how the sometimes controversial images he created continue to influence fashion and how Los Angeles has inspired some of his favorite memories.

Looking through the book, one of the thoughts that emerges is that so many of the images seem just as relevant today as when they were first produced.

That was my fear when I was working on the book: Would I feel that the photos we did for all those years, would they feel dated? But after the first two months [of working on the book], I was getting really excited about the process. If I were designing today, I could easily run many of the images that we produced back in the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s. We purposely juxtaposed different photos from different decades opposite each other. The vision is the same, regardless of photographer.

You’ve mentioned that [your ex-wife] Kelly Klein was instrumental in getting you started on the book. What can you share about those conversations?

Many times Kelly said she felt it was important that I do this book. I’ve spent a great deal of time lately speaking at universities — to fashion people, business people, marketing students — and wherever I go in the world, they know the name and the brand, but I’ve been talking about how we did it, how we got there and what we did. Kelly finally said, “If you don’t do [a book], someone else will, and you will hate it.” I realized she’s absolutely right, but I said, “Will you help me?” We spent more than three years working together on it. It was great to work with her again, as we did many years ago; we shared the excitement of going through all the photographs and retelling all of these stories.

You edited 40,000 images to come up with the 330 in the book. What was that process like?

You know, I edited all those images before, through all those years, to decide what I would run nationally. So when I started to go through them again, I felt for the most part that I still would have made the same choices. Then I chose many other images that we never ran because I thought they were just beautiful. The process was really exciting: with Kelly, without Kelly, with Fabien Baron, the creative director, and without him. We paginated the images so many times; every time we had a meeting, we would rearrange the photos. The process goes on and on until you have a deadline, and that’s what we did for three years.

How do you feel about the finished book?

I’m more than pleased with the outcome. I’ve been working on it digitally for so long, holding the book is a very different experience. But I’m old-fashioned: I like to read newspapers every day, and I like to hold a book in my hand. So I was very into the quality of the paper, and details like making the edges of the pages black. I feel very good about all the choices we made.

The reaction from the fashion industry also must be very gratifying — everyone is raving about this book.

I am shocked at the reaction. But then again, I always think no one will be interested. But the work seems to mean something to people, no matter how old or young you are. I think people always respond to a photograph that’s strong, that takes risks, that maybe pushes the envelope somewhat.

Anna Wintour emailed me not long after she had gone through all the images. She said that all the women at Vogue who were in their 20s were poring over the book for hours, because they really didn’t know, they didn’t have a sense of what we had accomplished with all that work. It was great to hear that they responded to it with so much interest and passion.

The book pretty quickly dives into perhaps your most legendary campaign, from 1980: Brooke Shields and, “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.”

I had no sense at the time we were working on it that it would become such an iconic campaign. All we knew is that we were doing something that we loved. Every night I went up to Dick Avedon’s studio, and [the writer] Doon Arbus, who wrote all these wonderful lines, was there. The three of us would drink and carry on and laugh, and Dick would act out Brooke’s lines on the floor. He was such a genius, and so much fun to work with. We thought it would be fun, and that it had style. But we had no idea that it would have the impact it has had after all these years.

I run into Brooke every so often. I haven’t spoken with her since the book came out, but I’ll call her and see what she thinks. She did ask for five copies.

A large portion of the book is also devoted to Kate Moss. What does she mean to you and to the brand?

I love discovering talent. I would work with modeling agencies, but I always had my own people out there scouting in London, Paris, Los Angeles, New York. That for me was one of the most exciting aspects of creating, that I could discover someone that no one knew, and who fit what I was looking to project.

I was in Paris to see how the French were doing their fashion shows, and the thing I noticed was that there was a sameness to all of the models, and at the time they were enhancing their bodies and breasts, and I really wanted to project a different body type. I was interested in Vanessa Paradis, but she was doing a film and wasn’t available. Then one day, Patrick Demarchelier called me and said, “I think I might have what you’re looking for.”

