He did it with notorious campaigns like the Brooke Shields “Nothing Comes Between Me and My Calvins,” banned by ABC and CBS in New York when it was released in 1981, castigated by Gloria Steinem. With Kate Moss’s topless Obsession ads and the underwear campaign she did with Marky Mark; with the 1995 “teen porn” jeans campaign by Steven Meisel (denounced by Bill Clinton and investigated by the Justice Department); and with the various shots of naked bodies and body parts, glowing and intertwined.
Most designer coffee-table books are, to be honest, really just glossy accessories to egos and living rooms. This one may well be something different: once again a lightning rod for debate, and possibly censure, given the current conversation. Certainly it will raise questions that should be raised. Especially since, at 74, Mr. Klein, who has been busy building houses and designing uniforms for the Harlem Village Academies, is ready to think about many of them — if not to completely address the implications.
Why did you decide to finally publish a book?
People had suggested it for many years. Mrs. Onassis was the first one who asked me. God knows why. Anna Wintour had been pushing me to do it for a long time. But I don’t like looking back; I like to be in the moment, and think about the future. Plus I thought it might be emotional, and I didn’t want to go there. But I do a lot of speaking to students, and I realized they knew my name, but they certainly had no idea of the imagery we used. And I wanted them to be able to learn from that.
Do you think people will be suspicious of that imagery, given the current groundswell of discussion on women being put in uncomfortable situations?
I never thought publication would coincide with this conversation, though I also think it’s about time we had this conversation. But all of these images came from my life in one way or another, especially my life with Kelly [his former wife]. It was really a reflection of what was happening. The 1970s were a pretty crazy time in New York. There was Berlin in the 1920s, and Paris in the 1930s, and New York in the 1970s. The orgy campaign started with me thinking about Studio 54. People ask me if it was really like that. Probably, yeah.
The culture of the 1970s was one of the justifications Harvey Weinstein used for his behavior.
But what is happening in the culture does not give anyone the right to act in an abusive way. In terms of Harvey, not everyone did what he did in the 1970s and after. That’s not about culture; it’s about character. He used his position to take advantage of women right from the beginning.
Did you deliberately set out to be provocative?
When I was thinking about our campaign for our first fragrance, I was looking at the competition and they always had these young, pretty girls running through a field of wheat. And I just thought: “Is that why women buy fragrance? Because they want to run through wheat?” No. They buy it because they want to attract men, or they want to be attractive to themselves. So I always put men and women together. Is that being provocative? That is being realistic.
In those days I would look at Vogue, and it was thick with hundreds of pages, and I wanted my company to stand out. So I did six-, eight-page spreads — once I did a 27-page outsert. They weren’t always about sex, but they often went in that direction because that’s me. That’s who I am. I did what I did, and I put it out there for students.
How did you choose the images?
I picked the images the same way I always did: what got my heart racing. No matter which photographer was doing the shoot, we would discuss what we were trying to say, where we would shoot, who the model would be. In the early days, I would be on shoots, styling. Then I would edit the film at night. We always pushed to be more creative and exciting, and sometimes we went over the top. Sometimes we pushed the envelope too far. I understand that.
There was a shoot that got referred to as kiddie porn, for example. It was for jeans, photographed in what looked like a basement with knobby pine paneling and shag carpeting. We thought it was funny and provocative, but the Justice Department did not. They investigated us.
But it was during a year when everyone was talking about family values, and Bill Clinton, who was president, stood up and said he didn’t approve of the Calvin Klein ads. I ended up pulling the campaign and taking out a page advertisement in The New York Times trying to apologize. Steven Meisel shot it, and to this day he can’t get over the attacks. For me, it came with the territory.
You were used to it by then?
My feeling was: If you start to think about what everyone else might think before you design something or put an image out there, you’ll never get anything done. I built my company with my childhood friend — just like Donna Karan did and Ralph Lauren did — and we built it based on creativity, with the assumption that if people wanted what we created, it would be profitable.
That’s how we ended up working with Kate. I went to Paris to see how other designers did shows — I went to Chanel and a few others — and I saw all these women whom I had thought were really special, and they were in every show. So then I started to think: That’s not really so special. It was a period when lots of models were enhancing their breasts and doing crazy things to their bodies, and I found it pretty offensive. So I came back from Paris and thought: I have to do something different.
After a while Patrick Demarchelier called and said he thought he’d found someone like we’d been looking for, and he sent Kate over. She had some personal photographs that Mario Sorrenti, her boyfriend at the time, had taken of her. He wasn’t even a professional photographer then. So I asked to meet Mario, and then I gave him a camera and sent them off to an island together.
Did any of the reactions make you rethink your decisions?
The strangest reaction we ever got, to me, was for a children’s underwear shoot. Rosie O’Donnell denounced me on her TV show. She said, “I’ll never buy anything from Calvin Klein again.” I understand now that, at that time, everything I did was assumed to have an ulterior motive.
We tried to be sensitive. One time we did an underwear shoot with Christy Turlington, who was always very careful about how she was photographed and what was revealed. And the pictures were revealing. But they were not obscene. Anyway, we gave her all the negatives afterward, so they could never be used again.
Why did you stop?
I left because I thought I’d done everything creatively I wanted to do. I didn’t want to expand into areas that didn’t feel natural, and I didn’t want to design the same thing for the rest of my life. I had design studios for every collection, and I was there for the beginning and middle and end, and there’d be young people sketching and they would show me what they’d drawn, and I would say, “But we did this already.” And they’d say, “No, it’s new.” And I’d say, “But I remember it.” And I just thought, “If I don’t do it now, when?” I wanted to live a different way.
Now large corporations have gobbled up designers, and they stay two years and then move on. I think that’s unfortunate.
Do you feel any responsibility for that, given your own contribution to branding?
It’s better for me not to comment. I don’t really look at fashion magazines. I haven’t for ages.