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WWD: The House That Calvin Klein Built

Fern Mallis, the woman often noted as the mastermind behind New York’s Fashion Week, recently sat down with famed designer, Calvin Klein, for a rare interview. Stemming from Mallis’ series of discussions with fashion icons, the exclusive 90-minute interview was held at a packed 92Y in New York. The often discreet 68-year-old Klein was surprisingly receptive and amiable Monday night, with no subject seeming too personal. The two fashion legends discussed the selling of his business, his early childhood in New York, addiction, emerging designers and of course various career highlights, just to name a few topics. An excerpt from the interview is offered below:

First Job
My first real job was designing coats and suits for a company that was run by a man whose name was Dan Milstein. Typical garment center company at that time. He had what we called morning sickness. Until he smoked his first cigar, which typically was around noon, he was a nightmare and whatever I sketched was never good enough. After the cigar, of course, everything was fine. It was a good learning experience, but I knew then that I wanted to be on my own. I always had the sense, maybe it was because my dad was in his own business, that I would never be understood. I would have to do it myself.

Brand Building
I wasn’t thinking of it as a brand. I always managed to separate myself from the name of the company. But I knew I wanted to create something that would go on long after I was personally involved with it. I was just intrigued by the idea of doing other things and started with the advertising. Back then, the magazines would come to the designers to say, “Now it’s time for you to advertise and we will do it for you.” I always thought, “How could they possibly communicate what I have to say better than me?” So I always got involved in areas that American or even European designers hadn’t been concerned with.

The First Licensing Deal
Those were the Studio 54 days. I was on my way to Frankfurt for a fabrics fair. It was about 4 o’clock in the morning and a man came up to me and said, “Would you like to put your name on denim?” I called Barry on my way to the airport — right from Studio 54. I said, “You know, there is something interesting about this idea of designing jeans.” Then there was Lee, Levi and Wrangler. I thought this could be fun. I liked the idea of reaching lots of people because the clothes I was making, because of the prices, you could reach very few people. We made an arrangement to start that company with Carl Rosen and Puritan.

Andrew Rosen used to work for us. I am so proud of what he’s accomplished. His dad was a really cool guy. He was in the dress business. They knew nothing about jeans. My favorite expression with all of them was, “Trust me. Just trust me.” And Carl did.”

Naming the fragrance “Obsession”
I was obsessed anyway. The word “obsession” reminded me of myself, and of my friends who were obsessed with work or success. It’s instant. I get an emotional reaction, something happens to my body when I see a photograph or clothes or word and I know it’s right.

Leaving Calvin Klein
I consulted for three years. Actually, I did a lot more during that period of time than I thought I would do. Then they kindly asked if I would stay on. When you create something and you’re used to running it, I won’t say being in control, when you’re working with so many people, it’s not like I’m running the whole show, it’s complex. But the decision does lie with me. For me, it was best just to let go and move on and enjoy a new time in my life. I don’t follow what the company does. I don’t really follow much of what anyone does. I look at Women’s Wear. I see magazines, but since I sold the company it was doing about $2 billion at retail. Now it’s about $6 billion. I still have a financial interest in the company, a very serious one. I’m not complaining.

The full interview can be read here.

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