Superstar Success Fitting Calvin Klein to a Tee : Designer of Jeans, Obsession Fragrance Is Having a ‘Once-in-a-Decade’ Year

United Press International

Calvin Klein, thin, rich, fashionably dressed-down in pink T-shirt and khakis (not his own designs), his face its usual ruddy “high color,” is sitting on the back porch of his spectacular, albeit rented, hilltop house. He is talking about fame.

“I like it. I enjoy it. There is no question,” he says politely but with emphasis, as the Asian couple who care for the estate serve him coffee.

Klein’s celebrity started 20 years ago when he was 25, and it exploded in the 1970s and 1980s, fueled by the sexiest ad campaigns in the world, for Calvin Klein jeans, for men’s underwear for women, for the Obsession fragrance.

Earlier this year, Klein’s name exploded again and were it not for the attention showered on Christian Lacroix, the French couture designer who has taken the fashion world by storm, Klein would again have been the man in the spotlight.

Still, this is one of Calvin Klein’s biggest years. After a serious slump in the denim business and severe losses, jeans are back in style, bringing in a reported $250 million a year. Obsession, the fragrance Klein introduced in 1985, is rivaling Giorgio, the nation’s No. 1 scent, and is responsible for a reported $150 million in annual retail sales.


Klein’s fall designer clothes collection was his most successful, with orders reportedly topping $30 million. A single minisuit, featuring Klein’s trademark simplicity, sexiness and no-frills wearability, is the most-photographed and best-selling suit of 1987.

“This has been a really good year,” the soft-spoken Klein said, refusing a second cup of coffee. “Incredible. It’s very unusual when you get the press and you get the stores and you get the clients, women, who all want the same thing.”

Cover of Newsweek

Hesitating for a second, he adds, “Maybe it’s once every 10 years when all of a sudden everyone just thinks it’s a knockout.” Ten years ago, Klein made the cover of Newsweek as the nation’s premier designer-superstar.

But Klein is more than a fashion designer and celebrity. He is a businessman who has, with partner and childhood pal Barry Schwartz, built an empire with annual retail sales, according to industry sources, in excess of $1 billion. Klein’s annual income is reportedly $15 million.

The legendary key to Klein’s success is “the relationship I have with Barry,” Klein said.

Schwartz, 45, is a dapper man with a passion for race horses. He is a family man who loves the country as Klein loves the city and is as private as Klein is public. In business, he has a reputation for toughness and even Klein admits Schwartz “can be very emotional” and “can really lose his cool.”

“There have been things said about Barry, you know,” Klein said, “about his being tough. His job, one of his roles, is to be the tough one, to be supportive of me. There are so many situations, I shouldn’t be specific about it, but he has to be tough.”

If Klein were to go down in history right now, he would be remembered as the king of the sexual sell. Who can forget Brooke Shields, then 15, in a TV commercial saying that nothing came between her and her Calvins. And the provocative pseudo-orgy in the ads for Obsession that began in 1985.

But the real Klein, who has consistently said he is selling products that are sexy “in a creative way,” isn’t a salesman for sexuality. He is a barometer of the times.

In His Trademark Suit

In his sparely furnished garment center office, Klein, now dressed up in his trademark Savile Row suit, wire-rimmed glasses in hand, sits on a couch. He has just returned from lunch with Meshulam Riklis, the corporate tycoon who is married to singer Pia Zadora.

“As I said to Riklis today, I’m projecting where America will be, what people will be thinking in the next five years,” Klein said. “So I try to think, ‘What’s happened after the sexual revolution?’ After, with AIDS, with people now being afraid of having sex with a lot of people, thinking about romance and thinking about commitment. . . .

“I’m thinking about all of those things and I apply them to everything I do, I apply that to my fabrics, to my color, to my silhouettes,” he continued in his low-key, analytical way. “Believe me, if I’m thinking the country is more romantic,” he said, “then the clothes are going to look more romantic. I think one of the reasons for real short skirts is that everyone isn’t going around, isn’t having sex the way they were in the 1970s. They were wearing long skirts and looking like they’d never had sex at all. They were looking dowdy. Now everyone’s trying to look hot and they can’t do it.”

Klein has consistently understood the trends because he lives them. The designer jeans craze, which has become a symbol of the sexual revolution, coincided with the wild life Klein was said to lead at the time. In fact, designer jeans were born at 4 a.m. at the notorious Studio 54 discotheque in 1977 when a Puritan Fashions executive suggested the idea to him.

But as the trends turn, so does Klein.

When he introduces a new fragrance this spring, something he has kept secret for some time, there will be no nude bodies, no suggestive photographs, no hanky-panky. The new scent, which Klein has worked on for more than a year, will be called Eternity.

Instead of conversations at discos, Eternity is inspired, says Klein, by the eternity ring he bought for his second wife, Kelly Rector, 31, a former design assistant.

Riding the Sedate Wave

And just as Klein enjoyed his reputation during the disco days, he now enjoys riding the sedate wave. He has sold his summer homes in Key West, Fla., and the Pines on Fire Island, two communities known for anything but sedate life styles, and headed for the moneyed establishment of East Hampton.

