London, 2017. At Phillips auction rooms in London’s Berkeley Square an image by Bruce Weber has just been bought for £87,000. It’s the most expensive auctioned work the photographer has ever sold: a sensuous black and white, full length shot of a toned, tanned man and woman up close and naked on a swing ( 'Ric and Natalie, Villa Tejas, Montecito, California’). The iconic photograph was used in an ad for Calvin Klein’s scent Obsession, in 1989.
As fresh and provocative as the perfume campaign was it marked the culmination of a chapter in the evolution of Calvin Klein. The game-changer came six years earlier with the launch of his men’s underwear range. Weber's image of Olympic pole-vaulter Tom Hintnaus in a pair of briefs - the luminous white that Persil promised - against a spotless white-washed wall, beneath a cloudless Grecian sky. Emblazoned across a billboard in Times Square it halted traffic and attracted crowds. Not as newsworthy as images of the moon landings or the assassination of a president….but a contender, nevertheless. The following year, American Photographer magazine cited it as one of the ten pictures that changed America.
The poster overshadowed the most powerful US ad campaign ever: Marlboro Man and the mythical landscape of Marlboro Country. When the artist Richard Prince used the cowboy in his appropriated art in the 1980s, he rephotographed the ads, then cropped and blurred them to exaggerate the artificial nature of the images. 'Further revealing them as hallucinatory fictions of society's desires’, MOMA clumsily pointed out. Similar could be said of the heightened, well-hung Hintnaus and those that followed. If Marlboro man was idealized American masculinity in the 1950s, Calvin Man was idealized male sexuality in the 1980s. Weber was presenting men as sex objects rather than cowboys, soldiers or astronauts. Calvin Man had balls - but little else. 'Everyone in Calvin's world was gorgeous', the designer Marc Jacobs recalled, excitedly, in conversation with the designer for Interview in 2013. 'Sexy. Sensual. Beautiful bodies. Silky skin. Perfection. Calvin's clothing seemed to be all about the sensation of touch and the provocation of getting naked'. While Calvin Country was more symbolic than mythical. It represented the hedonistic disco demi-monde Klein himself was part of throughout his high season as a celebrity from the late-1970s. When New York City was revitalised and the nightclub Studio 54 created what Andy Warhol described as a ‘new society’. One that fused the counter culture of the 1960s with the sexual freedoms on the fringes of the 1970s. The combination captivated the rising consumer generation of the 1980s and became the cultural orthodoxy of the 21st century. Welcome back to Calvin Country: population unknown.
New York, 2017. After becoming creative director at Calvin Klein and being a muse to A$AP Rocky ('It's rare Raf when I wear Raf/ Bare Raf when I wear Raf’), Raf Simons showed his debut collection for the label in New York this year. His remit? A vision for the future to match that of the brand’s founding father in the past. (Klein sold the company in 2002.) There was reference to Klein’s subtle designs, but the underlying message was as heavy-handed as some high-end fashion itself has become. Simons was following a trend - indignation is this season’s accessory. Creatives holed up in New York fear the poor, huddled, badly-dressed masses beyond are returning America to the Marlboro country of the 1950s. The figure leading the charge is like Klein himself a native New Yorker (Queens rather than the Bronx), and a Studio 54 regular from opening night. The new Calvin Klein collection coincided with the inauguration of President Donald Trump, who has talked up putting America first: buy American, hire Americans. Simons - a Belgian in love with his adopted New York - attempted his own take on patriotism. David Bowie’s ‘This Is Not America’ was played over a parade of models that referenced folksy quilt-making settlers, cowboy chic, varsity sweaters and even Wall Street yuppies. It’s a departure for an industry so fixated on the present. In which the past is another country that comes a poor second to the diverse nation of today. A folksy modern America that makes the present as much a myth as the past. But without Norman Rockwell around to capture its flawless, wholesome beauty. ‘It’s a celebration of Calvin Klein’s iconic underwear and jeans’, Raf Simons informed his Instagram followers, when summing up the ad campaign accompanying the collection, ‘acknowledging their status as Pop and showing them in the art world’. The ads feature semi-clothed young adults in gallery spaces, with the works of Warhol and Richard Prince.
