“I know you didn’t grow up in a white minimalist apartment in the Bronx,” Fern Mallis teased Calvin Klein. “I hated the way the place looked. I couldn’t bare it,” Klein responded, referring to his childhood home with its oft-changing wall color. “I grew up in an environment that was very baroque, but I loved simplicity, purity.”
What is it they say? For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction? (And by “they” we mean “Isaac Newton”.) Last night Klein was Mallis’s latest guest for her 92nd Street Y “Fashion Icons” lecture series, and the former designer was extremely candid with the industry vet. Calling his brand the most recognized in the world, Mallis steered the conversation with questions about Klein’s Bronx roots, his wildly successful career, and what he’s up to today.
Dressed in faded black jeans, a crisp white button-down, black blazer, and suede lace-up boots, Klein spoke about knowing he wanted to be a designer since he started sketching at the age of 5. When asked if his neighbors thought what he was doing was a “gay thing”, Klein slyly poked fun at his most famous peer and rival: “If anything, Ralph Lauren grew up in the same neighborhood, and Ralph dressed in a peculiar way. I was trying to be a tough guy like James Dean, and Ralph looked like he was from a different country.” Were they friends? “No, he was a bit older than I!” 68-year-old Klein said of the 72-year-old Lauren.
His road to success was a short one, going from total unknown one minute to getting a $50,000 order from famed New York department store Bonwit Teller the next. But his career in fashion almost didn’t happen — the Calvin Klein brand you know and love could have actually been a grocery store chain. Luckily, his father steered him in the right direction. “My dad said, ‘I never understood exactly what you were studying all these years, but I think you’ll be unhappy all your life if you don’t go through with it,'” he said of his parents’ career advice. Not surprisingly, he calls it the best he’s ever received.
Klein also gave audience member Anna Wintour a shoutout, spoke about jeans being the medium with which to reach the masses, and discussed his infamous Patti Hansen billboard (Klein: “People were really upset.” Mallis: “You’ve made them upset for years.”). Oh, and the underwear! There was lots of underwear talk. Though he declared the unintentional product placement in Back to the Future “embarrassing” (for the record, he’s never seen the film — his friend David Geffen told him about it), the popularity of his skivvies is anything but. The company projected $18-20 million in sales that first year. They brought in $70 million.
“I still wear them,” he said. “But I wear other people’s underwear, too. I have to check out the competition!” However, our favorite underwear anecdote was undoubtedly about his daughter, Emmy-winning producer Marci. Before she worked for 30 Rock and Saturday Night Live, she was college student at Brown who was quoted in an article as saying, “Every time I go to bed with a guy, I’m looking at my dad’s name on his underwear.” Ha! “I told my psychiatrist at the time, ‘I don’t think that’s very funny,'” Klein confessed. “He told me to lighten up.”
He’s had his fair share of dark moments though. He acknowledged that his use of male models “who probably used steroids” is “a real issue”. He also touched on his very public drug-fueled meltdown at Madison Square Garden in 2003: “I struggled with addiction, and lots of people do. That was a really shameful moment.” But post-semi-retired life has been good to the mogul, who sold his namesake company for $700 million back in 2002.. “I met someone and fell in love, and he’s a good guy,” he said of boyfriend Nick Gruber, who we spotted at the event reception. “I’m experiencing life in a whole new way, a fresh way with someone who hasn’t seen what I’ve seen.”
As for Calvin Klein the brand, Calvin Klein the man says he doesn’t really follow what it does despite still having “a strong financial interest” in it. But what about what he does happen to see? “If I were doing it, I’d do it differently, but I’m not doing it. If I’m not in control, I can’t worry about it.”
Photo courtesy of Joyce Culver for 92nd Street Y