From the launch of Heroin Chic to his 1995 campaign modeled after 1960's porno castings, Calvin Klein was the bad boy designer of the 1990s. The controversy surrounding his ads served as a rocket ship to stardom for many of the models and caused his jeans and underwear to become "must-have" sensations. His work just goes to reaffirm that old as dirt cliche -- "SEX SELLS!"
It seems the 1990s in America were defined by Calvin Klein. The grunge movement, the heroin chic obsession, the legions of emaciated androgynous white girls clamoring to buy his products -- Klein knew how to get his clothes on bodies and his work under skin. For as many one person that bought his clothes, another two were furious and out to end his career. Targeted by the American Family Association and later the US Department of Justice, his ads are some of the most controversial in the history of fashion. Let's take a look back at the cultural revolution that was started by a pair of underwear.
We have to go a little farther back first though in order to understand the brands impact in the '90s. By the time the '90s hit, Calvin Klein jeans were already strongly established. He spent the '70s and '80s building the brand and his design philosophy has always remained consistent -- he keeps the clothes modern, sophisticated, sexy, clean and minimal. He has established himself as a marketing genius and despite accusations of exploitative, shocking and suggestive campaigns, his product has always sold. The seemingly never ending controversy that surrounds the brand was kick started in 1980 with a campaign featuring a then 15 year old Brooke Shields. Directed and shot by fashion photography legend Richard Avedon, the commercial has the lanky collection of pubescent arms and legs that was Shields sprawled out and whistling "Oh My Darling Clementine" until she looks up at the camera with a look far beyond her years and purrs out that infamous question: "Do you know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing." The ad solidified Klein as a master media manipulator, a man who understood how to achieve viral success. "Did you SEE that new Calvin Klein ad?" New York Magazine explains
that the campaign "instantly encapsulated the m.o. of much Calvin Klein advertising to come: a certain coquettish crotch-centricity and an overtly hot-and-bothered way of representing youthful splendor."
Klein is responsible for catapulting another woman into superstardom -- the enigmatic Kate Moss. She has been featured in a slew of CK ads, and it was actually Klein who overlooked her 2002 cocaine scandal and offered her work when many brands wouldn't dream of touching her.
1992 Kate Moss and Mark Wahlberg
We'll start in 1992 with the ad campaign that shot Kate Moss and Mark Wahlberg into the spotlight. The skinny, child-like waif was still relatively unknown and her buff counter part was just hitting his stride as the rapper Marky Mark. The commercial speaks clearly of what the decade would become -- low-fi, pale skin, casual vibe, basic and all natural. AIDS was on everyone's mind and the fact that the disease is mentioned shows just how culturally significant the ad was at the time. It offers up some sage advice too -- keeping your undies on is the best protection. The commercial was supplemented with a series of sexy print ads, with most giving special attention to Marky Mark's package. The ones featuring the two of them together have the pair apathetically intertwined -- Kate's vacant stare became a hallmark of the 90's youth. There exists in these ads an effortless sex appeal, a low maintenance, grungy if you will, glamour. This was the beginning of "Heroin Chic" a movement that glamorized pale skin, dark circles, emaciated bodies, angular bone structure and androgyny. Heroin Chic defined the quintessential Calvin Klein ad for the decade and ushered in a very different look for American youth. This aesthetic is thought of as a response to the healthy vibrance of models like Christie Brinkley, Cindy Crawford, Claudia Schiffer and Heidi Klum. We all know fashion loves to bounce from one end of the spectrum to the other, flying quickly over whatever lies between, and Calvin Klein's presentation of beauty hit the decade with a resounding boing. Needless to say, Calvin Klein underwear was flying off the shelves.
There's a funny little postscript to this ad campaign. Recently Mr Klein himself commented, "It didn't go too well, [Kate] didn't like [Mark] at all. I have worked with so many women, great ones, and Kate was always difficult. [Mark] was a pleasure." Even if she might have been a pain in the ass diva, she'll always be number one in our hearts. Anyway.