Exhibiting the Klein oeuvre as art brings gravitas. Placing it in a historic tradition seals the designer's reputation for eternity. ‘You have just witnessed one of the great moments in the history of fashion’, writer Truman Capote declared, having been a cameo in an unrelated scene at Studio 54. 'That is, if you care about the history of fashion’. Some of us among that rising generation of consumers in the 1980s were witness to the Calvin Klein phenomenon. Yet it was lost to us in an era of excess: big shoulders, big hair, big billboards, big balls. We didn’t care. We had neither the physique to fill the clothes, nor the funds to buy them. Our focus remained on the sideshow of freaks and casualties on the fringes, in clubs that filled the chasm left by the likes of Studio 54. But as it turns out there was a prescience about Calvin Man. Calvin Woman. Calvin Country. The sexual provocation of the Weber ads. The gender fluidity of the ’shared fragrances'; the unisex fly-front underwear. The street style of the CK range. The celebrity-endorsed garments that began, provocatively in 1980, with a nubile Brooke Shields in jeans (‘You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.’). All that fashion, consumerism, culture has become. Now we get it. Now we care. Now we want to know the story. What was it again?
New York, 1968. Two things happened in 1968 that became dominant in the 1980s, and they top and tail our story: 'Calvin Klein’ was born and the AIDS virus entered the US. Assassinations were in vogue that year. Warhol survived an attempt on his life two days before another Kennedy didn’t. Calvin Klein became a company the day Martin Luther King was shot. (The riots that followed destroyed Klein's father’s grocery business in Harlem.) In hindsight, the 25-year old designer didn’t figure in the counter culture of the time: Warhol’s Factory fodder; revolutionary underground movements; anti-war protests, civil rights marches.
'That damn polyester killed the whole country’, he said years later. Fashion was his first, his last, his everything from a formative age: 'I spent the first ten years of my life designing beige, cream, white, brown, because those were all the colours that [my mother] loved’. The minimalism was evident during his apprenticeship years: the lack of ornamentation, the muted palette (fifty shades of beige). The designs were architectural and constructed in harsh fabrics. Yet casual, with an emphasis on separates as they were called - beginning with coats, moving swiftly into sportswear - rather than the standard single outfit. There was a forensic attention to detail and even more revealing of the man himself, a rigorous pursuit of perfection. The search for the perfect colour, the perfect cut, the perfect image. In the 1980s, when the ingredient of sensuality was added to the mix, he came close to capturing the elusive grail. As much - maybe more so - in the ad campaigns as the clothes: on a swing in Montecito; against a white-washed wall in Santorini. 'I have experienced lots of things that have influenced my world’, Klein has revealed. ' I am for good or bad a real example of whatever I’ve put out there. [The imagery] really is a part of me. And it happened because I was either observing or living in a certain way, or desiring to’.
Some believed his style was American and original. Others argued it was European and borrowed. During those apprenticeship years he was dispatched to Paris shows, while employed in New York’s garment district anonymously designing for Seventh Avenue stores. He was directed to copy and amend European designers, while swerving charges of plagiarism. These were levelled at him both early on and later in his career. He was referred to, disparagingly, as ‘the American Yves Saint Laurent’. In the 1990s he was said to be appropriating themes from Helmut Lang, Miuccia Prada, Jil Sander. According to The Washington Post a cashmere dress of Klein’s 'was a good deal more original than Klein’s previous delvings into beige, which is Armani terra firma’. Yet a Parisian retailer paid him the ultimate compliment: the one American brand he would introduce to the French market was Calvin Klein. Le nom transmet un rêve. 'The name conveys a dream’, he gushed. Sartorially, America was dismissed by experts as Europe’s poor relation. Klein tapped into the named designer trend as ready-to-wear came into its own, and fashion stateside became more democratized. In ‘The Me Decade’ Tom Wolfe attributes this to the thirty-year post-war boom that pumped money into almost every strata of society. The word ‘proletarian’ had lost its meaning: ‘One can’t even call working men “blue collar” any longer…..They have on $35 superstar Qiana sports shirts with elephant collars…’ Calvin Klein was never an elitist. He harboured ambitions to reach out and touch the mass market, taking his brand of style to those in provincial climates clad in polyester and pachydermic neckwear. Denim was as ideal a way to clothe the masses as any. Historically it's the great leveller - from Tom Joad to Tom Ford. Even in the 1980s it was as American as apple pie was, and AIDS was presumed to be. Perfect for that rising generation of consumers reared on MTV. But again, he wasn’t the first on the block with the big idea. Gloria Vanderbilt put jeans back in the frame in 1976; Fiorucci put a twist on the classic Levi’s, turning them gold and plastic. ‘Jeans are sex,' Klein announced. ‘The tighter they are, the better they sell.’ And his were a second skin that clasped the crotch and the rear. Some 200,000 pairs were sold in the first week. Later, following the Weber ad in Times Square, Bloomingdale’s shifted $65,000 worth of Klein’s underwear within a fortnight. Were these among those great moments in the history of fashion, that matter to those that care about fashion? Klein’s first big moment actually came by way of a fanfare several summers earlier. 'If you were around a hundred years from now and wanted a definitive picture of the American look in 1975’, trumpeted the September issue of Vogue, ‘you’d study Calvin Klein’. His fashion show that year broke new ground by being staged in a nightclub. He was tuning in to the changing mood, as trends in the margins - where minorities were making headway - bubbled in the mainstream. Notably in New York, which was moving out of a long recession following a multi-billion dollar bailout.