Kate came into my office at my studio — and you know, I can always tell right away. She showed me a bunch of photographs that her boyfriend, Mario Sorrenti, had taken of her. Mario wasn’t a professional photographer yet, but he captured something very special from her. He captured Obsession. I had been looking at how to revitalize that fragrance and bring it into the ‘90s, and she embodied it perfectly. So I sent the two of them off to our in-house ad agency, and everything grew from there.

Kate in particular was also a very good actress. I would be standing backstage and sending all the models out on the runway, and I would whisper little things to them about what they should project on the runway, and she would always do it perfectly. She really represented that young, cool, downtown girl. Christy Turlington, meanwhile, represented that other woman, more elegant and sophisticated. She was our collection girl.

Speaking of new talent, one of your most famous images grew out of a discovery in Los Angeles. Tell me about Tom Hintnaus.

He was running on Sunset Boulevard, near UCLA, and I was driving in my convertible. We were planning to shoot the first ads for Calvin Klein Underwear [in 1982], and the moment I saw him I knew he was exactly right. I stopped the car and introduced myself and asked him if he had ever modeled. Right there I said to him, “We’re doing a trip to Santorini, would you like to go?” He looked at me like I was crazy, but then he said, “Sure.” He was a triathlete and just extraordinary-looking. And he turned out to be perfect.

That shoot with Bruce Weber is a great example of how you collaborated with so many photographers: You were right there on set, next to him, and you didn’t really storyboard it, the moment just sort of happened.

We always worked that way; I love collaborating with photographers, and Bruce and I are still great friends. But I never had a storyboard. Tom was wearing the underwear, and Bruce was moving him around, and he moved him against this section that was part of the architecture, and Bruce and I just looked at each other — we knew what we had.

I ended up putting the image on bus-stop shelters, and people were breaking the glass to steal the poster. Someone from the city called me and said, “You have to do something.” So I asked how much it cost to fix each one, and she said $500. I said, “Let them keep breaking them; I’ll pay it.”

Was that because you knew the conversation had gotten bigger than the image?

I just knew it was an exciting photograph that perfectly expressed what I did to classic underwear. I cut them lower, which gave them a sexier look, and that in itself is expressed on his body. And the environment was so important. The sky was so blue, and the architecture behind him was so white and gorgeous against his skin. If we had photographed him in a studio, it never would have been the same.

Then of course there was the Calvin Klein Jeans campaign in 1995, the young models in the paneled room — could you imagine doing that campaign now in the Trump era?

Well, the Trump era changes the question. I have thought about much of what I did over the decades, and would I do it again today. But when you speak of the Trump era, that suggests a whole other thing. The way he speaks and tweets, it’s as though there are no boundaries. We knew we were pushing the envelope then, and we were trying to do something that was creative and funny, though we did know people might be upset. I don’t know if I would do that campaign today, but at the time it was a very big deal.

There are so conversations at the moment about sexual harassment in the workplace, and of course you are known for producing so many images that pushed the envelope and were very provocative.

First, I always believed in what we put out there, otherwise I wouldn’t have put it out there. So I always felt good about the imagery. We were trying to project a sensuality, of beautiful people and beautiful bodies, but we never crossed a line. If a model said to us that she wasn’t comfortable doing something, then we didn’t do it. We never wanted to put anyone in that position.

There was only one time in which the reaction to an image changed my mind. When we were introducing the underwear for children [in 1999], we photographed a bunch of children in Paris; they were all children of parents who were friends of the photographer. They were jumping up and down, but none of them were wearing T-shirts. It really was completely innocent from our point of view. At the time, Rosie O’Donnell had a daytime program, and my daughter [Marci Klein, a Saturday Night Live producer from 1995-2013] called me and said, “Dad, Rosie’s got a daily show — you don’t want her as an enemy.” I understood that she was offended, and I felt really bad, and we pulled the ads after that. Maybe we were naïve, but it really was total innocence.

And there was no thought of including those images in the book.

None at all. They weren’t even among the 40,000 we looked at while we were editing.

While many images are very sensuous and celebrate the body through the fragrance and underwear campaigns, the book also features many images from the ready-to-wear collections, and there’s something about the fabrics that you feel in those photographs.

