Business

Did Calvin Klein empower women, or was he just another sexist?

In a recent book that spans his life as America’s best known fashion designer, Calvin Klein explains that he had one vision all along: “To speak of the timeless seduction of youth –those fiercely creative individuals who answer only to themselves.”

Since I was one of those individuals and part of the Calvin Klein story, I ordered the big black book, Calvin Klein by Calvin Klein, published by Rizzoli. But when it arrived I found myself reluctant to rekindle old, and invariably mixed, emotions. It took me a week before I opened it and when I finally did, I surprised myself by feeling proud. On the cover was Kate Moss wearing CK jeans and a tailed jean jacket from the days when I was the director of design for CK Calvin Klein.

Calvin hired me in 1990 to create a collection that would compete with Donna Karan’s DKNY. Though he had been the youngest recipient of the Coty American Fashion Critic’s Award in 1973, in that span of 17 years a lot had happened. By the time of my first interview with him, Calvin seemed annoyed that the young creative professional customers that Donna knew how to cultivate had somehow escaped him. By the end of our second meeting, Calvin and I were joking about starting CKNY. That is more or less what we did when we launched CK, using Kate Moss as the face of our cool new collection. I stayed for three years, until late 1993.

Calvin divides his new book into three chapters. “Rebellious” opens with the most provocative and memorable photos of his early collections, followed by 80 pages in which the models wear hardly anything at all. Then he introduces Kate Moss, butt-bare, before she ends up dressed, head to toe, in CK.

When Kate, age 17, first walked into Calvin’s office, we were sitting on the floor reviewing model cards for our upcoming show. I looked up and assumed she was an intern with a message for Calvin. After all, hadn’t we been looking for the next six-foot supermodel? This girl was tiny, like there weren’t enough zeroes to describe the size of her hips. When Calvin said she was fabulous, I argued that she was too small for our amazon-sized show samples. His response: “make it happen” (his favorite command).

All our jeans came in a size 6, falling super low on Kate’s 00 hips and revealing her Marks & Spencer knickers. It actually looked kind of sexy, so for the Spring ’93 fashion show, with “make it happen” still ringing in my ears, I styled Calvin Klein underwear as outerwear, hiding the fact that nothing fit our new model – Kate Moss. Thus, a whole new look was born and wearing CK logo underwear above your waistband became a symbol of rebellion for the next generation.

Compared to the explicit first chapter, the book’s next one, “Minimalist,” verges on puritanical. Aware of the contradiction, Calvin goes on to describe his work as a confluence of modernist design and the sexual revolution. On page 17, a famous photo by Helmut Newton, model Lisa Taylor leans back, legs wide apart, and smiles beguilingly at a shirtless man in an invitation seemingly open to all. Yet in light of today’s #TimesUp movement, when it is finally becoming clear that women didn’t enjoy the sexual revolution when they weren’t in control, it is hard to argue with Gloria Steinem’s early pronouncement that Calvin’s ads were plainly sexist.

Calvin may have wished that male/female chemistry was as uncomplicated as his ads, but Kate Moss told me after the big AIDS fundraiser fashion show at the Hollywood Bowl in 1993 how her first shoot CK shoot with Mark Wahlberg (then known as Marky Mark) had been “terrifying.” (She also recounted the experience to James Fox for a 2012 Vanity Fair article and in a 2017 W Magazine video interview.)

I’ll never forget how horny Mark was, as he stood in the middle of the showroom where we rehearsed our Spring ’93 show, surrounded by models in various stages of undress. He turned to Calvin and said, “Man, I want your job!” A few weeks later, Kate and Marky shot the provocative Times Square posters that suggested sexual intimacy. But Kate didn’t really even like Marky, and was reluctant to take off her clothes.

The emotion that I’d dreaded when I first bought the book re-surfaced when I read the last section called “Stories,” in which Calvin gives context to his imagery. What upset me was that Calvin claims to be empowering women while reverting to conventional roles. He writes of women as friends and muses and describes how their looks inspire him while he portrays men as doers and creative innovators. David Geffen gets the credit for sending Mark Wahlberg his way when in fact it was my young design team — all women in their ‘20s who went to clubs and knew their rappers — that introduced Calvin to Marky’s music and persuaded him to use the rap star as a model in the upcoming shoot.

Now, 25 years later, I feel emboldened by an entire movement of women who are sick of being marginalized. After working in the fashion industry for decades, first as a model then as a designer, I had more than my share of propositions and know all-too-well how to handle unwanted advances. What I can’t handle is the undermining of women in leadership roles by men with double standards.

If I had any hopes that Calvin’s extravagant book would be honest, I was proven wrong. He writes that he’s “always been drawn to strong, creative women who have something new to say and fearlessly express their vision and style to the world.” This sounds good, but why didn’t he bother to acknowledge any of the women who worked at Calvin Klein Inc. over a 30-year period?

According to the trade website The Business of Fashion, 70 percent of the support system in leading fashion brands is female. Yet women hold fewer than 25 percent of the leadership roles. That, despite the fact that 93 percent of all fashion college graduates are women. And let’s be honest: this is a business driven by women, both as consumers and creators. Still, the majority of designer brands still have a man’s name on the label.

At his offices on 39th Street, Calvin was surrounded by hundreds of highly qualified women. If it weren’t for these female directors, designers, executives, merchandisers, assistants and seamstresses there would be no Calvin Klein.

While the #MeToo movement exposes men who sexually abused women in the workplace, this form of empowerment stems from victimhood. It doesn’t reflect our true power as the pillars behind so many successful companies. Surely the next step of the women’s movement is to give and get credit where credit is due. And if necessary, grab it by the balls.

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