Since he was five Calvin Richard Klein knew that he wanted to design women’s clothes. While other boys in the Bronx neighbourhood played baseball and did all the things kids do before they grow up, and his brother Barry and sister Alexis kept getting in old sorts of trouble, Calvin spent time watching his grandmother, Molly Stern, a former Hattie Carnegie seamstress, creating gorgeous garments for her customers, accompanying his mother, Flore (or Flo as everyone called her) to the numerous sample sales where she would buy designer clothes, and taking weekend classes in life drawings and sketches. His father, Leo Klein, wasn’t particularly keen on his sons choice, but Flo had a different opinion – as far as she was concerned, Calvin was perfect in every single way. Not that she was wrong about making such a statement. Her son really was good at what he did. First it was the sketches, then, after he was given a sewing machine as a present, designing and making clothes.
Despite his obvious talent, Calvin Klein wasn’t a popular figure in the neighbourhood. Everyone around him felt that he was different and, naturally, they found it difficult to understand or accept. Everyone, but his family and Barry Schwartz, his only friend and the only person Calvin trusted.
The two were introduced by their fathers who use to meet on their way to work, but the friendship that developed between the boys was independent of their families. Barry and Calvin couldn’t have been more different – Barry was athletic, confident and interested in sports and a bit of clever gambling, Calvin, on the other hand, stood tall and remained reserved and shy, only interested in his drawings and fashion illustration that he studied at the School of Industrial Arts.
And yet, the duo was unseparatable. They even made plans on going into business together, opening a chain of supermarkets and making money. If only they knew that that childhood ambition was to become their biggest adventure ever.
In a meantime, before their destiny knocked at Klein’s door, Calvin found himself at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) where the 18-year old went to learn all the tricks of the trade, particularly “how to create something very beautiful, very well cut, very well proportions, and very simple.” It was also at FIT when, inspired by Chanel, Poiret and Jacques Tiffeau, Klein began developing his passion for the purity of design, the quality of fabrics and the love for muted colour palette. He was a quick learner and eager to absorb everything that had to do with fashion and style, so eventually FIT was no longer fit enough for him. At 20 he took a job as a copyboy at Women’s Wear Daily hoping that it would make a good start for him, but the position proved to be a dead end, though giving the young designer quite a few insights about the industry, something that no FIT class would teach him.
It was also the time when Calvin Klein met a girl and fell in love. Jayne Centre was a beautiful strawberry blonde from his neighbourhood, somebody he knew since childhood and dated, on and off, through school. They got married in spring 1964. On 21 October 1966 the couple welcomed an adorable little girl they named Marcia Robin Klein.
After graduating from FIT and trying a couple of job that didn’t have any prospects, Calvin Klein got an interview at Dan Millstein’s company, one of the biggest clothes manufactures at the time. He was hired. The position was a true learning curve. One day he could have been sent to Paris to see the shows and then sketch the clothes for Millstein to copy. Next, he would be stuck in an office cubicle, designing something bright coloured and over the top. For Klein, it felt like prison. The salary wasn’t good either and so after producing yet another yellow design that was too much for Klein’s fine tuned aesthetics to bear, Calvin decided to look for another job.
Halldon Ltd. was a coat company owned by Louis Schlansky who founded the business in 1917. Calvin was welcomed there instantly. He received a better salary, better treatment and most importantly, respect as a young and promising designer. He stayed there until 1967, the year that changed everything.
One day Klein received another job offer that seemed tempting enough to go for. It was Barry who stopped him. Clearly, Calvin’s old friend understood him better than the young designer himself. Instead of cheering, Schwartz asked Klein to consider starting something of his own, rather than wasting his talent on somebody else’s dreams. He even offered to finance the business as much as he could.
It was enough to make Calvin stop and think. Then Klein did something he’s never done before – he asked his father for advice. “I don’t know anything about fashion or what you’ve been studying all these years,” began Leo, “but whatever it is, I have a feeling that you haven’t given it enough of a chance. An opportunity like Barry’s may never come along again, but I think you will be miserable for the rest of your life if you don’t stick it out.” The words cemented the deal.
It took Klein several months to design and produce a dozen of samples that somebody once remembered as “being superbly beautiful, like highly styled Balenciaga classics and the work of a true genius.”
On 28 December 1967, Calvin Klein Ltd. was officially incorporated. It was run by Calvin Klein and Barry Schwartz, best friends and now business partners. Finally, they welcomed their destiny and bravely made their first step into the unknown, but incredibly exciting future. Calvin Klein was only 25 years old.
To be continued…