Calvin Klein Ltd. started with $10000 and an elevator-facing rented room on the sixth floor of the York Hotel. The 613 housed a small table, a few chairs and changing booth made with a cloth curtain. Phone calls were made. People came and went. Seasons changed. And the precious samples were still hanging on a pipe rack waiting for the big break.
Then one day on a humid spring afternoon the elevator unexpectedly stopped on the six floor. Within seconds, as the doors slid back and forth with a soft whisper, and people continued their journey upstairs, one of them glanced across the hall and noticed the samples. That somebody was Donald O’Brien, the vice president of Bonwit Teller. That quick glance was enough for him to return. After examining each garment one by one O’Brien he asked Klein to bring them to Mildred Custin, the president of Bonwit Teller and one of the most important people in fashion at the time.
On Saturday excited and nervous Calvin put all the clothes on a rack and wheeled it for twenty-three blocks uptown to the Custin’s office.
Although she remained distant and reserve through the entire meeting, Mildred Custin was enchanted by the quality and style of the samples and the charming young man who designed them. After the meeting was over and to Klein complete astonishment the grande dame of the retail world placed an order for $50000. More over, once the clothes were delivered to the store she broke the rule displaying the collection in all eight windows – a kind of privilege that was normally reserved for the big brands. A week after a dozen of full-paged adverts were published in the New York Times giving Calvin Klein designs a seal of quality.
Suddenly orders were coming in from every big store around the country including Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman. By the end of their fist financial year Calvin Klein and Barry Schwartz grossed an astonishing one million dollars. They moved to bigger offices and began building their empire.
In April 1970 Calvin Klein held his very first fashion show introducing a fall collection of fifty pieces, but it was in May 1973 when he really set himself apart from the other designers with his collection of seventy four pieces and “the look” – a voluminous coat and shirt dresses, the pure, clean-cut lines, muted colours and all natural, sensual and luxurious grey flannels, British wools and buttery meltons. A month later Klein was nominated with the Coty American Fashion Critics Award as a designer whose work was “recognisable by its unique “brush stroke” and colour palettes as that of a top painter”.
Such a sensational success not only allowed Klein to take his business to another level – it gave him an opportunity to fulfil his ideas for dozens of other products from producing a menswear collection containing thousands of items made of 799 fabrics, creating his first perfume, introducing Calvin Klein jeans and underwear to designing a more affordable CK line as well as accessories and home collections. He was breaking the rules and changing people’s perception of beauty and fashion forever.
His business was, in a way, his life and his ultimate dream. The perfect world of beauty. The perfect world where every stitch, every button and every colour were exactly as he envisioned. The perfect world that had to be protected from people who one way or another, with words or actions led by greed or envy, tried to destroy it. Klein survived everything. The divorce. The drugs. The love. The loss. The gossip. His company became a worldwide phenomenon and his life – somewhat a legend.
“I think it’s more fun if you have the reputation and people don’t know everything - a little mystery isn’t so bad” he said in his interview to Playboy in 1984. Lets leave it at that…
Photo source: Calvin Klein photographed by Bruce Weber for LOVE magazine issue 3 2010, Calvin Klein working on his first collections, Calvin Klein design for Bonwit Teller, Mildred Custin & photos of Bonwit Teller in 1970s, Calvin Klein / Bloomingdales advert published in the September 1972 issue of American Vogue; Calvin Klein look in Vogue US September 1972, Calvin Klein designs in Vogue 1972-1975, Calvin Klein ad campaigns 1976-1977, Calvin Klein Fall/Winter 1981 campaign, Calvin Klein designs in Vogue US January 1980 (photography: Denis Piel), Calvin Klein design in Vogue US November 1981 (photography: Richard Avedon), Calvin Klein campaign in Vogue US 1982, Calvin Klein design in Vogue US December 1983 (photography: Arthur Elgort), Calvin Klein design in Vogue US October 1984 (photography: Arthur Elgort) and Vogue US May 1984, Calvin Klein blouse in Vogue US July 1985 (photography: Bert Stern), Cindy Crawford in Calvin Klein blazer in Vogue US January 1987 (photography: Wayne Maser), Calvin Klein parka in Vogue US January 1988 (photography: Steven Meisel), Paulina Porizkova wearing Calvin Klein in Vogue US December 1989, Helena Christensen wearing Calvin Klein slip dress in Vogue US September 1990, Calvin Klein white suit in Vogue US May 1990, Vogue US February 1991, Calvin Klein suit in Vogue US February 1991, Elaine Irving wearing Calvin Klein in Vogue US January 1992, Calvin Klein skirt & bodysuit in Vogue June 1992, Calvin Klein signature coat in Vogue US September 1993 (photography: Dewey Nicks, styling: Brana Wolf), Kirsty Hume wearing Calvin Klein coat in Vogue US August 1994 (photography: Albert Watson, styling: Grace Coddington), Amber Valletta wearing Calvin Klein dress in Vogue US August 1994, Calvin Klein coat in Vogue US November 1994 (photography: Pamela Hanson, styling: Anne Christensen), Christy Turlington wearing Calvin Klein in Vogue US February 1994, Kirsty Hume wearing Calvin Klein dress in Vogue US November 1996, Vogue US September 1996, Amber Valletta wearing Calvin Klein dress in Vogue US March 1997, Carolyn Murphy wearing Calvin Klein in Vogue US March 1998, Calvin Klein in Vogue US August 1999 (photography; Michael Thompson), Calvin Klein signature trench coat in Vogue US June 2000