We went back and forth a lot in the printing process of the book, because I wanted that feeling. Everything about the paper, the printing and the production was to ensure we got the best reproduction of each photograph.

And I was very lucky to work with some of the most exciting photographers of our time — Dick Avedon and Irving Penn and Bruce Weber and Patrick Demarchelier, among them — and their sense of lighting and movement and proportions was always so great. To be able to see all of that in one place, and a lot of these clothes together — what a great opportunity.

In 1993, you produced a major fashion show and fundraiser at the Hollywood Bowl for Aids Project Los Angeles. Among all the events and shows you’ve produced, why did you want to include this one in the book?

It was a very important moment in my life. I was asked to do the APLA fashion show, and I thought that to do just another fashion show would be boring. When I think of Hollywood, the iconic symbol is the Hollywood Bowl. I had the whole thing visualized in my head, this image of the 1930s and people dressed in black tie.

Kelly and Carolyn Bessette, when she still worked for me and before she married John Kennedy Jr., worked on the event for a whole year. They cast real people, hundreds of them, all of whom had a real connection to this horrible disease. I had 40 or 50 hairstylists and makeup artists backstage; it became an emotional experience for everyone in the show. My daughter was also really instrumental. She said, “You’re going to need a real producer to do this, because you’re going to have to deal with unions and a lot of things you don’t know and shouldn’t be bothered with.” We created a short film and then just had hundreds of models. It was a truly amazing sight when they all came out onstage at the end of the show. At the end I said a few words, and then Tina Turner came out and did a 20-minute concert to close the show. It was incredible.

Soon after I was asked by some friends if I would also do it in New York, but no. We did it once, but we couldn’t do it again. It was so much work. I was thrilled that I did it, but it was that one time and was very special. I managed to convince people to do something that none of us had ever done before. People came in black-tie, and these days that doesn’t happen at the Hollywood Bowl. My imagination ran away with me. It will always stand out for me as one of the highlights of my life.

Nobody dresses up for Broadway anymore, either.

Exactly! I still wear a suit when I go to a Broadway show. I might not wear a tie, but I do wear a suit.

Proceeds from the book will go to God’s Love We Deliver. Why was it important to include a philanthropic component?

I was going to do a party in New York for the book’s release, and we planned to invite all the people who have appeared in these images over the years. And then I realized that I would rather the money go to the charity. It’s just a crazy amount of money to throw a party in New York, and of course if I were going to do it, I would turn it into a production. It’s better that all proceeds go to God’s Love We Deliver; that seemed to me to be the right thing to do.

You’ve also been traveling a lot lately.

Donna Karan is a close friend of mine, and we’ve been to Vietnam, to India, southeast Asia, to Morocco and North Africa. These are the things I never really allowed myself to do when I had my business. I would feel guilty that I should be back at work rather than experience something that was just fun. We also went to Tangier and South Africa and Kenya, and I’ve gotten serious about my own photography. I’ve been having a great time taking photos.

Speaking of Donna, she’s been in the news lately following some comments she made about Harvey Weinstein and his accusers.

I talked to her when it happened, and I had dinner with her last night at her apartment. Donna has spent most of her adult life being out there for women and supporting them — not only in her work, but in so many other ways as well. That’s always been her big push, that and healthcare and Haiti. I can tell you that what was said and what was reported, that’s not her. She’s really trying very hard to straighten everything out. She was and still is all about women first; that’s how she operates and all she thinks about. I know because we’re really close friends. I just hope all this will pass.

These days you’re spending a lot of time in Los Angeles. What was behind your decision to shift your life from New York to the West Coast?

I just love being in L.A. With my close friend, Kevin [Baker], we go to Venice almost daily. We go to Gold’s Gym and work out hard; I’ve been doing that for years. I love Venice and Santa Monica — the people are happy. I spent my whole life in New York. You feel the stress in the air in New York, and that’s great and it’s fine, but I like to spend enough time away from it. I was living in Miami for a while, and I find L.A. is really for me. I have friends there, and a beautiful view from my home in the Hollywood Hills all the way out to the ocean. It’s another chapter in my life.

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