CALVIN KLEIN’S sex addiction
“You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing!”– The famous words of a 15-year-old Brooke Shields in one of Calvin Klein’s most iconic ad campaigns. This would be the first in a series of sexually provocative images that would influence the look of fashion for decades to come. The use of sexual themes to sell jeans and market products would become the calling card of Calvin Klein and make him one of the most innovative and infamous visionaries of our time.
Native New Yorker Calvin Klein studied apparel design at the acclaimed Fashion Institute of Technology in the 1960s. At that time, the city was charged with a sense of beatnik immediacy, free love, and honesty, in contrast to the social, moral, and cultural edifice of traditional America. The gay Continental Baths had just opened, Andy Warhol and The Factory ruled the roost, and Nico added a bit of femme fatale to The Velvet Underground. NYC was a vacant lot of opportunity, quickly being inhabited by a voracious wave of disenfranchised artists, poetic musicians, and costumers turned designers that would later become some of the most recognizable names in fashion. Calvin Klein tapped into the synergy of the times and would eventually launch a capsule line of tight-fitting jeans that would become synonymous with 70s sex appeal.
In the 80s, Klein blurred the boundaries between the sexes with a revealing underwear line campaign that featured a series of advertisements with rapper Mark Wahlberg aka Marky Mark, actor Antonio Sabato Jr., and an up and coming 18-year-old waif model Kate Moss. Klein re-visited the sensuality seen in lingerie ads and unveiled an intimates sexual revolution in a way that had everyone wanting to show off their undies. What was once considered attire just for the bedroom, would be plastered on billboards for the world to see.
After stripping us down to our knickers, Klein would launch a line of androgynous fragrances, Obsession and Eternity, telling us that if we’re going to be naked, it doesn’t matter if we’re a boy or a girl, we’d better smell good. The thrill of Klein’s sexploitation movement of self-discovery continued.
For the next decade, Klein would dominate the jeans and fragrance industries. Critics claimed that by the mid-nineties, the Calvin Klein brand was flailing- some blamed Klein’s rumoured drug dependency, others speculated that his over-the-top ad campaigns dwarfed his designs. Klein responded with his most controversial promotion to date.
In 1995 a new Calvin Klein Jeans campaign featuring pubescent models in provocative poses was launched, shot by Madonna Sex book photographer Steven Meisel. Meisel consulted with known New York S&M master Lou Malleta to orchestrate a series of national print ads and TV commercials, using underage looking models posed against a wood-paneled wall background, simulating a scene from a 60s porn flick. The models were then asked pervasive questions from an off-camera older man using implied sexual undertones. The American Family Association stepped in with charges against Klein, denouncing the ads as disturbing, exploitative, and pornographic, and insisted that they be pulled. Klein disagreed, but eventually conceded, “We thought we were doing something that was a bit on the edge, and would be interpreted as fun. I withdrew the ads immediately and apologized because my intention was not to hurt or offend anyone.”
After the furore over Klein’s “porn” campaign died down, Klein approached a new millennium with a new artistic approach, displaying several controversial billboards in Manhattan’s Times Square showcasing two small boys and two girls, playing on a sofa, dressed only in their underwear. The ads were pulled 24 hours after being put up.
The influence Calvin Klein has had on fashion and style is immeasurable. His bold work is constantly referenced in the imageries of contemporary luminaries such as David LaChapelle, Mert Alas, and Marcus Piggot. Calvin Klein has forever changed the way we approach our sexuality, our personification of morality, and the way we wear our jeans. In today’s trend-obsessed society where how you wear your jeans is an indication to which tribe you belong, we can only thank Calvin for being the leader of the liberation pack.
published with the permission of WOUND magazine www.woundmagazine.com