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Calvin Klein Recounts Career at Graduate School of Design

By Jesper W Ke and Ellen Zhang, Contributing Writers

World-renowned fashion designer Calvin Klein spoke of how his avant-garde, personal approach to design led to his successful career Monday night at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. The lecture, sponsored by the Rouse Visiting Artist Fund, attracted an audience of about 500 people in both the Piper Auditorium and a nearby overflow room.

Klein detailed his involvement with every aspect of bringing his ideas to fruition while leading his company's brand to become one of the most iconic in the world. In his tenure as CEO, Klein’s minimalist vision of fashion, fragrance, and beauty drew praise from the fashion industry.

However, Klein said he often faced backlash and skepticism from critics.

Of note, in the 1980s, on the heels of his company’s lucrative Calvin Klein Jeans campaign, he said he encountered significant pushback from the public for the provocative nature of the advertisements. However, he said he was merely “push[ing] the envelope.”

This attitude extended to the marketing strategy for one of the company’s most successful men’s fragrance products, Eternity, which deviated from the message of “macho and masculine” to highlight the familial roles of men. Klein said the advertisements prominently featured children alongside men and women, something unheard of at the time.

Klein also emphasized the intimate connection he had with products like his perfume line.

“All of these fragrances were tied to my life... I wanted people to know there was a designer behind all these things we were making,” he said.

Despite notching impressive profits, he said growing frustration with the mounting business duties of his company eventually led to its sale, announced in December 2002.

“I was more involved in the management of the business… I started thinking, I’ve given my whole life to this work; there's a whole world out there,” said Klein, who is now actively involved in charitable work through Harlem Village Academies, as well as personal housing and design projects.

During the question-and-answer session, one audience member questioned his brand’s involvement with the sexual objectification of human bodies, an assertion to which Klein objected.

“I don’t think of fashion that way,” Klein said. “I think of creating clothes that make people feel good and look good...It’s trying to create something that can bring value into someone’s life.”

To many in the audience, Klein served as a role model in terms of his approach toward his work.

“It’s inspiring in terms of the style of design, and how he has a good clear vision of beauty...and his attitude,” Dan Zhang, a student at the Graduate School of Design, said.

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