Calvin Klein’s Newest Obsession

It had to happen one day or another. After McDonald’s, Coca Cola and Woody Allen, the next major American institution to arrive in Paris is Calvin Klein. America’s best-known fashion designer is scheduled to open a 650-square-meter megastore at 49, avenue Montaigne. Designed by London architect Claudio Silvestrin, the interiors, fashioned after Klein’s Madison Avenue store, are faithful to the designer’s clean, luxurious signature style: pristine white walls, limestone floors, brushed and shiny stainless steel counters and dark walnut chairs. “Each detail was designed to communicate the quintessential idea of modernity, pure luxury and quality, void of ostentation and excess,” says a Klein spokesman.

The world knows Calvin Klein through his underwear ads, his controversial jeans commercials and his anti-mode perfume. But just who is this man whose name has become synonymous with all-American sportswear?

Born in 1942 in the Bronx, Calvin Klein was the son of a grocer who indulged his wife’s passion for clothes. Klein, who began sketching at the age of 5, graduated from New York’s illustrious Fashion Institute of Technology in 1962. After five years of working his way up in New York’s coat and suit trade, he set up his own business in 1968, supporting himself with a succession of small loans, totaling some $10,000, from his childhood friend Barry Schwartz. According to fashion legend, a vice president of the high priced women’s specialty store Bonwit Teller (which closed in the mid-1980s) stepped off an elevator on the wrong floor of a building where Klein’s minute collection was hanging. A few days later Klein had an appointment with the store’s fashion director, who, after eyeing the young man’s clothes, made a $50,000 order.

Calvin Klein and Barry Schwartz, his business partner, were soon prospering. By 1971, the company had introduced luxury sportswear and daywear, perfectly cut in simple silhouettes, which have since become Klein’s trademark. By the mid-1970s he had expanded to include CK, a popular-priced line, and jeans. His jeanswear made Klein a household word thanks to provocative Bruce Weber ad campaigns and a controversial commercial featuring sexy, 13-year-old Brooke Shields pouting “There’s nothing between me and my Calvins.” In fact, the ads’ polemical nature, which has resulted in brushes with TV censors and “Women Against Pornography,” is still a feature of the company’s multimillion-dollar media coups. After an uproar, the company issues an apology, then pulls the ad- having benefited mightily from the ruckus. (on the Web, the fashion site First View invites angry consumers to sign a petition against Klein’s suggestive ads.)

The designer’s high fashion collections continued to appear, serenely, season after season, winning him an unprecedented three Coty awards (the Oscars of the fashion industry) by the time he was 32. Amid the praise and glory came another round of furor, this one over a line of women’s underwear lifted line for line from men’s briefs and boxer shorts, needlessly complete with fly fronts. This collection, though widely attacked for its androgyny, became an enormous success despite the brouhaha, if not because of it.

The Paris store, scheduled to opens in the first week of May, will house Klein’s high fashion “Collection” line of men’s and women’s garments, along with accessories, shoes and household items. Men’s clothing and accessories will share the ground floor with women’s daywear, evening wear, lingerie, perfume and accessories. One floor up is “Calvin Klein Home,” featuring gift items as well as a vast array of bed and bath articles.