EAST HAMPTON, N.Y. — Calvin Klein, thin, rich, fashionably dressed-down in pink T-shirt and khakis (not his own designs), his face its usual ruddy "high color," is sitting on the back porch of his spectacular, albeit rented, hilltop house. He is talking about fame.
"I like it. I enjoy it. There is no question," he says politely but with emphasis, as the Asian couple who care for the estate serve him coffee.
Klein's celebrity started 20 years ago when he was 25, and it exploded in the 1970s and 1980s, fueled by the sexiest ad campaigns in the world, for Calvin Klein jeans, for men's underwear for women, for the Obsession fragrance.
Earlier this year, Klein's name exploded again and were it not for the attention showered on Christian Lacroix, the French couture designer who has taken the fashion world by storm, Klein would again have been the man in the spotlight.
Still, this is one of Calvin Klein's biggest years. After a serious slump in the denim business and severe losses, jeans are back in style, bringing in a reported $250 million a year. Obsession, the fragrance Klein introduced in 1985, is rivaling Giorgio, the nation's No. 1 scent, and is responsible for a reported $150 million in annual retail sales.
Klein's fall designer clothes collection was his most successful, with orders reportedly topping $30 million. A single minisuit, featuring Klein's trademark simplicity, sexiness and no-frills wearability, is the most-photographed and best-selling suit of 1987.
"This has been a really good year," the soft-spoken Klein said, refusing a second cup of coffee. "Incredible. It's very unusual when you get the press and you get the stores and you get the clients, women, who all want the same thing."
Cover of Newsweek
Hesitating for a second, he adds, "Maybe it's once every 10 years when all of a sudden everyone just thinks it's a knockout." Ten years ago, Klein made the cover of Newsweek as the nation's premier designer-superstar.
But Klein is more than a fashion designer and celebrity. He is a businessman who has, with partner and childhood pal Barry Schwartz, built an empire with annual retail sales, according to industry sources, in excess of $1 billion. Klein's annual income is reportedly $15 million.
The legendary key to Klein's success is "the relationship I have with Barry," Klein said.
Schwartz, 45, is a dapper man with a passion for race horses. He is a family man who loves the country as Klein loves the city and is as private as Klein is public. In business, he has a reputation for toughness and even Klein admits Schwartz "can be very emotional" and "can really lose his cool."
"There have been things said about Barry, you know," Klein said, "about his being tough. His job, one of his roles, is to be the tough one, to be supportive of me. There are so many situations, I shouldn't be specific about it, but he has to be tough."
If Klein were to go down in history right now, he would be remembered as the king of the sexual sell. Who can forget Brooke Shields, then 15, in a TV commercial saying that nothing came between her and her Calvins. And the provocative pseudo-orgy in the ads for Obsession that began in 1985.
But the real Klein, who has consistently said he is selling products that are sexy "in a creative way," isn't a salesman for sexuality. He is a barometer of the times.
In His Trademark Suit
In his sparely furnished garment center office, Klein, now dressed up in his trademark Savile Row suit, wire-rimmed glasses in hand, sits on a couch. He has just returned from lunch with Meshulam Riklis, the corporate tycoon who is married to singer Pia Zadora.
"As I said to Riklis today, I'm projecting where America will be, what people will be thinking in the next five years," Klein said. "So I try to think, 'What's happened after the sexual revolution?' After, with AIDS, with people now being afraid of having sex with a lot of people, thinking about romance and thinking about commitment. . . .
"I'm thinking about all of those things and I apply them to everything I do, I apply that to my fabrics, to my color, to my silhouettes," he continued in his low-key, analytical way. "Believe me, if I'm thinking the country is more romantic," he said, "then the clothes are going to look more romantic. I think one of the reasons for real short skirts is that everyone isn't going around, isn't having sex the way they were in the 1970s. They were wearing long skirts and looking like they'd never had sex at all. They were looking dowdy. Now everyone's trying to look hot and they can't do it."
Klein has consistently understood the trends because he lives them. The designer jeans craze, which has become a symbol of the sexual revolution, coincided with the wild life Klein was said to lead at the time. In fact, designer jeans were born at 4 a.m. at the notorious Studio 54 discotheque in 1977 when a Puritan Fashions executive suggested the idea to him.
But as the trends turn, so does Klein.