Heroin Chic took a lot of flack in its day, with many in the public claiming that it glamorized drug use. At the time AIDS was all over the news and the virus effectively made shooting up passé. The demand shortage resulted in the drug becoming cheaper and much more pure. With the popularity of not only the fashion trend but also movies like Basketball Diaries, Trainspotting and Pulp Fiction the wealthy middle class started to revisit the drug -- but for snorting, not shooting. The public of course began it's outcry, blaming the fashion industry and this "nihilistic vision of beauty" for popularizing the highly dangerous drug. The controversy just added fuel to the fire though and Calvin Klein's subsequent 1993 ad campaign for his Obsession perfume once again featuring Kate Moss asserted that the look was going to stick around for a while. Couple this with the grunge trend in the music industry and later Vincent Gallo's CK ads and you've got yourself a major national trend. In the commercial for the fragrance as Kate Moss hauntingly whispers "obsession" it seems the public really listened. Their new obsessions were Calvin Klein and Kate Moss. And as for the ads -- Bill Clinton condemned it, anti-drug organizations denounced it, but the public wanted more, more
[caption id="attachment_6458" align="aligncenter" width="748" caption="Obsession perfume ad&one of Moss' favorite images of herself"]
[caption id="attachment_6457" align="aligncenter" width="805" caption="The face of Obsession"]
[caption id="attachment_6459" align="aligncenter" width="450" caption="Obsession"]
[caption id="attachment_6456" align="aligncenter" width="695" caption="Heroin Chic continued on into his 1993 underwear ads"]
[caption id="attachment_6460" align="aligncenter" width="384" caption="And continued even further to the 1996 cK Be ads with Vincent Gallo"]
[caption id="attachment_6461" align="aligncenter" width="500" caption="Nirvana&the grunge movement: looking generally strung out was so very in"]
Klein courted controversy once again 3 years later in his 1995 denim campaign which was modeled after 1960's style pornography. The shoot took place in a basement, from a time when they were called "rec rooms." Wood paneling, purple shag carpet and a paint spattered ladder all contributed to the cringe inducing commercials. Young teenage models, with some only 15 years old, stood in front of the camera as a slick and sleazy unseen voice comments, "You got a real nice look. How old are you? Are you strong? You think you could rip that shirt off of you? That's a real nice body. You work out? I can tell." The narrative is straight out of a porno audition, not like we've ever seen one but ya know, and the ads, only seconds long, are enough to make your skin crawl.
Many called it "soft porn" and exploitative. Klein vehemently denied these claims, insisting
that the intention behind the ads was to "convey the idea that glamour is an inner quality that can be found in regular people in the most ordinary setting; it is not something exclusive to movie stars and models." But he knew what he was doing. The American Family Association, an organization that aims to protect traditional family values, jumped on the ads immediately. They began a massive letter campaign to both retailers and magazines threatening boycotts if the brand was supported. All of this culminated with the US Department of Justice launching an investigation to see if the ads really did constitute child pornography. With the mounting pressure Klein decided to pull the ads, but the controversy had already achieved its desired effect -- Calvin Klein jeans were again the must-have item of the season. As one marketing director noted
, this controversy took Klein's "coolness factor from a 10 to a 60," and if continued sales were any indication, his "bad boy" reputation only enhanced his products in the eyes of young consumers.
Klein's perfume Obsession had been a monster success, and next he decided to tackle something entirely unique...again: a unisex fragrance. He had done this once before with cK One, but it was time for something new. This is one of the most difficult products to succeed with, there are very few on the market today, and he managed to rake in the cake with cK Be -- it was one of the best selling new scents ever
. Should the success be attributed to the fragrance itself or to the culturally spot on marketing that came along with it? Hard to say. The company described the scent as "raceless, genderless, ageless, and shared statement." It was called "the new fragrance for people." The ads, once again shot by Avedon, were like a amalgam of all the work that had been put into creating a unique aesthetic for the brand, it was Heroin Chic at its finest: waifish and disoriented models who were young, multicultural and highly androgynous gathered into shot looking bored and gorgeous. The commercials showed Kate Moss speaking into the camera talking about "one more bad habit you have to break." The ad ends with a voiceover: Be hot. Be cool. Just BE. Calvin Klein had done it. He created a media virus, an answer to any question that Generation X might have had: Just Be. All this from basic denim, a quiet unisex fragrance and white cotton underwear. His empire was built.
1996 cK Be ad campaign featuring Kate Moss
//click images for source