The names that Klein drops now are billionaire financiers or captains of industry like Riklis, Revlon’s Ronald Perelman and junk-bond whiz Michael Milkin, not Steve Rubell, the charismatic former owner of Studio 54 who was jailed for tax evasion. Nowadays, what Klein admires about Mick Jagger is that he’s a good father. Instead of modern art, he said he is buying Greek antiquities.

But perhaps the greatest testament to changing times is Klein’s marriage to Rector in September, 1986. The two, who were together four years, were married in Italy in a ceremony attended by two close friends and far more reporters.

“There was so much speculation,” Klein said incredulously. “I don’t know why people are so interested in what I do . . . I kept saying to Kelly, ‘This is really nuts.’ ”

The speculation was, of course, about Klein’s changing course, a course that he will ultimately translate into clothes and fragrances.

“I’m older,” Klein said in a near whisper. “I don’t have the strength and I’ve done it. I mean I’ve stayed up all night and I’ve done that whole routine, when I’ve partied. I’ve come to work after not sleeping many times. I’ve experienced a hell of a lot more than most people would experience and you know, that’s not what interests me anymore.”

Klein designs from the 10th floor of a dingy building on a typically dreary garment center street, crowded with clothing racks and lined with coffee shops and trimmings stores. He oversees a team of six assistants headed up by creative director Grace Coddington, formerly of British Vogue, who reports to Klein on the designer collection and the licensees.

Busiest Time of the Year

The four weeks before a designer collection, which is done four times a year, are Klein’s busiest. A typical collection consists of 95 outfits, edited down from 400 patterns culled from 3,000 sketches. Two assistants sketch full time based on ideas from the team. Klein has final say, but he is not as religious as he was 20 years ago when he sat in on every fitting.

“At this point in my life,” he admits, “it’s not life or death with each collection.”

Klein has, however, thrown himself into the lucrative fragrance business. Because his biggest failure was the makeup line he launched in 1978, which included a signature Calvin Klein fragrance, he was passionate about developing Obsession, from the hiring of top-talent Robin Burns and inventing the concept down to overseeing the print ads and commercials.

“There was no way this was not going to be a big hit,” Klein said firmly. “I would do anything that I could possibly do to make this a big success, including selling the damn stuff myself, so I went around the country.”

Throughout his career Klein has essentially maintained an all-American viewpoint in his clothes. Whether the “big look” of 1977, the “men’s wear look” of 1984, the sexy silver lace slip dresses for next spring, the calf-length handkerchief linen clothes in 1981, the bold ankle coats of 1985, or the first 1968 collection of little A-line mini-dresses, Klein’s clothes are simple, clean and chic.

He dislikes frills and usually even jewelry. When he bought his wife pearls from the Duchess of Windsor’s famous collection recently, he commented that it was odd because “I don’t often show jewelry with the clothes.” He is considered famous for making designer clothes young. His are for the young rich like Bianca Jagger, not elderly society matrons.

But the biggest money-maker in the Klein-Schwartz empire is not expensive designer dresses but blue jeans. Jeans are the mainstay of the Puritan Fashions Corp., the company’s largest division, which has reported annual sales of $450 million.

Calvin Klein Industries also includes the designer collection, the moderate Classics line, which reportedly will be dropped, casual sportswear for younger women, and licensees for fragrances, hosiery, coats, shoes and women’s sleepwear.

Fiercely Private

And unlike fashion empires such as Liz Claiborne Inc., which has gone public, Calvin Klein Industries has remained fiercely private. From Klein’s impeccably glamorous personal appearance to the company’s masterfully crafted and provocative public image, control is the key. Last April, Klein and Schwartz bought back their men’s wear business from Bidermann Industries, USA. Right now, Klein and Schwartz, according to a statement, “may determine to seek control of Minnetonka,” the $163 million company that produces Klein’s blockbuster fragrance. They even control their advertising in-house, in private, backed by a budget reported to be the industry’s highest, $30 million, $17 million for Obsession alone.

Klein was born in November, 1942, in the Bronx. His father was in the grocery business; his mother a housewife. Both parents still live in New York and remain close to Klein. Indeed, for the most important decision of his early life, not to go into the supermarket business with best friend Schwartz in 1964, he credits his father.

“I knew that my father would say, ‘You go with Barry into this business because my father was in the same business.’ Instead, my mother didn’t say a word and my father said, ‘You know, you’ve been studying and you’re drawing. I spent two years on Seventh Avenue. You’ll hate yourself the rest of your life if you don’t give yourself the opportunity to see if you can be a success at what you’ve wanted to do.’ ”

Klein describes himself as “sketching when I was 5 years old,” “always interested in art and visual things,” and having had little spare time for other childhood pursuits. He graduated from New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology in 1962 and spent five unhappy years working for various manufacturers on Seventh Avenue.

“I used to go home every night and take aspirins,” he said.

The subsequent step in Klein’s career is fashion legend. After losing his last Seventh Avenue job because he was working on his own collection at night, he went into the coat and suit business with Schwartz in 1967 with Schwartz’s now legendary $10,000 loan.

