It is a transformative and challenging time for fashion. Authenticity, legacy, and branding are more important than ever. Calvin Klein was once a great American heritage brand. Like Ralph Lauren, it is known worldwide and reflects a significant part of our American culture. They are both more than just brands. They are ambassadors of American style and taste. Last year, the Phillips-Van Heusen Corporation decided to stop producing the Calvin Klein Collection. This collection was the image-maker; it gave prestige and drove sales in the company’s other divisions.
“I built this company up, and they destroyed it in two minutes.” – Calvin Klein
What happened to Calvin Klein, an iconic and disruptive brand for over 50 years, is a shame. It should not meet the same fate as Bill Blass or Geoffrey Beene because of bad decisions made by those at the top. I have always thought that the Calvin Klein brand, which was designed first by Zack Carr, then Francisco Costa and finally Raf Simons was stronger than Calvin Klein himself.
Calvin is a visionary, a provocateur, and a master marketer. He created some of the most controversial ads in history. When Calvin sold his company to PVH Corporation in 2002, he relinquished all creative control. Freddie Lieba told me he was at a cocktail party with Calvin Klein, who remarked, “I built this company up, and they destroyed it in two minutes.”
Last week I wrote an article about Costa Brazil, Francisco Costa’s sustainable skincare, and home scent collection. The award-winning former creative director of Calvin Klein from 2003 – 2016 admitted that he would eventually love to return to fashion and create an organic lifestyle collection in tandem with his beauty line. I had a chance to look through images of Francisco’s past Calvin Klein collections. I was struck by the consistent modernity of Costa’s vision and his ability to translate Calvin’s minimal aesthetic yet make it his own. It got me thinking about the Calvin Klein brand, which has faded into fashion oblivion.
“At times, I thought Francisco was almost more Calvin than Calvin! The purity! The celebration and delineation of line and shape at its most clear! The quietness! – Linda Fargo
Francisco was hand-picked by Calvin himself. I believe Francisco proved after 14 years that Calvin Klein could go on without Calvin Klein. Costa was a much better fit than Raf Simons, who was brought in with the hopes that he could do for Calvin Klein what Alessandro Michele did for Gucci. It was a disaster. Raf knew nothing about the American market, yet he was paid a fortune and given carte blanche. He even changed the name to Calvin Klein 205W39NYC Collection. On the other hand, Francisco never had the proper backing or support, financial or otherwise. Many industry insiders who were close to the situation confirmed that fact to us.
A former Calvin Klein executive who preferred to remain anonymous said, “PVH has done what they could, and Francisco made beautiful clothes but never had anyone to helm the ship. They sold the company in 2002 and had a decade-plus to right it, and they didn’t. After Calvin and Barry, they never gave anyone creative autonomy until Raf Simons, but that was too late. Look how Blass disappeared, Geoffrey Beene and a host of others. It is tough to make a brand dynastic, which is why Chanel, Gucci, Dior, Givenchy, and others are the wondrous exceptions they are.”
Francisco’s friend Ralph Rucci: “Francisco is one of the six greatest designers in the world. He was perfect for Calvin Klein, but those calling the shots had no vision that what he was doing was a new evolution for Calvin Klein. They did not get behind Francisco, did not support the real art, nor allow him to explore fragrance, and they never gave him the depth as design director. I suppose that they wanted to have something equivalent to CK underwear that made so much money previously.”
Jeffrey Banks worked as a design assistant to Ralph Lauren (1971–73) and Calvin Klein (1973–76) before launching his own-name label in New York City in 1977. Jeffrey confirmed that the management at Calvin Klein never backed Francisco the way they should have. “They never gave Francisco the advertising budget he should have had. They didn’t even want to give him a show. Every season Francisco had to fight for it”, said Jeffrey.
I spoke with Andy Basile, President of BCS Services, who served as VP Fashion Direction at Calvin Klein from 1995 – 2002. Calvin hired Andy to take his company global. “PVH is all about the bottom line. They are good businessmen and moneymakers, but they don’t understand brand design. There was nobody there who understood how to build the brand, create an identity, and make that identity something women would salivate from” Andy stated.
Basile also observed that what sells at the luxury level are accessories: bags and shoes. Calvin Klein never made must-have accessories, which are crucial — they hold everything together. At Calvin Klein, accessories were an adjunct to the collection rather than stand-alone must-haves.
