Calvin Klein became one of the most successful fashion designers by using edgy and sexually provocative marketing to sell his products to ordinary people. The first to recognize the opportunity to sell men’s underwear as a fashion item, he consistently relied on simple designs and luxurious fabrics in all of his clothing lines. Klein also started the designer jeans craze of the 1980s.
Klein, born in 1942 in New York City; he studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology but never earned a degree. He essentially learned the clothing business by spending five years as a designer in the New York City garment industry. Eager to break out on his own, Klein collaborated with an old friend, Barry Schwartz, to form Calvin Klein, Inc., on December 28, 1967. Schwartz provided the financing and received half of the business, while Klein contributed his creative skills.
Klein revealed his first collection to buyers in March 1968. The entire set, aimed at women, consisted of six coats and three dresses. The buyer for Bonwit Teller, a high-end retailer, was impressed by the purity of Klein’s lines and simplicity of the designs. She decided to take the risk of using Klein’s designs as the centerpiece for the Miss Bonwit salon in 1968. The move gave Klein enormous exposure and helped ensure the success of his company.
In the next few years, Klein’s styles evolved from coats and suits to sportswear. Yet he continued to produce simple pieces in luxurious fabrics, commonly using the color of chocolate brown. He did not venture into a wide use of color until the 1974 collection. Klein’s signature coat, the pea coat, always made it into the collection. In 1973, Klein cemented his reputation as a designer of considerable note by winning the first of three Coty American Fashion Critics Awards. By this time, Calvin Klein products could be found in over 1,000 stores.
Klein and Schwartz wanted to expand their business but they decided upon an unusual growth strategy. Knowing that if people could not have it, then they would want it even more, the two men decided to reduce the number of places where Calvin Klein could be found. They cut the number of locations by half in
- They aimed to sell in only 300 of the most elite stores by 1976, while also raising the quality of the fabric used in the products. Klein stopped using polyester entirely.
At the same time, Klein and Schwartz decided to license the use of the Calvin Klein name to clothing manufacturers. Licensing had just become a new stream of revenue for designers in the 1970s. Without start-up costs and enormous financial risks, licensing proved an efficient and cost-effective way for the designer to expand his empire quickly. The Klein company completed its first licensing deal with the furrier Alixandre. The logic was that if Klein was designing eveningwear, he had to give his customers something to wear on top of the gowns and dresses. Deals quickly followed with Omega for belts, Mespo for umbrellas, and Vogue Butterick for patterns. This growth and diversity took the company from being Calvin Klein Ltd. to being Calvin Klein Industries.
In 1974, Klein printed his logo on t-shirts for the use and amusement of staffers at his company. He could not imagine anyone wearing his name, but the logo soon became in hot demand. It eventually appeared on shirts, jeans, and underwear, making Klein the first company to combine brand advertising with style. The Calvin Klein name eventually became so iconic that it was featured in a joke about underwear in the 1985 film Back to the Future.”
Calvin Klein jeans became the brand that led the designer jeans craze of the late 1970s and 1980s. More than 20,000 pairs were sold right out of the gate in 1978. To support the image of Calvin Klein jeans, the company embarked on its first advertising campaign. Klein advertisements would become famous for pushing the edge of acceptability. The first Klein billboard in Times Square featured model Patti Hansen in a sexual and highly controversial pose. In 1980, sexually provocative advertisements featuring 15-year-old actress Brooke Shields were created by longtime fashion photographer Richard Avedon. Shields famously said in a commercial, “Do you know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” In the week following the debut of the advertisements, the company sold 400,000 pairs of jeans. The Calvin Klein image—edgy, clever, sexual, and usually controversial—was born.
Klein believed that a designer who designed for men should do everything for them. Men’s underwear had long been a staple product that was sold three to a pack, typically at a promotional price. In 1982, Klein began selling boxer shorts, bikinis, and t-shirts in Bloomingdale’s. The store was considered the best testing ground for new men’s items. Realizing that women purchased most men’s underwear, Klein aimed its advertisements at women. The strategy proved enormously successful as posters featuring former Olympic pole-vaulter Tim Hintinaus reclining in nothing but his Calvins were stolen from bus shelters across the country.
In 1984, Klein began selling women’s underwear. Klein based his idea of modern underwear for women on men’s designs. In the collection, he included briefs, bikinis, string bikinis, and boxer shorts, all with a fly. The company originally projected sales of $18 million to $20 million for the first year. Ultimately, underwear racked up sales of $70 million in 1984, based in part on typically sexy Calvin Klein advertising.
Klein sold his company to Phillips-Van Heusen in early 2003. The 700-person subsidiary is headed by Paul Thomas Murry and had revenues of more than $5 billion in 2007. The founder, who initially remained as creative director, no longer has any involvement with the firm bearing his name.v