The name Calvin Klein may have become synonymous with images of Mark Wahlberg in tight white boxer briefs or Brooke Shields posing provocatively in jeans, but the designer’s impact on fashion runs much deeper than his controversial advertising. Calvin Klein, more than any other designer, pioneered a brand of highly sensual and inimitably American minimalism in fashion, heavily influencing everything from the popular grunge and hip hop styles of the 1980s and ’90s to minimalist evening dressing and workwear for women well into the current day. Calvin Klein is also one of the first American designers to become a household name, bringing fashion to the masses and shaping the cultural Zeitgeist in his home country and around the world.
The Beginning: Calvin Klein and Minimalism
Calvin Klein launched his label with a line of classic, simple coats and sportswear for women in 1968, winning the Coty American Fashion Critics Award in 1974, 1975, and 1976. His early designs are marked by classic cuts and tailoring and emphasize the ability of clean, minimal lines to create a sexy silhouette. Speaking about his early designs to Vanity Fair in 2008, Klein remarked: “I thought American women needed to be more streamlined.” Indeed, in contrast to some of the more decadent trends and collections of the ’70s and ’80s, Calvin Klein’s early collections show the world the challenge and reward of restraint and simplicity in dressing.
Jeans, Underwear, and the Mainstream
In the late 1970s and 1980s, Calvin Klein extended his foray in minimalism to include the most basic of All-American wardrobe items: jeans and underwear. He radically transformed the marketing of blue jeans and later simple white briefs with sexualized celebrity advertising that took style cues from popular hip hop and street culture. Its popularity was unmistakable. The January 18, 1982 issue of “People Magazine” cited Calvin Klein’s sales projections for that same year as 72 million dollars globally. As his success continued he helped usher in the grunge aesthetic in the 1990s, popularizing male-style underwear and basic T-shirts and jeans for women by using androgynous models to sell unisex clothes and fragrances.
Calvin Klein and ’90s Glamour
Calvin Klein’s influence was undoubtedly also felt in the higher echelons of fashion. His restrained minimalism translated into marvelously simple A-line silk slip dresses that worn with lipstick and heels, like the one donned by Gwyneth Paltrow at the 1996 Oscars, one of InStyle.com’s “200 Celebrity Looks We Love.” Stars like Paltrow, and supermodels like Carolyn Murphy and Christy Turlington wore Calvin Klein in the ’90s and early 2000s, pioneering the confident, unfussy glamour that epitomized his designs. Today beloved young actresses like Emma Stone, Rooney Mara and Jessica Chastain continue to carry the torch as they appear front-row at Calvin Klein fashion shows and frequently wear Calvin Klein on the red carpet.
The Impact of Controversial Advertising and Photography
Though Calvin Klein’s advertising campaigns fueled public controversy over the ways in which it portrayed women and oversexualized youth and hinted at drug culture, it also sold millions of dollars worth of products by promoting a relaxed, slightly rebellious and sexualized attitude attractive and seductive to young Americans looking for an alternative to the excess of the ’80s. The attitude was in step with values ascribed by popular movies and music of the era and was a defining element of 1990s American culture.
Calvin Klein, through these ad campaigns, also gave a space to talented, up-and-coming fashion photographers like Richard Avedon and Bruce Weber to play with a simpler, less stylized and more down-to-earth, sensual aesthetic in fashion editorials. The photographs and campaigns that emerged from the creative license that Calvin Klein offered are some of the most memorable and iconic in recent fashion history, and have continued to influence fashion shoots since, including Weber’s recent campaigns for Abercrombie and Fitch and an October 2012 “Vogue” magazine shoot that staged model Kate Upton in classic Klein-influenced ensembles.
Calvin Klein Today
Though Calvin Klein sold his business and relinquished design responsibilities and his relationship to the brand in the early 2003, the fashion house of Calvin Klein today doesn’t stray far from its minimalist heritage. Led by designer Francisco Costa, the label produces consistently restrained, but innovative and sensual collections for women that are lauded for being what Andre Leon Talley called Costa’s Spring/Summer 2012 Calvin Klein collection in Vogue: “a tour de force of new romance.”
References and ResourcesVoguepedia: Calvin Klein (Brand)
Voguepedia: Calvin Klein (Designer)
Vanity Fair: Calvin to the Core
The Independent: Fashion: Calvin Klein
The New York Times: The Calvinist Ethic
In Style: Gwyneth Paltrow in Calvin Klein, 1996
People Magazine: King of Clothes
Vogue: Andre Leon Talley on Calvin Klein
Vogue: Kate Upton the New Girl