Calvin Klein

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

  1. 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

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