As ever Warhol was on the ball. Soon the ’superstars' that toyed with drugs, sexuality and gender inside the Factory gates, would be heading to a disused TV studio on 54th Street. For now they were quoting from the recently published 'From A To B And Back Again’, the philosophy of Andy Warhol. Ingrid Sischy, erstwhile editor at Warhol’s Interview, later claimed that like Warhol, Calvin Klein was a canny pop artist: 'able to nail the zeitgeist with precision time and again; often, in fact, he nudged the zeitgeist forward’. The magazine - 'the crystal ball of pop' - had begun to document the lives of key figures in the new society. Flawlessly perfect after artist Richard Bernstein transformed them with his pastels, pencils and airbrushing. (Calvin Klein was a cover star in 1982). Paloma Picasso noted that with the ‘Bernstein look’ things were ‘stronger, faster and further’. Similar could be said of the city itself that season. 'I wanted to be part of a whole new era that got inspired by what was happening in the world’, Klein recalled, when the party was over. 'It was an amazing time in New York City. Everyone from all walks of life, from any part of the world—at least I had the opportunity to meet them and get inspired by the way people looked or by what they did. Studio 54 really was a theme park for adults’. In the 1940s Truman Capote wrote of those figures that belong 'to that sect most swiftly, irrevocably trapped by New York, the talented untalented; too acute to accept a more provincial climate, yet not quite acute enough to breath freely within the one so desired, they go along neurotically feeding upon the fringes of the New York scene’. They were about to come in from the cold, sidling up to celebrities, participating in the rule-breaking excesses that were the preserve of the modern elite: the wealthy, beautiful people - the talented, the clever, the creative, the relevant and Bianca Jagger.
New York, 1977-1980. Studio 54 may have only survived for three years, but the eulogies that celebrate its life and lament its passing continue to linger, like restless spirits and helpless drunks. During its lifetime Calvin Klein, along with fellow party animal Halston, made the transition from designer to celebrity. And the experiences of that period informed the iconic brand found on the waistband of underpants from the 1980s and for eternity. Opening night was hosted by Fiorucci. The Italian label had launched a New York outpost that year - itself more of a nightclub than a store. Author Douglas Coupland described the shop as 'one beautiful little crystallization of everything you wanted adulthood to be. It was sexy, it was pop, it was fast, it was kind of electric’. Marc Jacobs became a Saturday boy, having been a besotted bystander: ‘I remember being 15 years old and hanging out at Fiorucci on 59th Street during the summer. I bought my monthly copy of Interview there. One Saturday, I was downstairs, and there before me was Calvin Klein…..I ran over to him and told him I was a huge fan…. I saw him amongst the beautiful people at Studio 54.’ Warhol said the disco was a dictatorship at the door and a democracy inside. Co-owner Steve Rubell operated a vetting policy: 'If it gets too straight, then there’s not enough energy in the room. If it gets too gay, then there’s no glamour. We want it to be bisexual. Very, very, very bisexual’. Beyond the velvet rope the ‘corridor of joy' led to a dance floor sandwiched between a basement and a balcony, where regulars had a license to partake in whatever sex and drugs that took their fancy, free from fear of stigma. 'I’ve experienced sex with men, with women. I’ve fallen in love with women’, Klein has said of those nights. 'I have experienced lots of things that have influenced my world’.
The experience influenced his designs for both men and women (he moved in on menswear the year Studio 54 opened), as they became more about that aforementioned sensation and provocation. Clothes to slip out of as well as slip into. The fabrics were softer: cashmeres, satin, linens. Texture became the focus in a decade in which female models were amazonian to fill the broad, big-shouldered clothes, and bulked up male models on billboards wore less and revealed more. (Klein himself pumped enough iron to be cast in his early ads). These images of male sexuality, and sexual ambiguity, not only had appeal but impact. People smashed the glass at bus shelters to steal the poster of Tom Hintnaus.
