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A brief history of Calvin Klein

One of the most talked about moments of the coming fashion season will undoubtedly be Raf Simons’ debut for Calvin Klein.

The former Dior Creative Director has undoubtedly spent the past few months delving through the archives to capture the brand’s essence and revive some vintage icons to give them a modern twist. As he prepares for the label’s New York Fashion Week show next month, Clerkenwell Vintage Fashion Fair is looking into Calvin Klein’s history and some of the styles that we hope Raf will reference…

Having jumped from job to job after graduating from New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology, a 26-year-old Calvin Klein launched his own fashion line in 1968, specialising in youthful, minimalistic coats. By chance, the General Merchandiser of the New York department store Bonwit Teller came across his coats while walking past his office at the York Hotel, and set up a meeting for him with the buying team. They became his first stockist and were swiftly followed by all the major American department stores.

As profits rose, the brand expanded into sporty ready-to-wear pieces with exceptional quality at a more accessible luxury price point which landed Klein the Coty American Fashion Critics Award three years in a row from 1973 to 1975.

The financial success that followed led the brand to launch their first licensing deal to create jeans in 1977. It was not so much the jeans that put Calvin Klein on the map, but rather the advertising campaigns for them.

Youthful and provocative with oodles of sex appeal, Calvin Klein adverts have been recreating the same formula, that appears to be the magic formula, for decades.

From a 15-year-old Brooke Shields proclaiming “You want to know what comes in between me and my Calvins? Nothing”, to a topless Kate Moss, Calvin Klein proved that sex sells. The campaigns were shot by Richard Avedon, who said that the vision was to “lend the Calvin Klein image to jeans and not a jeans image to Calvin Klein.” This was revolutionary for denim which up until this point had always had a functional, workwear, Wild West heritage angle.

In 1982, the brand went into underwear, creating some even saucier ad campaigns, and in 1985, they relaunched their perfume after they had previously shuttered the cosmetics branch of the business for underperforming. With Obsession going on to become one of the most iconic scents of all time, Calvin Klein had laid the foundation for a long-lasting fashion house supported by their hero products: jeans, underwear, and perfume.

But Raf Simons isn’t the man to carry on a tried and tested legacy, he’s the one to bring fresh life into the vintage brand.

We can see how Raf’s experience in clean, classic lines at Jil Sander and Dior will come in handy for the brand’s roots in stylish coats and jackets for the next generation of luxury shoppers. Will this be the era where everyone wants to get their hands on a Calvin Klein coat? Perhaps they’ll receive a sportier twist, or some patterned motifs as opposed to the clean and minimalist aesthetic Calvin Klein has become known for, given Raf’s artistic eye for patterns.

His strong interest in sportswear and youth subcultures that manifests in Raf Simons’ own name brand will no doubt also have an influence. In the 1980s, Calvin Klein helped establish the sportswear trend as an antidote to over-the-top shoulder pads, and frilly dresses of the time, with stripped back silhouettes in soft, stretchy fabrics for women and quality t-shirts for men who were enjoying working out more than ever. As we know, athleisure is one of the biggest ongoing trends in the industry right now, a huge opportunity for the brand to go back to its award-winning roots but with Raf’s understanding of the way today’s sportswear lovers want to dress, could this be the second wave of Calvin Klein sport?

The fashion house has always hit the nail on the head with its casting, from the youth icons of the day to being one of the first brands to use street casting in an advertising campaign in 1996, though has perhaps played it a little safer in recent years. Raf has already shown a return to edgier adverts, unveiling his first campaign with them which stars 12-year-old ‘Stranger Things’ actress Millie Bobby Brown. Expect Calvin Klein campaigns to start hitting the headlines again.


Clerkenwell Vintage Fashion Fair welcomes fashion designers and design teams, as well as members of the public, to our next fair during London Fashion Week on 19th February, 11am – 5pm, at Courthouse Hotel Shoreditch, 335 – 337 Old Street, London, EC1V 9LL. Entrance fee: £4 (£2 for students). Join the Facebook event.

Photograph by Richard Avedon