Throughout the 20th century, there are numerous designers that are credited to having defined the look of a certain decade. For the 1920’s, Chanel is hailed as the queen of fashion, creating the relaxed “flapper” looks that freed women from constricting silhouettes. For the 1950’s, Dior’s ‘New Look’ shape dominated women’s wardrobes, evoking a sense of elegance and refinement both the decade and the fashion label have stood for all these years. And one can’t think of the 1980’s without the exuberance and the eroticism of Gianni Versace. As for the 1990’s, many have given that decade to one American name: Calvin Klein.
A major trend of the 1990’s was minimalism, the first roundabout of that popular aesthetic. Calvin Klein defined the classic minimalism of the 90’s, offering simply-designed but well-made staples from white shirts to classic jeans. Although they were simple, his designs were far from ordinary, and mostly had a subversiveness to them that was both mysterious and sexy. From his minimal look, and paired with his revolutionary and often controversial advertising, he built an empire that reached its pinnacle in the 1990’s, thereby defining the look of the decade. To this day, in the history of the industry, one can’t disassociate Calvin Klein from the final decade of the 20th century.
The brand started out as a coat shop in New York City’s York Hotel, named “Calvin Klein Limited” in 1968. The store gained so much popularity that in September of 1969, Klein was featured on the cover of Vogue. From coats, suits, and dresses, the label eventually branched out into sportswear and underwear, which are what a lot of people know Calvin Klein for nowadays. In the 1970’s, his menswear collections won him the coveted Coty American Fashion Critics Award for three consecutive years, from 1973-1975. During this time, he also ventured into cosmetics, denim, and fragrance line, coming up with now-iconic adverts for them.
The 1990’s saw what is arguably the height of the label and the designer’s success. Calvin Klein had become one of the top American fashion brands in the luxury business, regularly offering products that were met with both critical and commercial success. Klein was even named the “Best Designer of America” in 1992, surpassing fellow US fashion heavyweights, Ralph Lauren and Diane Von Furstenberg. By the late 90’s and early 2000’s, various luxury holdings companies have expressed interest in acquiring the the company, mainly because of their strong licensing. It was eventually bought in 2002 by the Phillips Van Heusen Corporation.
Designers Who Have Kept the Label Alive
In 2003, as part of the changed brought forth by the Phillip Van Heusen Corp. Brazilian-born designer Francisco Costa became the creative director of Calvin Klein womenswear, one of the company’s premier lines. Simultaneously, Italian designer Italo Zucchelli headed menswear, while British designer Kevin Carrigan designed for the label’s multiple subsidiary lines. For more than a decade or so, these designers helped keep the brand alive and as a key figure in the New York Fashion scene. All of them eventually exited the label in 2016, replaced by Belgian-born designer Raf Simons and his team, overseeing all design aspects of the company, including advertising. Since his debut in Fall 2017, Simons brought more prominence to an already well-established fashion label.
Similarly to another American fashion retail giant, Ralph Lauren, Calvin Klein also ventured into other territories within the garment industry, giving birth to its numerous and iconic subsidiary lines. It is widely-accepted that his Calvin Klein jeans, established in the 1980’s, created a hysteria for designer-label jeans, which to this day is still very much a strong trend. His underwear line also made waves, becoming staple pieces especially for men’s wardrobes. His diffusion line, ck Calvin Klein, offers expertly-designed ready-to-wear at more affordable price points, as well as a line of fine watches and jewelry.
Power of Advertising
If there’s one thing that helped Calvin Klein stand out since the 1980’s, it’s their ingenious advertising. A number of famous and iconic personalities have fronted the brand and its many products, from the jeans and underwear lines, to their man fragrances. In the 1980’s, the label released what is arguably the most infamous and most controversial string of TV adverts in both the history of American pop culture and the fashion industry. The label featured a suggestive Brooke Shields, who at that time was only in her teens, seducing the audience member about her “Calvins”, referring to her Calvin Klein jeans.
A decade later, in 1992, their underwear line featured a topless Mark “Marky Mark” Wahlberg and Kate Moss caressing each other on a TV commercial for the subsidiary lines. It was around this time that the company’s marketing became a high point in fashion, creating iconic images and TV spots, as well as launching the careers of various supermodels. Kate Moss was also featured in the ad campaign for the label’s Obsession scent, which has since become one of the most iconic images of the supermodel and for the brand. Among the bevy of runway superstars dominating that decade, Christy Turlington was the label’s most famous muse, often appearing in fragrance TV campaigns for scents like Eternity.
Although the designer and brand are closely-associated with the 1990’s, what they did before and after have change the course of the industry forever. To this day, Calvin Klein remains to be one of the best-selling brands and one of the most successful American fashion empires in the world.