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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.

Klein's first job was to create sketches for a coat and suit manufacturer. He left two years later, kicked around in several different jobs, including working as a copy boy at Women's Wear Daily, then borrowed $10,000 from Schwartz, now his partner, to establish Calvin Klein Inc. In early 1968, the two opened a littleshowroom in the York Hotel on 7th Avenue, the heart of the fashion district.

With Schwartz's start-up money, Klein created his first collection of youthful, understated coats and dresses. By accident, a Bonwit Teller executive stopped in at Klein's showroom. He was so impressed by what he saw that he asked Klein to make an appointment with Bonwit's powerful fashion chief, Mildred Custin.

What happened next is legend on Fashion Avenue: A few days later the perfectionist Klein pushed his rack of samples 20 blocks to Bonwit's, despite a broken wheel, to ensure that the clothes wouldn't be wrinkled from lying on a taxi seat. Custin snapped up $50,000 worth. In one interview, Klein recalled, "Everything shipped to Bonwit's sold instantly and word traveled fast. Everyone in the country was calling, and there was no way I could supply everyone. . . . Those were great days."

American women, throwing off the chains of fashion enslavement as the feminist movement gained momentum, welcomed Klein's youthful, uncluttered lines. In 1973 Klein won the first of three consecutive American Fashion Critics' Coty awards, which cited his "nonconformist, classic" styles. He was inducted into the organization's Hall of Fame in 1975.

During this era, the young husband and father who had once designed polyester clothes shed those decidedly middle-class trappings, woke up and smelled the stardom. He divorced his wife, Jayne, and moved to the East Side, spending his free time hanging out at gay bars with celebrities--among them Andy Warhol and Steve Rubell of the infamous disco Studio 54--and vacationing in gay enclaves such as Fire Island Pines, N.Y., and Key West, Fla. He became addicted to Valium and alcohol.

It was at 4 a.m. in Studio 54, in fact, that Klein first discussed moving into designer denim with an executive of apparel manufacturer Puritan Fashions. A leading trendy himself, Klein again demonstrated his ability to pick up on fashion vibes by sprucing up the most American of all casual styles: the blue jean. His idea was simple. Klein slapped his name on the back pockets of refitted, well-cut jeans, sold them in the sportswear sections of upscale department stores such as Bullock's and I. Magnin, and charged a hefty 50% or so premium over Levi Strauss, Lee and Wrangler. Form-fitting "Calvins," the first denims to sport the name of a major 7th Avenue figure, captured the American moment. The jeans sold an astonishing 200,000 pairs the first week they hit the market in 1978.

To keep the bubble expanding, he hit on the joy of sex, choosing as his spokesmodel the sweet, seductive Brooke Shields. "Jeans," he said, to the chagrin of those more concerned with comfort and durability, "are about sex."

The subject fascinated him, and in a 1984 interview with Playboy he conceded he had sampled widely in the interim: "Anything I've wanted to do, I've done. Anyone I've wanted to be with, I've had." He maintained that "having sex with three people or five people isn't really as great as having sex with someone you're really in love with," but mused on the other hand that anonymous sex was pretty great too: "My best sex has been with people who didn't know who I was." Klein's first, wildly successful fragrance, introduced to great fanfare in 1985, characterized his lifestyle; he called it Obsession.

Not surprisingly, this highly publicized life-in-the-fast-lane existence led to whispers that Klein is gay or bisexual. He is noncommittal on that question, but has been dogged by AIDS rumors ever since he checked into Manhattan's Lenox Hill Hospital with viral meningitis in 1982. He denies them, and so far no convincing evidence has surfaced that he is ill. The fashion industry has been traumatized by the epidemic, losing such stars as Halston and Perry Ellis. Bankers and insurers now routinely require HIV tests of key fashion executives before they issue loans and policies.

Androgeny was the next big thing. Cruising the clubs in the early '80s, Klein identified a growing unisex trend. The result was a lucrative line of men's-style briefs and T-shirt underwear for women. Once again, the merchandise was promoted in sexy ads, and it wasn't long before jazzy men's underwear, heralded by a photographic portrait of a tanned, rippling brief-clad model, hit the stores. Crazed fans broke the glass in dozens of New York bus-stop shelters to steal the poster; Klein installed a huge reproduction on a Times Square billboard so he could view it from his car traveling to work.

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