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Calvin Klein Mannequin Fetish, revisited | © Eliazar Parra Cardenas/Flickr
Calvin Klein Mannequin Fetish, revisited | © Eliazar Parra Cardenas/Flickr

Calvin Klein: A Global Fashion Legacy

Picture of Valerie McPhail
Updated: 22 August 2016
Before #mycalvins launched into a social media fad, there was a vision for minimalist design. Calvin Klein, a designer with a dominant American sportswear label of the same name, needs no introduction. Sexualized jean campaigns, athletic-inspired lingerie, and immaculate ready-to-wear collections designed for the runway: all of these contributions precede the label’s namesake in the fashion industry. We take a closer look at New York City-born designer, Calvin Klein.

In the wake of world chaos and trauma following World War II, a designer with evident creativity was born in the Bronx. The career of the young New York-based designer began as a graduate from the Fashion Institute of Technology in 1962, and quickly advancing into an apprenticeship with a suit manufacturer. Pea coats that replicate double-breasted blazers, tailored skirts, and high-waisted trousers influenced Klein’s subsequent aesthetic.


In 1968, Calvin Klein started a coat shop with Barry Schwartz, a childhood friend. Not long after, the dawn of its 1970 ready-to-wear collection – now referred to as Calvin Klein Collection – refocused the label on the women’s market. Since the brand’s inception, classic, timeless silhouettes have become synonymous with the Calvin Klein catwalk during fashion week. The simplicity that defines the brand provides a resource for understanding minimalism in today’s world of fashion.


Enthroned as one of the original denim designers, Calvin Klein became the authority on practical design, and appealed to the masses with the provocative nature of the brand’s ad campaigns. From sexually-charged snap shots of heated, passionate moments to the androgynous, ‘heroine-chic’ look that defined the 1990s, models and celebrities from Justin Bieber to FKA Twigs and Laura Stone have all participated in seductive commercial endorsements.


The brand has long engaged in dialogues about sexuality and gender-neutrality. Ck One, the brand’s unisex fragrance, was presented with a provocative video profiling young sex appeal. From Klein’s 1990s underwear contract with Mark Wahlberg to Kate Moss styled in nothing more than Calvin Klein underwear and jeans, to a teenage Brook Shields proclaiming, ‘You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing,’ the brand created a culture of controversy. Yet Calvin Klein has always maintained that his aesthetic and subsequent advertisement is reflective of culture.


Despite allegations that his ad campaigns bordered on child pornography, the fashion industry has always respected and admired this household name. In 1993, the Council of Fashion and Design of America recognized Calvin Klein as an ‘Outstanding Designer, Men’s and Women’s’. Klein was the first designer to win these awards. In 2003, the brand was sold to PVH, and Mr. Klein handed the reigns of women’s design to Francisco Costa. Recently, Costa’s role has been passed along to Belgium born Raf Simons.



Calvin Klein has long understood the function of fashion, and his perspective remains utilitarian while aesthetically-pleasing and culturally-relevant. Calvin Klein’s attention to the relationship between functional and luxury fashion is what continues his legacy in the fashion industry.