Andy further noted, “It is shocking that there is no Calvin Klein. Not only because of the brand and how long it existed but the store itself, which was a masterpiece of John Pawson architecture, a beautiful example of minimalism. It was painted acid yellow by Raf Simons as part of the total transformation, and God only knows what it will become”.
Coincidentally, on Friday, June 12th, it was announced that Tom Murry, former chief executive officer of Calvin Klein Inc. from 2003 – 2015, is taking on the role of CEO at Venezuelan designer brand Raul Peñaranda LLC. According to WWD, Raul wants Murry to rebuild the Calvin Klein business model with him.
They are even considering buying the former Calvin Klein flagship at 654 Madison Avenue. From what I could see, the brand, with its focus on gussied up evening wear, has nothing at all to do with Calvin Klein minimalism, or what’s going on in fashion today for that matter, but that’s another story.
Hailed as the award-winning creator of New York Fashion Week, Fern Mallis has been called an industry titan, fashion doyenne, and the godmother of fashion: “Francisco Costa’s first collections were respectful of the brand, and then, eventually like all designers he brought his own aesthetic to the company and was successful but not enough for the owners.”
Fern continues: “It was a sad day when they let Francisco go. The firing of Raf Simons was no surprise, but he took the entire collection business down with him. Calvin Klein is still one of the most recognizable brand names in the world.”
“Whatever one thinks about what we stand for in terms of being nontraditional, modern, clean that was Zack.” – Calvin Klein
I reached out to George Carr whose late brother Zack Carr was VP of Design at Calvin Klein from 1973-1985 and Chief Creative Director of Calvin Klein Collection from 1987 – 1997. George Carr has served as VP of Retail Branding at Calvin Klein, VP Sales, and Marketing at Calvin Klein Men’s Wear, and VP Retail Branding, Ralph Lauren Women’s Wear. George has a long and emotional connection with the Calvin Klein brand.
Zack was such an integral part of Calvin Klein’s sophisticated, minimal aesthetic, that upon his untimely passing from a rare blood disorder in 2000 at the age of 55, Calvin went on record saying,” Whatever one thinks about what we stand for in terms of being nontraditional, modern, clean — that was Zack.”
In a phone call, George emphasized that long before branding took over with different labels, divisions, and companies, there was one label — Calvin Klein. “It was the collection that created the jeans, the sportswear, the underwear, the fragrances – the brand and the empire. It was not the other way around. The collection imparted this umbrella of chic, cool, contemporary, which made it possible to sell all those other projects. It was that luxe life that allowed the street style.”
“Don’t tell me a designer label is just a loss leader. At its peak, Zack, Susan Sokol, Barry, and Calvin were profitably generating 60 million dollars a year, in the collection. I was brought up with the idea of waste not, want not. If you waste a design, a company, a brand, a label, shame shame shame!” exclaimed Carr.
I agree with George. And, regardless of what is going on in the world right now, we still need good, progressive design, but it must be in sync with the current zeitgeist. Quite frankly, I think a perfect choice to head up the Calvin Klein Collection is Peter Do.
He is an immensely talented 29-year-old Vietnamese American who launched his eponymous label in 2018, www.peterdo.net. Peter showed promise from the beginning. I was so impressed with his Fall 2020 Ready-to-Wear Collection that I wrote about him in “NYFW’s Shiny New Objects.” Peter is a master of tailoring, fabrication, and cut. He uses hardware in inventive ways; he mixes uptown with downtown, high and low. Peter’s accessories are marvelous, and his jean-like pants are top sellers on netaporter.com
In the tradition of Phoebe Philo, Peter’s luxury sportswear collections revolve around the creation of a modern uniform and a new kind of glamour. It is not surprising since Peter worked with Phoebe at Celine. “I learned everything from Phoebe,” said Do, who was one of eight winners of the 2020 LVMH Prize for Young Designers. Due to the pandemic, they divided the prize between all the finalists. Do was the sole American.
Past winners of this prestigious award include Brandon Maxwell, Marine Serre, Marques Almeida. Virgil Abloh was a finalist in 2015. The award does not guarantee future success, but Do is undoubtedly off to a good start.
When Calvin Klein was looking to sell his company, he had hoped a luxury conglomerate would purchase it. Who knows what would have happened had Calvin Klein been bought by LVMH, Kering, or the Prada Group. Perhaps PVH, which has no interest in pursuing a woman’s collection, is not the right fit?
Maybe they should sell Calvin Klein to Amazon?