Schwartz originally had asked Klein to join him in the supermarket business in 1964 after Schwartz’s father was murdered during a robbery attempt. In 1967, the supermarket was ransacked during the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Schwartz, who knew nothing about clothes, decided to leave the business to back his best friend. One day, while the two were working round-the-clock in a cramped room in the York Hotel, Donald O’Brien, then a vice president at Bonwit Teller, rode an elevator that accidently stopped on Klein’s floor. He saw the first collection of six coats and three dresses, actually made of unchic polyester, and liked what he saw. The pricey specialty store eventually placed a $50,000 order. Schwartz’s comment at the time was, “What’s Bonwit Teller?”

Youngest Coty Winner

The business grew quickly. Just two years later, in 1970, Klein and Schwartz leased the garment center offices where they are today. In 1973, at 32, Klein became the youngest designer to win the Coty Award, then the Oscar of the fashion industry.

About the same time, in the early 1970s, they held their first fashion show, for about $10,000, which Klein describes as “a mess.” The music stopped halfway through the show, he said, and he had to cut across the runway, in front of the crowds of editors and buyers, to fix the stereo equipment.

Unlike other designers, Klein today holds his show, at a cost exceeding $1 million, not in a big auditorium but in his cramped showroom, making it the hottest ticket in town. “We turn down hundreds of requests,” a company spokesman said.

“I’ve done those big shows and you’re just putting on shows,” Klein explains, referring to the Europeans in particular. “The clothes are not really important. It’s the theatrics that are attached to it that become important.”

Nevertheless, snob appeal is what counts. The front-row seats are reserved for the three publications Klein caters to--Women’s Wear Daily, the New York Times, Vogue--and powerful executives from Bloomingdale’s, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Bergdorf Goodman, glamorous women like Bianca Jagger, Blaine Trump and Faye Dunaway, along with his daughter, Marci, 21, and his parents.

In 1964, Klein married Jayne Centre, a textile designer. The two were divorced 10 years later because “we were growing in different ways,” Klein said. Centre has not remarried and still lives in New York City. Their daughter, Marci, lives with her mother although Klein says he and his first wife are friends and he is known as a devoted father.

By 1978, Klein and Schwartz occupied three floors in a building on 39th Street off Seventh Avenue and had annual retail sales of a reported $100 million. The same year, Klein was the first to put his name on blue jeans, selling a record 200,000 pairs a day. He introduced jockey shorts for women in 1983. They reportedly sold $70 million that first year.

“He has a sense of fashion, a sense of merchandising, a sense of marketing, and a taste level that is today and tomorrow,” says Bernard Ozer, a leading industry consultant. “Very few people have that kind of vision. And it was combustible at that particular time.”

Sensed the Shift

But Klein was riding a wave far more significant. Women were going back to work in droves and wanted sportswear, not coats and suits. In a brilliant move, Klein sensed the shift.

“I wanted to do sportswear because I saw that this was not a trend,” Klein insists. “This was the future.”

The stage was set for Klein to become the first designer-superstar, something many said happened around 1978.

Fame suits the superstar designer just fine. He loves to talk. He loves attention. He is charismatic. “I’m shy when I’m around just a couple of people,” he says. “But I’m not shy if I’m speaking at a university or if I’m on television.”

But fame has had its dark side, too. Klein recently had trouble buying a cooperative apartment in New York City. The cooperative boards treat him as they have Richard Nixon and Madonna--they turn him down.

And asked about the 4-year-old rumor that he is suffering from AIDS, he is expectedly firm and says, “That was years ago. I’m fine obviously.”

The most difficult question, though, concerns the kidnapping of his daughter in 1978.

“It was a nightmare,” he says. “I mean, it’s worse than knowing someone’s dead, not knowing at all.”

Marci Klein, now a junior at an Ivy League university, was kidnaped by a mother’s helper of Klein’s and two accomplices and held for $100,000 ransom. During the harrowing escapade, Klein was himself in serious danger. He had a gun put to his head by FBI agents who mistook him for a kidnaper. He accidently delivered the ransom money to the wrong apartment and the worst part, he says, was that the New York Daily News had been following him and possibly endangering his and his daughter’s lives.

Then, rumors spread, as they seem to do around Klein, that he had engineered the debacle himself.

The ‘Worst Experience’

“Let me tell you,” he said nervously, “they put me through maybe the worst experience of my life.” The authorities interrogated Klein until “I was literally hysterical,” he said emotionally. “I became hysterical because I felt terrible guilt. They started asking me questions like, ‘Who’s her doctor?’ questions that I didn’t have the answers to because she wasn’t living with me and I suddenly felt very guilty.”

Klein is enormously charismatic and good-looking, characteristics some insiders say are hardly accidental.

He is very conscious of his appearance, visiting a dermatologist regularly to have silicone injections to keep his skin smooth and to ward off wrinkles. He works out five days a week with Radu, the hottest celebrity personal trainer on the East Coast, in a gym he built in his Manhattan penthouse. Like Woody Allen, he has been in therapy for years.