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`Five minutes' with Calvin Klein

More like twenty as MUKUND PADMANABHAN and T.KRITHIKA REDDY find out during an exclusive encounter with one of the world's great fashion designers, whose public image is far removed from reality

"Five minutes. Five minutes is all I have," he says, striding into the pool side cafe at the Madras Club. The handshake and the smile are warm, but it's hardly an encouraging start for an interview. But then, can you really ask more time of a man who has flown into Chennai on a private jet and says he is "just about" to leave the city for another? And then heck, we reason, this is Calvin Klein — the man who created an extraordinarily successful fashion empire; the man who founded the eponymously named company that sells everything, from high-end runway designs, jeans, underwear and fragrances to a new home line; the man whose name is synonymous with minimalist contemporary chic.

But could this really be Calvin Klein? The fashion designer who revolutionised the way American men thought about underwear? The marketing genius who made his brand of denim wear a household name in the 1980s with the controversial advertising campaign featuring a 15-year old Brooke Shields ("Nothing comes between me and my Calvins")? The iconoclast who constantly provoked, teased and tested the boundaries of advertising morality through billboards of waif-like barely-pubescent women and homoerotic images of near-naked men? The party animal who reportedly spent nights on end having an unspeakably wild time at New York's hip Studio 54?

Quiet control

It is impossible not to ask ourselves these questions as we begin interacting with this man in a sober pinstriped shirt who looks quizzically from behind his John Lennon spectacles. He has an air of intellectual distraction, an aura of quiet control and says what he has to in a manner that is extremely measured and thoughtful. In short, he is not quite the man who we thought he might be. Quickly, he seems to lose himself in the conversation. This suits us well. Five minutes matures into twenty.

So...err...what brings him to India? "I am always travelling around the world now that I have sold my company and I am consulting with it." (Klein sold Calvin Klein Inc. in 2003 for a reported $ 400 million but remains active in design direction.) "I am using this opportunity to see what the possibilities could be for the company to expand and discover what is happening in design around the world. For our company to be in touch with what is happening in the world, we need to be out there."

For Klein, such exploratory exercises are not confined to meetings with designers or visits to stores. Though there was some of this too during his brief stay in Chennai, where he was shown around by Sujaya Menon, the first stop in a tour arranged by Cox and Kings. Inspiration for design, he suggests, could come from anywhere. "I can get inspired with the colours and patterns on that couch," he says pointing to the sofa across him. "Or take that, for instance," he says, pointing to a lime green stripe in a duppatta. "I can do Cashmere sweaters in that colour."

Expansion plans

Calvin Klein Inc, which now distributes in Europe through department and speciality stores, has been focussing on international expansion over the last few years. Klein admits that the company may have been a "little slow in distributing the brand around the world. We have just begun to take advantage of our name. On this trip too, the idea is to understand the possibilities..."

So, is this visit going to firm up the entry of the Calvin Klein brand in India, following such brands as Louis Vuitton, Hugo Boss and Tommy Hilfiger? "Oh no, not this time," he says. "But yes, you can't be a truly global brand until you dress up a billion people in India." Adding that India and China were bound to become important markets for Calvin Klein Inc., he refers to the store the company recently opened in China. "We've just started there, so it is only a beginning," he says before adding philosophically, "I guess it is difficult to be everywhere at the same time."

There is no argument that he is a great designer but over the years it is his incredible marketing skills that have received the lion's share of the media's attention. No other designer has relied more on advertising to shape his company's image, products and fortunes. Billboards transformed underwear from something you had to wear to something that could be sexy; campaigns that made it possible to promote perfumes as unisex; advertisements that were awash with a vaguely troubling but striking androgyny.

Does he think the focus on his controversial advertisements detracted attention from his work as a designer? Klein chooses not to answer the question head on. "The reason we did our advertising in-house, as opposed to going to an ad agency, is that we wanted to communicate the essence of the product we created to the consumer. Yes, we did it creatively. Yes, we took some risks. But at the same time, we had fun," he says with a faint twinkle in his eyes.

He denies that he was trying to shock the world. "That really wasn't the intention. If you plan to shock, it doesn't really work. We may have been provocative but the plan was to try and convey a message."

As a consultant to Calvin Klein Inc., he now works with the company's design directors. "But it's really up to me to do what I find challenging. And I think one of the best things I can do is to be in touch with what's happening in the world and bring that back to people who are stuck in New York."

How is it that Calvin Klein the man seems so serious, so far removed from the flamboyant image that he and his company have? For the first time, Klein bursts into laughter. "It must be my glasses," he jokes. Then, his thoughtful side kicks in. "We had a reputation of taking some risks, of creating some excitement. But we are a very serious business...I mean very, very, very serious."

* * *


1942: Born in Bronx, New York

1962: Graduated from New York Fashion Institute of Technology

1968: Launched Calvin Klein Inc. with a $ 10,000 loan from a childhood friend

1973: Won the prestigious Coty award for the first time

1980: Made jeans a designer product with the Brooke Shields ad campaign

1990s: New production lines, gets into perfume, looks towards markets outside America

2003: Sells Calvin Klein Inc. to Philip Van Heusen

2004: Spends `five minutes' with Metroplus!

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