The boy from Brazil
Francisco Costa, the man behind Calvin Klein's high-fashion line, tells Jing Zhang about his journey
"I don't see myself being anything but just a designer," Brazilian Francisco Costa of Calvin Klein Collection says. "I love what I do … I live in the office. The only acknowledgements I'm searching for are from the customer."
Costa won the coveted Council of Fashion Designers of America award for womenswear designer of the year in 2006 and 2008. The following year he won the prestigious Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award for Fashion, and though he enjoys a quiet public life he's become a fashion tour de force for the US market.
However humble, Costa - who helms Calvin Klein Collection, the US fashion empire's most high fashion line - admits there are "moments when I pinch myself". The Smithsonian award was such an occasion.
"It was a design award, not a fashion award. It was at a museum and I was honoured with the guy who invented the laptop," says Costa. "I said, 'this is very f***** up!' It was crazy but I take great pride in that too."
The boy from Brazil has come a long way. Born in Guarani in 1964, his mother ran a successful children's apparel business and his father owned a ranch, imbuing him with an early appreciation for fashion and escape. Costa considered painting and architecture as careers but following his mother's death, moved to New York, despite speaking no English, to pursue fashion. He studied language at Hunter College by day and attended the Fashion Institute of Technology at night. Freedom and fashion fitted him like a glove. He earned an Idea Como/Young Designers of America award and was off and running. A stint at Susan Bennett Studio led to a designer role for Bill Blass dresses and knits. Next was a five-year collaboration with New York design royalty Oscar de la Renta and several labels under his stewardship. De la Renta was Costa's calling card to higher glamour.
"With Oscar, it was great because it was about the make and the beauty of it, the flamboyance and upper-class New York society," Costa says.
He caught the eye of Tom Ford, who recruited Costa for his Gucci design studio in 1998. Costa was made senior designer focusing on eveningwear, which included custom designs for high society and celebrities.
"With Tom it was a different world," Costa reflects. "He always looked through these lenses and it's funny he ended up doing film because he had a cinematic eye. It was always the end product going down the runway, always the final image ... in a way like the Calvin Klein ads that are quite cinematic and have had a huge impact. I think there was a weird connection."
Costa joined the Calvin Klein label in 2003 (apparently brought to the founder's attention by partner Barry Schwartz) and was made women's creative director of Calvin Klein Collection within a year. He felt connected to the brand because it represented "an aesthetic that I loved growing up - simplicity and precision".
Calvin Klein advertisements left a mark on the young teen. "The impact the Brooke Shields image had on me - it was so genius. I had tear sheets of her on my wall," he says, smiling at the recollection, the journey he's travelled and the reconnection. Recalling Calvin Klein's move to bring celebrity into fashion branding 30 years ago, Costa describes it as both clever and pioneering. "He saw that there was a connection to the bigger world," says Costa.
The designer has been making the right connections for the label over the past decade, finding a vision that complements the language of Calvin Klein and its admirers.
Although the US fashion brand has Calvin Klein Jeans, and CK Calvin Klein in women and menswear, two lines that have experienced international success, Costa's more luxurious line has yet to find a home in Hong Kong (and many developing markets).
"It excites me to think that the Collection has that extra element, that extra cut that is very relevant to the luxury aspect of what a product should be. What I have moved away from is that I don't need to show a suit anymore," says Costa of his development. "A woman can go to work now in a dress, it's more personal, although the Calvin culture was based on this freedom and individuality of this woman wearing the suit."
Costa's evolution of the modern Calvin Klein working woman is what's exciting fans. Pure and effortlessly chic, it comes as a breath of fresh air in a vintage-obsessed industry whose trend cycles have seen retro styles endlessly rehashed.
"The clothes we design are clean, intelligent," he says. "They are sparse but full of energy and have a great cut."
"Calvin said he was 'often minimalist' so he didn't consider himself a minimalist," adds Costa.
"The minute you label yourself you somehow limit yourself and he explores so many different things. I feel the same way ... I am sort of a reductionist."
Industry and customer reaction to Costa has, in fact, been feeling right for some time. His simplified aesthetic is speaking to this generation of urban working women who are rethinking their look in times of austerity.
LET’S GET SERIOUS
“I’m not sure if it’s tougher,” says creative director Francisco Costa of his latest Autumn- Winter 2012-13 Calvin Klein Collection for women, the high-fashion arm of the Calvin Klein empire. “It’s more urban.
The spring collection had a real softness to it and for autumn I needed a different take on this wardrobe. I wanted a woman who was very sleek and urban, heavily inspired by the works of [photographer] Helmut Newton in a sense. I wanted to bring in the waist and emphasise the cut.”
It’s clear that a strong, serious look spoke to Costa this season, as he waxes lyrical about it when we meet in Seoul earlier this year at a “World of Calvin Klein” extravaganza.
“The clothes are very subtle and interesting and grounded in a palette of blacks, mustard and some red lipstick shades.” He says the postmodernism-influenced palette with its deep reds were “feeling right, with the Year of the Dragon”, which in Chinese astrology Costa happens to be.
Intricate mixes and pebbles in the fabrics give plenty of texture juxtaposed with big leather panels, another signature. This time, Costa wanted to push “the idea of the second skin” even further.
At the New York Fashion Week debut, he showed the collection in an entirely dark space to emphasise the “sensuality and smokiness” of the clothes.
“This hardness is an urban hardness,” he says. “It comes from a time I find very interesting.”