What Came Between Me and My Calvin

by Michael Gross Photographed by from CALVIN KLEIN by Calvin Klein
Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Beginning in the late 1970s, I was riveted by Calvin Klein‘s fashion advertising. Its overt sexiness always delivered a provocative shock, and it seemed like a breath, no, a wild wind of fresh air.

Forty years later, Calvin Klein by Calvin Klein, the retired designer’s new coffee table book (Rizzoli, $150), arrives at a moment when the cultural pendulum is swinging in new and unpredictable directions. Yet these changing times make Klein’s image projections freshly provocative, even if they no longer titillate in quite the same way his ads did at first glance.

Calvin-the-Book certainly confirms Klein’s status as one of the 20th Century’s great imagicians, photographic patrons, and ad men. And it sanctifies his place in the pantheon of patron saints of the Dionysian decadence and debauchery that sprang from the disco-and-drug culture of the 1970s and persisted until the last century’s end.

The 9.2 pound tome, clad in appropriate matte black, comes with a choice of three covers that hint at, even if they don’t quite cover, the breadth of Calvin’s cultural reach. The oldest cover image is by Bruce Weber, from a men’s underwear ad of the chiseled athlete Tom Hintnaus, posed in 1982 in front of what Klein, in the distilled text, admits is a purposely chosen “large white phallic chimney” on the Greek island of Santorini. It appears to represent the section of the three-part book Klein calls Rebellious. It also checks the gay box. Before Calvin Klein, boys never had it so good.

Next up is model Christy Turlington, the not-quite classically All-American beauty most associated with Klein’s middle years, also photographed by Weber, in the Virgin Islands in 1989. With its blurred background focusing attention on a simply beautiful Calvin coat, it epitomizes part two of the volume: Minimalism. Check the Calvin Clean box.

Finally, there’s the cover sporting a 1993 studio shot by David Sims of Kate Moss, the First Lady of late Calvinism. She’s wearing hip-hugger jeans and holding open her top to show a taut torso and bare bellybutton. Klein calls the third section of the book, a mostly-visual biography, Stories. Here, Moss tells the tale of Calvin’s ‘90s post-rehabilitation re-invention as a two-trick pony. At the time, his main women’s collection courted chic Baby Boomers and working women, but his unisex CK line, with Moss as its face and photographers like Sims and the great Steven Meisel as his visualizers, showed the aging boy wonder could still learn new tricks and court and capture the post-disco generations. Check the grungy Gen-X box.

No surprise, Klein’s thoughts on his bad patches, both personal and professional, are nowhere to be found in his book, despite his opening nod to Vogue’s Anna Wintour for, he writes, inspiring him to “tell my forty-year story.”

But that’s okay. This is one of those rare cases where auto-hagiography is more than satisfying. That’s how good Calvin was. And one can easily find reminders of the naughty bits he leaves out. I’m not at all surprised to find that my work is nowhere to be found among the many little peeks into Calvin’s press clip collection scattered throughout the Stories section. We did not part friends.

I first wrote about Klein’s ads in May 1983 in a photographer’s trade paper, Photo District News, comparing Richard Avedon’s second cycle of TV commercials for Calvin Klein Jeans, which debuted on that year’s Academy Awards show, to terrorism: Calvin didn’t care if you liked him or hated him but he was going to make sure you noticed him. “I’m a non-conformist by nature,” he writes in the Rebellious section introduction. “I’ve always loved taking risks and pushing boundaries, whether the world was ready or not.” Of the Studio 54 era, he notes simply, “I lived that life.” Okay, Calvin, ‘nuff said.

In 1984, I wrote about ads Bruce Weber had just shot to sell Klein’s men’s brief-styled women’s underwear, positing that their appeal hooked into a prevailing current of gender confusion and the ambivalence about sex and sexual identity that accompanied the identification of AIDS and the end of the sexual revolution that had given Calvin and millions of others license to indulge in a decade of Dionysian frolics. “I took things even further,” Klein now notes, coyly.

Soon, I went to work for the New York Times, then still Puritanical and averse to discussions of such subjects. So I rarely wrote about Calvin there, but as a fashion columnist, I did get to know him. I well recall a dinner with him and his brilliant business partner Barry Schwartz at a restaurant called Bice, where he stroked my then-girlfriend’s leg under the table, leaving me wondering whether the gay designer was trying to convince me he was straight (he’d recently taken up with a beautiful studio assistant, Kelly Rector, who’d soon become his second wife, and apparently remains in his life; she’s the first person thanked in the book’s acknowledgments).

Or was he merely trying to live up to his public image as a libertine?

My next stop was New York magazine, where my second cover story, “The Latest Calvin,” reported just after his marriage and a stint at Hazelden, the Minnesota drug rehabilitation clinic, was the first major magazine article to openly speculate on those sort of questions. In the wake of that article, Schwartz pulled Klein’s ads from New York for years, and I was banned from his fashion shows until 1992 when a chilly detente was arranged between us.

It turned out that Kate Moss moment was the creative apogee of Klein’s career. His later attempts at provocation, like Meisel’s 1995 basement porn series for the CK Jeans line (“Call me naïve,” he writes, “but I thought people would view it with a sense of humor”) drew mixed and mostly negative reviews, and the world-shaking ads and photographs had tailed off even before the PVH conglomerate bought Calvin’s name and he withdrew from his business and from fashion.

The evidence of how high and far Calvin Klein flew is clear in this new book, which reminds us, most beautifully, that he was one of the greats and one of the first to understand that fashion is about so much more clothing. His world is far less interesting without him.


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