Calvin Klein: Who Is the Man Behind The Iconic Clothing Label?

The infamous Calvin Klein is known for a wide range of clothing lines that includes ladies’ and men’s apparel, denim and underwear along with high-profile, stunning ads.

Klein first studied fashion in New York City and apprenticed for a suit manufacturer. And then in 1968, he and Barry Schwartz opened their own company. Schwartz ran the business side of things and Klein was responsible for design and artistic vision.

calvin klein: who is the man behind the iconic clothing label?
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Initially, the label was initially recognized for suits and coats, but Klein’s sportswear line quickly rose in popularity. He received three Coty Awards for womenswear and the business eventually expanded to include menswear, jeans, cosmetics, fragrances and home collections.

And while he sold the company in 2003, Klein continues to be a driving force behind model/celebrity-oriented ads that have become iconic parts of pop culture.

Born on November 19, 1942, in the Bronx, New York, Calvin Richard Klein was the middle child of two siblings. His father, who was originally from Hungary, owned a family grocery store in Harlem while his mother was a homemaker who adored visiting her divorced mother’s tailoring shop. And as you can imagine, this is where Klein’s love of clothes and design began. He began working on fashion sketches as a young child and eventually attended the High School of Industrial Arts and the Art Students League. He went on to graduate from the Fashion Institute of Technology in 1963.

calvin klein: who is the man behind the iconic clothing label?
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But before he started his own label, Klein worked a variety of industry jobs. Then, in 1968, he and his childhood friend Barry Schwartz became business partners. And when Schwartz took over his own family grocery business, he gave Klein $10,000 to start the label. Klein rented a small showroom and was later able to secure a deal with the department store Bonwit Teller after meeting one of his buyers. And by the early ‘70s, Klein was able to secure millions in sales thanks to the exposure.

While he originally solely focused on women’s coats, he ventured into lady’s apparel that could be mixed and matched, creating a minimalist, streamlined look. In that same decade, he dove into menswear and jeans and became a major staple in the denim market. He would hire fellow fashion icons to help shape his vision, with some crediting former Vogue editor Francis Stein as being influence behind the Calvin Klein brand’s famous sensuality. And by the 1980s, Klein’s brand was also known for underwear and luxurious perfumes and colognes and later, the label embraced a future into home apparel.

calvin klein: who is the man behind the iconic clothing label?
Image via Shutterstock

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Things took a sour turn in the 90s when the company had major financial difficult but was eventually bailed out by friend, David Geffen

In 2003, Klein and Schwartz sold their company (thanks to their established array of licensing agreements) to Phillips-Van Heusen Corporation for $430 million in cash and stock along with a limited royalty deal. As of 2016, Raf Simons has been appointed chief creative officer for Calvin Klein the brand, serving as the unified head of its divisions.

Klein has garnered worldwide attention for their ad campaigns due to their sexually provocative nature, especially with campaigns clearly marketed towards young people. One of the most stirring ads of all time was his commercial featuring a teenage Brooke Shields stating, “Do you know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.”

That clip, along with another ad, was eventually banned by TV stations. And in 1995 Calvin was in hot water once more when the CK Jeans label produced images featuring young models that to many evoked amateur pornography. The ads were pulled and both President Bill Clinton and First Lady Hillary Clinton spoke out against the images, with a U.S. Justice Department investigation launched to determine the age of the models. In 2013, Klein admitted he probably went too far with the campaign.

calvin klein: who is the man behind the iconic clothing label?
Image via Shutterstock

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An impressive list of models, actors, athletes and performing artists have been featured in Calvin Klein campaigns, including Tom Hintnaus (the first Klein male underwear model), Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, Antonio Sabato Jr.Zoe Saldana, Djimon Hounsou, Mehcad BrooksJustin Bieber, Kendall Jenner, Travis Fimmel, Natalia Vodianova, Carolyn MurphyEva Mendes and FKA Twigs.

When it comes to his personal life, Klein has been forward about having intimate relationships with both women and men, but never giving specific labels to his sexual identity. Although, he admits that the inspiration for much of his ad campaigns comes from what’s happening in his personal life. He was married for 10 years to Jayne Centre, with the couple having a daughter, Marci. He later wed Kelly Rector in 1986, with the couple divorcing in 2006 on amicable terms after years of living separately.

The designer also has struggled with drug and alcohol abuse, having checked himself into a rehab center in Minnesota in 1988. He later struggled with substance abuse once more around the time of his company sale and thankfully, was able to successfully complete rehab in Arizona.

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