'I know all of the images and all of the models so well - as well as all of the moments,' Marc Jacobs mentioned in that conversation with Klein for Interview. As though each moment was a cue to another story, that was maybe personal, or maybe something more major. Not quite the moment that everyone knew where they were the day Kennedy was shot but…….. What had we missed? Those of us among the rising consumer generation of the 1980s, who couldn’t remember where we were the moment we saw a pole-vaulter in a pair of pants (1982) or a naked couple on a swing (1989). So much to recall in each of those years. So much in the years between. Capote went. Warhol too. But for the sake of our story, let’s take one development that surfaced. The spread of AIDS. The virus took the lives of 179,000 in the US by the beginning of the following decade. Among them: German countertenor Klaus Nomi who danced in the window at Fiorucci. Halston. Steve Rubell (Calvin Klein, Donald Trump among the Studio 54 regulars at the funeral). And later, Richard Bernstein. For some it was a plague. God’s revenge on the new society; those that dared to ditch polyester and leave 1950s Marlboro country. For others, and equally absurd, it was the beautiful people taken out before their time as artists, designers, musicians were on the list of the fallen. This was not the common-or-garden cancer that finished off plumbers in polyester and elephant collars in the provincial climates of the suburbs. In an effort to understand and articulate the magnitude of the disease historical events were cited by comparison, and belittled in the process. No, it wasn’t like the Holocaust. No, it wasn’t like The Great War. But some were insistent. ‘All the brightest and the best trampled to death’, the auteur Derek Jarman confided to his diaries. ' ‘- surely even the great war brought no more loss into one life..’ Signing off with the affected and trite - ‘and all this as we made love not war’.
Lives were ending sooner than expected. Other things too. An era. A decade. While on a billboard somewhere in 1989, Ric and Natalie back there at Villa Tejas, in full swing, in freeze frame, oblivious. Obsession. Of course. What else? Both a scent and the sum of an experience …….. by Calvin Klein: ‘Obsession is big, like a movie poster for this era. I think of everything I’ve ever done, how obsessed I was. Everyone is obsessed in the ’80s.’ A decade earlier at Studio 54, the regulars and a cast of hundreds, or thousands, if you include those in the queue that never passed the vetting ritual at the velvet rope, eager to be part of the launch party for Yves Saint Laurent’s perfume Opium. The French couturier arrives and is greeted with a kiss on both cheeks by Halston. 'You have just witnessed one of the great moments in the history of fashion,' Truman Capote declared. ‘That is, if you care about the history of fashion.'
New York, 1995. Long after the lights went up and the lives went out, Calvin Klein opened a flagship New York store at a corner of Madison Avenue. ‘The minimum is the perfection that an artifact achieves when it is no longer possible to improve on it by subtraction’, is the credo of its architect John Pawson. Klein’s notion that ‘repetition is reputation’ chimes with the approach of like-minded artists, designers and architects that opt for the confines of minimalism. Glass panels were slotted between existing pillars, and reached up three floors on the store’s facade. Inside, glass vitrines on honey-coloured flagstones exhibited the clothes as though they did indeed belong in a gallery or a museum. The minimalist goal was achieved to perfection, both aesthetically and ascetically. So much so that it inspired a group of monks to commission Pawson to build them a monastery.
Although the minimalist theme had occupied Klein for ever, it was now part of a wider trend that was a backlash against the 1980s. The vulgarity, the bigness, the consumerism had meant, for some, that culture had become a bit too democratized. ‘In the junkyard we are all richer, have more opportunities, more information, but are dispossessed’, wrote Derek Jarman, who died the year before. (He was commenting on the London of the 1980s.) 'The city no longer belongs to us, it is a Disneyland of shallow style. We are all tourists here, rootless’. In short the proles had finally ditched the polyester and elephant collars and started pitching their tents in Calvin Country. The beautiful people weren’t happy: this land was their land. Meanwhile, the waif-like, even child-like models in Calvin Klein ads were the antithesis of those of the previous decade. The topless Kate Moss advertising jeans and perfume was, according to Klein, a means of ‘closing the door on the excessiveness of the ‘80s’. The ‘90s were more natural, real, pared down. Anorexic, even. The half-dressed teenagers promoting his CK range, with shaved heads, piercings, and skeletal bodies were shot as though they were screen testing for a Larry Clark film. Moralists from the right, feminists from the left attacked the use of Lolita-like models in suggestive poses, accusing the designer of sanctioning child abuse. Klein was reputedly investigated by the FBI the year the store opened. The ads were pulled. Had he nudged the zeitgeist a little bit too far?
