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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.

For all the power of his promotions aimed at youth, Klein faces problems in the stores, where his sportswear is priced beyond the reach of most young budgets. American retailers, especially big department stores, group merchandise around price, not their look. Price levels include "designer" at the high end; "bridge" or "second collection" below, and "sportswear."

Paradoxically, Klein has asked stores to upgrade his sportswear from lower-priced departments--where young people tend to shop--into the pricier bridge level. In other words, despite a sluggish retail environment, Klein is apparently playing to a smaller, tonier set indifferent to the appeal of rock 'n' roll. Although his minimalism succeeds brilliantly at the top, some retailers complain that the simplicity of his sportswear makes it tough to justify the high prices.

Meanwhile, the Gap, whose sales have catapulted the company into third place in sportswear after Levi Strauss and Liz Claiborne, exerts heavy competition from below. Klein's as yet unmet challenge is to convince consumers that his jeans are worth $20 more than theirs.

Says a top apparel executive, who asked not to be identified, "People won't pay more just because of the label. I'm afraid it's going to kill Calvin to go to market where the air is so thin."

PRESSURE IS UNYIELDING IN A designer's life. As many as six times a year, his or her creativity is judged as critics and customers pore over the latest creations. And the greater the success, the higher the expectations.

John Fairchild, the influential publisher of Women's Wear Daily, points out in his book "Chic Savages" that designers live a precarious existence. Rich can become poor overnight, because designers subsidize their extravagant lifestyles by licensing their names to increasing numbers of products. Always lurking is the danger that suddenly, inexplicably, their names will lose allure, and licensees will jump ship. "Balenciaga," Fairchild writes, referring to the great Spanish designer, "ended his days with little money. Christian Dior and Coco Chanel, after their enormous commercial successes, did not leave fortunes."

The mounting pressure got to Klein in the '80s, when he grew increasingly reliant on vodka and Valium. Gucci's Mello recalls the courage with which he faced his problem when he checked into a Minnesota rehabilitation center, Hazelden, for 31 days. "Many people would have swept the problem under the rug. Calvin called his friends, and told us what was happening. We knew what it took for him to make those phone calls. He needed our support, and the entire industry was behind him."

Klein called his Hazelden stay the "best thing I've ever done in my life." He told Walters, "I always had to be in control, and I always had to do everything myself. And I grew up believing that I'm the center of the universe and I don't need anyone's help. Well, the truth is we all need help, and when I finally realized that I had to go for help and that I couldn't do all this myself, my life started changing."

In a remarkable turnabout in the late '80s, Klein renounced nightclubs, married Kelly Rector, a design assistant 15 years his junior, and kicked his addictions. He celebrated his new stability with a fragrance called Eternity, which, in a departure from Obsession's weighty passion, projected a lighter, more beatific aura.

A Connecticut blueblood at home with horses, Kelly is credited with calming the former roustabout and introducing him to an aristocratic lifestyle. And amid Klein Inc.'s financial woes, the couple purchased a $7-million townhouse on East 76th Street and spent another $6 million-plus on a weekend retreat in an East Hampton enclave.

In recent months, Vogue and W magazines have splashed the Kleins' pictures over their pages, detailing the impeccable renovation of their hideaway, a 19th-Century beachhouse set back from the road by a long, graveled driveway. Kelly rides horses and Calvin paddles a canoe on nearby Georgica Pond. His fragrance for the '90s? It's called Escape.

"Calvin's life," says designer Donna Karan, "seems to be in good balance. I would say he's very happy. He continues to grow, and is committed to both his family and his work. It's an extraordinary accomplishment."

Klein's sobriety is right in step with the times. The nation has, for now anyway, turned its back on hard drinking, casual sex, frilly clothes. The back-to-basics mood of the country is an invitation for Klein to express his smooth, clean vision, a winning sensibility evident in his spring collection.

The times, however, also favor value over cachet. Klein, a survivor and innovator, has prevailed in a notoriously fickle and demanding business for 25 years. But the now-serene designer's hardest sell is still ahead.

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