From Brooke Shields to Kendall Jenner, why Calvin Klein uses celebrity models to sell clothes

Francisco Costa, creative director of the American fashion label, says Calvin Klein himself began the use of actresses to raise its profile and sales, and sees the worth of dressing ‘really smart women’

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 05 April, 2016, 12:02am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 April, 2016, 12:02am

Calvin Klein has been projecting his clothes on young, rising stars since the inception of designer denims. In 1980, aged 15, Brooke Shields catapulted the American fashion house’s visibility in seductive (then controversial, now tame by comparison) advertising campaigns that pioneered a tradition of actresses doubling as models. To pilfer an adage, he gave her class, she gave him sex appeal.

More than three decades on, the tradition continues. While Kendall Jenner, Zoe Saldana and Justin Bieber pose for the brand’s underwear campaigns, Lupita Nyong’o, Scarlett Johansson and Jennifer Aniston don the higher-end gowns for the Oscars, Golden Globes and the Met Gala.

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At Hong Kong’s AmFar Gala last month (which raised US$4 million for Aids research) at the Shaw Studios, the brand acted as main fashion sponsor, dressing Uma Thurman, Karolina Kurkova, Liu Wen and Wendi Deng Murdoch in Calvin Klein.

At the helm stands Francisco Costa, women’s creative director at Calvin Klein Collection, who understands celebrity culture.

“It is so important to have a relationship with fine actresses – for the past 13 years we’ve made an effort to make that happen. We decided to make it an important tool for the house. It became very much part of the culture. Calvin [Klein] started the whole idea. If you see the early ads with the jeans campaigns, such as Kate Moss and Mark Wahlberg [in 1991], it drives visibility and sales.”

“Spring-summer 2016 was a really successful show, the silhouette was great. We reinterpreted the Calvin Klein silhouette in a way and we really surprised people with prints,” says Costa.. “Colours, prints… that’s so not our DNA . Every season we show about 40 looks; there still are those signature pieces – but we also need to engage different people.”

Those colours, fur prints and slip dresses were such a success that Costa revisited them for autumn-winter 2016. He wanted to keep an easy silhouette and mix with the idea of menswear in womenswear.

“The ’90s style which we had, that’s so in fashion and in vogue today,” he says.

Indeed, Costa is in vogue. The Brazilian designer, who’s been at Calvin Klein since 2003 (cherry-picked by Klein himself) has been creating collections that are “equal parts streamlined and glamorous” to quote Harpers Bazaar. As the winner of the Cooper-Hewitt National Fashion Design Award (2009) and double recipient of Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) womenswear designer of the year (2006 and 2008), his creations have excited the sartorially savvy.

“I describe the spring collection as ‘the morning after.’ Autumn is being the day before the morning after,” he says. “It is the same woman, but it’s the night before, all the fun she had.”

With that signature minimalist American style, Costa slices the ensembles with a masculine cut this season.

“There are basic men’s tailored coats – I wanted to encourage the use of suits, so they come in very, very beautiful lightweight, wool mixes and pinstripes. By emphasising the man’s wardrobe, the pinstripes, the plaid, I wanted the collection to feel very individual. Every piece should say something fast, unapologetic and surprising. I deliberately set up the whole line-up in a different way. It’s a little jumpier, like a Snapchat conversation with my audience.”

An audience that is now global – courtesy of live video feeds that transmit the latest collections in New York around the world to potential shoppers. But the journey from catwalk to wardrobe is a lengthy one that many American designers are now rebelling against.

Costa has concerns. “I think the whole system has to be looked at, in terms of calendar and scheduling. It’s a great tool to sell quickly if you are mid-market, if you are a Zara or that level. They can produce that because they have 12 deliveries a year… But when you’re talking about a full collection, it is impossible for designers to be on that two-month calendar in creating something that’s relevant new and fashionworthy.”

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Is it possible for brands to show and sell luxury simultaneously? “If you own your own factories and manufacturers perhaps you have a chance, but for me, it’s five to six months delivery time. That does not change. I’m not saying we can’t do that eventually, but not now…And I’m not sure who else at our level is doing that.”

The brand has been doing capsule collaborations with Net-a-Porter, The Webster, Bergdorf Goodman that engage the customer much quicker. And keeping on top of what younger, more impulsive clients want today means keeping on top of social media.

One of the images Costa posted on his Instagram account (@costafrancisco) was of a male model wearing a slip dress of his design, an editorial picture from Odd Magazine.

“Gender has become a non issue,” he says. “I was talking to a museum curator in New York not long ago and they are creating an anthology of sexuality. This woman is working on a thesis, asking the youth what they call themselves today? And it’s not about labelling themselves male or female, gay or straight, black or white – that’s so gone. Its not in their mind, they live in a three-dimensional world, so engaged in so many situations that gender is something to merely observe. And to a certain extent, we as a brand are about youth.”

Indeed, with the likes of 20-year-old Jenner and 22-year-old Bieber wearing the brand, it helps it stay young.

“We are in the business of spotting talent, much more so than beauty in that sense; we dressed Brie Larson and Saoirse Ronan for the Academy Awards and The Golden Globes. We are look for pure talent and we see these as strong actresses – so why not build a relationship from the beginning? Brie at the Golden Globes many attest looked the best. And it was her first outing on the red carpet.”

“Anna Wintour came to me and said, ‘That’s a really smart dress.’ Well, we dress really smart women.”