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Can Calvin Klein Escape? : He Built an Empire on Raunch and Elegance. Then, Overpriced Jeans and Junk-Bond Debt Pushed It to the Edge. But Look Out, Here Comes His Spring Collection.

February 23, 1992|Linda Grant | Linda Grant, a contributing editor to this magazine, wrote about the Salomon Brothers scandal last week.

AS CALVIN KLEIN BOUNDS UP THE STEPS TO THE runway ringed by a dozen perfect models swathed in white, the adulation of San Francisco's most glamorous clotheshounds is palpable in I. Magnin's Klein boutique. They have been treated to the West Coast premiere of Klein's luxe spring collection, a tour de force of grace and sensuality from an icon of American fashion.

The ladies lunch on marinated chicken with asparagus in a room decorated entirely in black and white. Then lights dim, spots brighten and leggy mannequins with loosely swinging hair stride down the runway to haunting choral music. Each pauses in haughty pose, sashays back and forth and exits as another captures all eyes. Spontaneous "oohhs" followed by bursts of applause greet favored outfits as the women scribble in their programs.

Garbed in tones of smoky blue-gray, Klein shows some signs of fatigue from the incessant demands of his celebrity. A six-footer, his casually styled brown hair thinning on top, the designer is wiry, almost bony, his dark eyes slightly sunken.

After the show, those eyes flash to life as the women encircle him, lavish praise and reach for their charge cards to purchase his lace bodysuits, cashmere sweaters, silk jackets and revealing evening gowns. The night before, a corps of socialites feted him at the always fashionable restaurant Stars.

"People are fascinated by Calvin's lifestyle," says Rose Marie Bravo, Magnin's chief executive and hostess of the show. "They want to know what makes him so great, a little on the edge, outrageous. He's a star, a man of mystique."

Kalman Ruttenstein, fashion director for Bloomingdale's, recalls a store opening on the Philadelphia Main Line, where Bill Blass, Donna Karan, Louis Dell'Olio and Diane von Furstenberg appeared. It was to Klein that the women flocked. "Our customers go nuts for Calvin," he says. "I have to hide him in a sitting room to give him a break."

There is a fit between the appeal of the clothing and the veneration of the designer, which has held steady and strong through the myriad phases of his career. A man of sophistication and creativity, his once-hedonistic ways brought him close to self-destruction. Yet, as he approaches 50, Klein has reinvented himself as a country gentleman living in splendid insulation, complete with trophy wife. Through the changes, he has held fast an aura of mystery, an image tinged with ambiguity, even as the public scrutinizes his every move. Klein's keep-'em-guessing persona feeds the hoopla that is the currency of the fashion world.

Central to the Klein mystique is a curious paradox: The multimillionaire creator of clothing and fragrances--so well known that some think he's a brand, not a person--has a dual signature. The garments brought forth by his studio are typically clean, streamlined and easygoing, yet his market position has been achieved on the visceral strength of sexually provocative ads. The raunch of his spectacular campaigns belies the refined simplicity of his clothing.

Wander into the sleek glass-and-wood Klein boutique in Costa Mesa's South Coast Plaza, one of five in affluent enclaves across the country, and you'll be hard-pressed to find the motorcycle leather worn by the aggressively hip, half-naked libertines in his ads. Rather, there are jeans, preppy shirts and crew-neck sweaters in subdued colors at premium prices and skimpy cocktail dresses for $1,000 a pop.

Ever since Klein put 15-year-old temptress Brooke Shields on television cooing, "You know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing," he has turned consumers on with daring--some call them pornographic--ads for generic products such as jeans, underwear and perfume. At the same time, his couture collections have been admired for their classic mood and simplicity.

Dawn Mello, creative director of Gucci in Milan, sums up his contribution: "Calvin is among the top designers not only in the United States but also on the international scene. He is known for American sportswear, but his influence is far broader. He represents a style that is unique: simple, uncomplicated, devoid of gimmicks, understated, refined. He designs the way many women want to dress."

The paradox was cast in bold relief last fall, when his new spring line won raves for classic beauty hard on the heels of a notorious promotional campaign for his sportswear. Klein's 116-page advertising supplement in Vanity Fair's October issue wordlessly evoked heated fantasies about rock 'n' roll, motorcycles and beautiful young bodies.

When the spring collection debuted in November, however, response focused on the sophistication of the line. It delighted observers exhausted by 1980s gimcrackery, an era when women "looked like walking chandeliers," says Alan G. Millstein, editor of Fashion Network Report. Millstein refers above all to the poufy confections of Parisian couturier Christian Lacroix, whose '80s eveningwear is emblematic of that era's excesses.

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