The Freckle-faced Kid They Call Calvin 'clean' Is King of Seventh Avenue
He's known as Calvin "Clean" on Seventh Avenue, the sensible, white bucks kid from the Bronx who turned the Calvin Klein label into a $17 million fashion giant.
"Sure, I know what I want," Klein, 32, says, "and I go after it. I don't think you can create out of being neurotic. The mad Van Gogh bit doesn't work."
Out of this clear-headed approach have come Calvin Klein boutiques in top department stores across the country, where his medium-priced line ranges from evening clothes to T-shirts. This month, after winning a prestigious Coty fashion award two years in a row, he will be installed as the youngest member in Coty's Hall of Fame.
Not all his competitors are cheering Seventh Avenue's newest Número Uno. "There's not a brilliant design idea in his head, but he knows how to make money," says one rival. "He's Godfather III," says fashion illustrator Joe Eula. "There was Chanel. Then the rip-offs of her. Now he's ripping them off." Klein has plenty of admirers, of course, who call him the American St. Laurent. Their praise is not only extravagant, it misses the point. Klein's forte is handsome mass-produced fashions, aimed at the active woman rather than the superstar.
"I'm not interested in the women on the Best Dressed List," he explains. "I just want to make soft clothes women will be comfortable in, that work well." For Klein, "fabrics should be soft, clothes not heavily constructed, so that the body takes over and lets the personality come through." According to the fashion press, Klein's latest collection is his best ever. Leading off its September issue with three pages of Klein, Vogue says: "If you were around a hundred years from now and wanted a definitive picture of the American look in 1975, you'd study Calvin Klein." Vogue describes a typical Klein black ensemble of skirt, skinny coat and cowl neck sweater as "the best basic look in fashion today."
Basics are what Klein believes fashion is all about. And so from the time he made a schoolboy decision to be a fashion designer, he set his stars by France's Coco Chanel ("She really started it all") and Claire McCardell ("She invented sportswear in this country in the '40s"). A graduate of New York's Fashion Institute of Technology, Klein borrowed $10,000 from a high school pal, Barry Schwartz (now his partner)to create his first collection. He then finagled an appointment with Bon-wit Teller's president, Mildred Custin, and wheeled in his whole array. "I immediately ordered $100,000 worth," Custin recalls. "But before he left I told him, you'd better raise your prices or you'll go broke."
On the contrary, by keeping prices moderate and volume high, Klein has nearly doubled his volume in the past year. An obsessive worker whose regular day is 13 hours, he does not sleep for four full days before presenting a new collection. "It's like being on drugs," he exclaims, "an incredible high." The frantic pace has also brought downers, including two years on a psychoanalyst's couch and the end of his marriage to his design school sweetheart, Jayne, two years ago. (No matter how busy, Klein finds time to go horseback riding and sailing with his daughter, Marci, 8.)
Unlike some designers, Klein does not have one ideal customer. "She can be any age, 20 to 60," he says. "Someone who is not into fads, has a good figure, and wants clothes that make sense for her way of life." Pants, he says, will stay in style. What's out—for Klein at least—is nostalgia: "If one of my designs is '30s or '40s, even if it looks good, I ditch it. I really want it to be '70s."
This fall that means soft, clingy panne velvet jumpsuits, crepe de chine shirts worn as jackets and reefer coats. All cling to the figure, which is Klein's first rule of design. "How can you convince a woman who starves herself dieting that she shouldn't show her shape?" he asks. His second rule is aimed at the women who wear his clothes: "Never try to look like a fashion editorial. Don't add that last piece of jewelry."
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