The understated, timeless clothing. The provocative ads starring fresh-faced models clad in jeans and only jeans. Young. Cool. Iconic. The Calvin Klein brand has won accolades and courted controversy since its inception in 1968. From the brand’s meteoric rise in the 70s, to the aesthetic that defined the 80s and 90s, to today’s still chic offerings, we’re looking back at how Calvin Klein created the brand that has become synonymous with effortless cool.
Beginnings in the 70s and Rise to Fame
As a young graduate of FIT in 1968, Calvin Klein envisioned creating simple, well-tailored clothes in fine fabrics. With a borrowed $10,000, he made a collection of coats and dresses that gained the attention of department store buyers. People fell in love with the clean modernism of Klein’s designs. Word spread quickly about the up-and-coming designer. Then, in 1969, model Susan Schoenberg wore a Calvin Klein coat on the cover of Vogue, sealing Klein’s fate as a designer on the rise.
1969 - Susan Schoenberg // Vogue, via ciaovogue.blogspot.com
The hallmarks of the brand in the 70s were sportswear influences, pastels, and simplicity. Klein began tailoring his clothes more loosely, for a sensual, breezy vibe. By far his most iconic innovation of the decade hit the fashion scene in 1976: a slim-fitting pair of jeans, with “Calvin Klein” embroidered on the back pocket. Klein was one of the very first designers to make jeans a high fashion item.
1976 - Patti Hansen // CK Campaign, via fashiongonerogue.com
Success in the 80s
In 1980, those jeans would lead to one of Calvin Klein’s most controversial ad campaigns. In a television commercial, the camera moves up the fifteen year old Brooke Shields’s body as she purrs: “You know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” The ensuing outrage had sales skyrocketing.
1980 - Brooke Shields // CK Campaign, via fashiongonerogue.com
Throughout the excess of the 80s, Klein maintained his minimalist aesthetic. He struck advertising gold once again when he began selling his underwear line with male celebrities like ‘Marky Mark’ posing seductively. The graphic boldness of the black and white photography set apart Calvin Klein’s ads from everything else on the market at the time.
1992 - Mark Wahlberg // CK Campaign, via adage.com
In 1985, Klein launched a new fragrance he called Obsession. He believed that the concept of obsession summed up the fascination with extravagant sexuality of the era. Klein was obsessed with making Obsession an icon of the 80s, describing it as “direct, sensuous, and provocative.” The perfume was accompanied by another racy ad campaign, this time starring Kate Moss and other glamorous young models in various states of undress. The wild success of Obsession led to the release of Eternity, Klein’s most profitable fragrance to date.
1985 - Kate Moss // CK Campaign, via madperfumista.com
Defining the 90s
Calvin Klein’s success in the 80s was quickly followed by financial troubles in the early 90s. Shaken, but not deterred, the Calvin Klein brand began marketing to a younger, hipper audience. To appeal to young consumers, the company began placing ads on MTV. The Calvin Klein brand wanted to create a vision of a fresh youth subculture with a grungy edge. To that end, Klein created the cK line, which included jeans, underwear, and the groundbreaking launch of the unisex CK One fragrance.
The advertising campaigns relied heavily on a low-key, unisex look. Androgynous models kept the pared-down makeup and disheveled hair of the grunge music movement, but donned monochromatic sportswear that would appeal to a cleaner-cut audience.
1994 - CK One Campaign, via candidmagazine.com
What best sums up Calvin Klein’s influence on the 90s is a moment from the 1995 movie Clueless. The protagonist of the film, Cher, played by Alicia Silverstone, descends a staircase in a formfitting white number.
1995 - Alicia Silverstone in Clueless, via Glamour
And that was it. Despite a rocky start, Calvin Klein’s restrained aesthetic and raw sexuality defined the 90s. He was the first and last word in fashion.
In 2002, Calvin Klein Inc. was sold to Phillips Van Heusen Corp., and Calvin Klein gave up creative control of the company, taking on the role of consultant for the brand. The most recent Calvin Klein campaigns have featured Kendall Jenner and Justin Bieber in ads that are throwbacks to the Kate Moss and Marky Mark ads of the 80s and 90s. No doubt the brand will continue the tradition of luxurious simplicity and sensuality. Icon status? Achieved.
2016- Kendall Jenner // CK Campaign, via Teen Vogue