The launch was covered by the writer James Kaplan for New York magazine - a regular home to the 'new journalism' of the 1960s. Kaplan adopted a similar approach, placing Klein as a character in a series of scenes to which the journalist was privy. Such was the designer's fame in 1995, that the drug of choice that year was ‘Calvin Klein’ or ‘CK’ - a simple combination of two separates that complimented each other : Cocaine and Ketamine. Now in his fifties, Klein no longer had the physique that propelled him to advertise his own wares. His face was mottled from the sun; his hair was greying. Kaplan even suggested, unfairly, there was a ‘seediness’ to his attire: ‘It’s as if as a younger man he’d lived exclusively for the present, then awakened one morning, around 1988, to find that the present had gone’.
By writing about the designer in the 1990s he gave a glimpse of him in another time, another place. Beyond the velvet rope, along the corridor of joy at Studio 54. Long before the club was credited as a rehearsal for the 1980s, and a template for the 21st century. At a cocktail party Calvin Klein greets designer Donna Karan, as though the glitter balls are spinning, lights are strobing, the last days of disco are on them and they are, as the dance anthem claimed, born...born to be alive : ‘Entourages fall back as the two demigods embrace. And proceed to dish for a tantalizing ten minutes, in which Klein shifts out of party mode into alert, amusement, engagement and incredulity. He leans in like a Jewish eagle, fingers spread at his breastbone, agape. All at once, he is himself’. Kaplan too has a cameo in the scene, cast like a Capote figure witnessing one of those great moments in the history of fashion, for those who care about fashion. Only of course, it wasn’t.
London, 2017. The day the Bruce Weber photograph was auctioned in London, a series of images could be found covering the walls within a store nearby. Each poster featured a toned, black male model in a pair of white Calvin Klein underpants (actors from the film Moonlight). The images were taken by Willy Vanderperre, the long-time collaborator of Raf Simons, as part of the ad campaign to revamp the brand. Naturally these were a reference to the iconic Weber images from years before. It could have been 1982 - but it wasn’t. People passed by. Images of bulked up men in underwear have long since been the norm. A cowboy promoting cigarettes would cause greater offence. As for the few customers that stopped and stared, were they placing themselves in those moments that Marc Jacobs mentioned? Pausing to place the image in the greater scheme of things. What did this say about now? What did it say about where we are? How far we’ve come and where we’ve arrived at. Let’s call it Calvin Country, still. Let’s give the man that, long after Klein removed himself from the spotlight to hunt down the perfect hue for the components of his numerous homes ('The colour of the water in the pool is the exact same colour as the Shinnecock Bay’.) So much that was once in the margins - polymorphous sexuality, cross-dressing, gender-blurring - has found it’s way into the mainstream, where it has joined the varying faiths, races and cultures. The descendants of that diverse crowd of disco dancers at Studio 54. It may not exactly be home, but something close to it. Their voices may not be heard as often as they wish, but they are louder than they’ve ever been. And yet….
At the Calvin Klein show in New York, attendees were invited to wear white bandanas to show unity as part of a campaign entitled #tiedtogether. A response to the divisive climate of hate dominating world politics, in the wake of recent referendums and elections (to paraphrase). That pesky democracy again. But these results were not so much a reaction to the diverse present, as the myth of the diverse present; not so much a reaction to progressives as the figures that progressives have become. Characters similar to those Capote once wrote of: 'too acute to accept a more provincial climate, yet not quite acute enough to breath freely within the one so desired, they go along neurotically feeding upon the fringes..’ For the most part cartoon figures marooned in the mainstream. Redrawing battle lines in battles that are almost won. Shifting goalposts to widen the remit of victimhood. Falling back on a lexicon of cliches more hackneyed than the ‘populism' they abhor. While becoming apologists for ideologies that oppose the freedoms they fought for - because to challenge would imply that people with brown skins sometimes do bad things. When it comes to racists, homophobes, sexists, terrorists (to paraphrase) they like a particular look: straight, male, Christian, American, and a whiter shade of pale. Enter President Trump. He has become both a demon and a muse to his fashion-conscious enemies. A rich, crass honky, with hair the colour of the honey-coloured flagstones on the floor of a Madison Avenue store. Perfect. His supporters are cast as ill-educated proles, landlocked in those provincial climates of Marlborough Country, circling the wagons. While the elite, beautiful people are holed up in the the city, listening for gunfire and trigger warnings, bandanas to hand. Unarmed but accessorised. Secure in a safe space. Home of Studio 54, Interview, Fiorucci, the Warhol factory, Calvin Klein. This is New York, they say. This is not America. Only of course, it is - and God bless it.