Calvin Klein, obsessed with success

New book explores designer's rise from the Bronx to become global brand name

November 09, 2003|By Greg Morago | Greg Morago,THE HARTFORD COURANT

It had to have been a bittersweet moment when Calvin Klein recently watched his spring 2004 collection hit the runway during Fashion Week in New York.

It wasn't his. Neither was the company that bears his name.

Klein watched as the brand he built trotted out the first collection by Francisco Costa, an ex-Gucci designer who now heads Calvin Klein's women's collection. That's because last year Klein sold his company to Phillips-Van Heusen for $438 million, effectively ending the rags-to-rag-trade-riches story of a Bronx boy who became an icon of American fashion.

That story is chronicled in The House of Klein: Fashion, Controversy and a Business Obsession by Lisa Marsh (Wiley, $24.95), which landed on the book shelves at the same time that all eyes were on the House of Klein (timing, especially in fashion, is everything).

Marsh, a respected fashion/business reporter, takes readers through the distinctly American journey of a designer who went from making $55 a week designing dresses to the head of a global brand with annual sales estimated at $3 billion. While Marsh's book is clearly a business biography, The House of Klein is studded with tidbits sure to delight fashion followers. (The man who made Obsession was obsessed with details. Workers could use only black paper clips; only white calla lilies were allowed in the reception areas; only white orchids in offices; no talking in the elevators. And, the cream: To make sure he would get the right mix of coffee and milk, he placed a Pantone color swatch on the wall of the office kitchen.)

Klein, it comes as no surprise, refused to be interviewed by Marsh. But the writer has turned in an informative and readable history of the business that is Calvin Klein. We spoke to Marsh recently:

This is a business biography, and as such it's not weighted down by celebrity gossip. But it's still pretty juicy. Did you have to walk a line between wanting to present a true picture of the business of Calvin Klein and dishing the dirt of the man Calvin Klein?

It was super challenging. There are certainly things I talked about that were personal. He's a personality and he's lent his name, and a lot of what he believes in, to his company. The most negative comments I've heard about the book have been that you don't get a sense of Calvin Klein, the person. And I don't know if that's a bad thing.

It was challenging, for sure, not to talk about the personal. The first thing people want to know is who's sleeping with whom, who was drunk where. I could write a whole other book based on what people told me. That wasn't my book. The story of Calvin Klein the company is sexy enough.

You enraged Klein by asking him to sit for interviews. Is he that much of a control freak? What was he afraid of?

I think that he was not sure what kind of book I was going to write. Initially, he was defensive based on not knowing. I also think he's got a sense of "I am this person, how dare you try this in my environment." I don't know.

He comes off as a man of contradictions. Someone so talented and smart, yet he repeatedly brought his company to the brink. He wanted the trappings of celebrity, but he actually felt trapped by them.

He is frustrated. He has tried to create this whole Calvin Klein lifestyle. The fact that everyone knows him for his jeans and underwear is frustrating to him, because he has such a high level of taste and sensibilities.

Working at the company was, in the words of one Seventh Avenue observer, a snakepit. Is this unusual in the rag trade or was CK especially viperous?

Every place that has a name designer has some degree of that. I'm sure it goes on at Donna Karan, at Ralph Lauren, at Tommy Hilfiger. When you have someone who has created a company in their image, they want it reflected in all ways. That might mean you have to cut your hair in a certain way, wear certain kinds of clothing and do as I say.

Speaking of which, Carolyn Bessette, who worked at Calvin Klein, figures in the book as someone very influential in the company.

She was working after college in the Calvin Klein store in Boston when one of the executives said, "You've got this great girl in Boston, you have to bring her down to New York." I think it was David Geffen who said, "Why is she not doing PR? Why is she not in the forefront of the company?" So she was moved into public relations. She was certainly a beautiful woman who knew herself and knew how to dress, specifically, the way she wore Calvin Klein. The way she put things together was inspirational to them. She embodied the Calvin Klein look: that tall, slender blonde, long and lean. That was the thing Calvin Klein had ascribed to his entire life. People in PR started resembling Carolyn Bessette. In PR, the longer they were there, the more they started looking like her.

Let's talk about Calvin Klein the brand. What is the legacy of Calvin Klein? Is it the actual clothing or the image that the marketing and advertising created?

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