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Klein, Calvin (b. 1942)  

American designer Calvin Klein has created an extraordinarily successful fashion empire through the simple and elegant design of his clothes and through his skilful employment of provocative advertising campaigns that are saturated with .

Born in the Bronx, New York, on November 19, 1942, the son of a Jewish grocer, Klein taught himself to sketch and sew as a boy. His mother was an elegant and sophisticated woman who played an important role in shaping her son's fashion sense by taking him on trips to her dressmakers. His grandmother had the greatest influence on his budding career by teaching him to use a sewing machine.

Klein attended New York's Fashion Institute of Technology. After graduating in 1962, he worked for a Seventh Avenue coat and suit house. In 1968, with his childhood friend Barry Schwartz, he opened his own business, designing and selling women's coats.

Klein's designs were noticed by the vice president of the New York store Bonwit Teller, who invited him to show his clothes to the store president. In order to ensure that the clothes did not get creased or soiled, the designer pushed his collection up Seventh Avenue on a clothes rail. The president was impressed with Klein's minimalist style and placed an order for clothes worth $50,000.

Klein's emphasis in designing clothes has always been on modernity and simplicity, creating wearable outfits for both men and women. "I've always had a clear design philosophy and point of view about being modern, sophisticated, sexy, clean and minimal. They all apply to my design esthetic," he told fashion magazine Women's Wear Daily.

In 1964, Klein married Jayne Centre, with whom he had a daughter, Marci. Klein and Centre were divorced in 1974.

During the late 1970s and early 1980s, Klein was a familiar face on the New York club scene. He was regularly seen at celebrity night spots, such as the now legendary Studio 54, accompanied by a loosely knit circle of friends, who included designers Halston and Giorgio di Sant'Angelo, artist Andy Warhol and his acolytes, and Bianca Jagger, among others.

Rumors of drug consumption and sexual excesses abounded, as did rumors that Klein had contracted AIDS. In fact, an Italian radio station announced his death from the disease. In May 1988, Klein revealed his drug addiction and checked into a drug rehabilitation clinic.

Rumors have circulated widely about Klein's sexuality. In their 1994 unauthorized biography, Obsession, Steven Gaines and Sharon Churcher alleged that he is bisexual. They said that he has a preference for "straight boys" and that he is a member of a so-called "Velvet Mafia" of millionaires who swap lovers.

In 1986, Klein wed a thirty-two-year-old worker from his design studio, Kelly Rector. The fact that the couple continued to live in separate apartments only added fuel to the rumors.

Klein developed his fashion empire by branching out from women's coats to sportswear, then developing a line of designer jeans, and launching successful fragrances in the 1970s and 1980s.

In 1982 Klein altered the way men viewed and bought underwear with the introduction of Calvin Klein underwear. This may be his biggest contribution to gay culture. To announce the launch of his men's white briefs, he erected an enormous billboard in New York's Times Square, featuring an overtly sexual image of a perfectly formed muscular man wearing nothing but white underwear.

The homoerotic imagery was overt. Questioned about the homoerotic appeal of their advertising by Karen Stabiner for The New York Times Magazine in May 1982, a spokesperson for Calvin Klein stated, somewhat disingenuously, "We did not try to appeal to gays. We try to appeal, period. If there's an awareness in that community of health and grooming, then they'll respond to the ads."

Klein's billboard has been credited with heralding a new era in imagery of men in advertising and in precipitating a new fashion in men's underwear. This campaign ran just a few years before the revolution in men's magazine advertising that sexualized the male form as a hairless muscular object of desire.

The homoerotic appeal was enhanced by the use of photographs by Bruce Weber and Herb Ritts. By the beginning of the 1990s, Calvin Klein white cotton briefs were the most popular item of underwear for gay men, enhanced by the use of increasingly sexual images, such as the 1992 campaign featuring rap star Marky Mark.

In 1993 Klein created a breakthrough new concept in designer fragrance with the launch of cK One, a unisex fragrance designed to be worn by both men and women.

Klein's importance as a designer is evident through the awards he has received. In 1973 he became the youngest designer to win the prestigious American Coty Award (the first of three) and in 1982, 1983, and 1986 he won the Council of Fashion Designers of America Award for outstanding design in both womenswear and menswear.

Advertising has played a major role in the success of Calvin Klein's many fashion enterprises. From the Richard Avedon advertisement for Calvin Klein jeans featuring a young Brooke Shields asking, "You know what comes between me and my Calvin's? Nothing," through the homoeroticism of the jeans insert in Vanity Fair shot by Bruce Weber, and the stylish black and white advertisements for the perfumes Obsession and Eternity, to the controversial 1995 campaign for cK Calvin Klein jeans that was quickly withdrawn after accusations of child pornography, Klein's advertising campaigns have been both provocative and enormously successful.

Commenting on the importance of advertising Klein himself stated that "I think it starts with the product. Then you need to communicate what the product's about. We've done that efficiently."

More than efficient, the advertising campaigns for Klein's products have made homoeroticism a staple of consumer culture in North America and Western Europe.

Shaun Cole


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   Related Entries
arts >> Overview:  Advertising and Consumerism

In the last decades of the twentieth century, purveyors of products and services have worked to identify and court a glbtq market with both positive and negative effects.

arts >> Overview:  Fashion

The association between homosexuality and fashion is multifaceted, ranging from the role of clothes as signifiers of sexual orientation to the immense contributions gay men have made at all levels of the fashion industry.

social sciences >> Overview:  Outing

First used by homophobes and then by glbtq activists, outing is the public revelation of a person's sexuality without the consent of that person.

arts >> Overview:  Photography: Gay Male, Post-Stonewall

Post-Stonewall gay male photography merits recognition for its contribution to fine art, documentation, photo-journalism, and advertising, as well as erotica.

arts >> Overview:  Pornographic Film and Video: Gay Male

Gay male pornographic film and video, which dates from the release of Wakefield Poole's The Boys in the Sand in 1971, has provided gay men an all-too-rare positive image of gay sexuality.

arts >> Halston (Roy Halston Frowick)

The first international fashion superstar, Halston dressed and befriended some of America's most glamorous women.

arts >> Ritts, Herb

Acclaimed for his artistic and insightful images, many of them in black and white, American photographer Herb Ritts infused his work with homoeroticism and "homosexual iconography."

arts >> Warhol, Andy (as artist)

The avatar of Pop Art, Andy Warhol expressed desire in his images of celebrities and flouted traditional notions of masculinity by embracing extravagance, effeminacy, and an obsession with surface appearances.

arts >> Weber, Bruce

One of the world's most popular commercial photographers, Bruce Weber has re-envisioned male beauty through his erotic, yet nostalgic take on American adolescence.

arts >> Wenner, Jann

Jann Wenner, founder and editor of the influential music and culture magazine Rolling Stone, was outed in 1995.


Coleridge, Nicholas. The Fashion Conspiracy. London: Heinemann, 1988.

Gaines, Steven, and Sharon Churcher. Obsession: The Lives and Times of Calvin Klein. New York: Carol Publishing Group, 1994.

Howell, Georgina. "Mr. Klein Comes Clean." Sunday Times (London) (September 10, 1989).

McDowell, Colin. The Designer Scam. London: Hutchison, 1994.

Milbank, Caroline Rennolds. New York Fashion: The Evolution of American Style. New York: Harry A. Abrams, 1989.

Stabiner, Karen. "Tapping the Homosexual Market." The New York Times Magazine (May 2, 1982): 34.


    Citation Information
    Author: Cole, Shaun  
    Entry Title: Klein, Calvin  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated January 6, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 2002, glbtq, Inc.  


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