A Designer in the Making: The Early Years of Calvin Klein

Calvin Klein knew by the time he was five what he wanted to spend his life doing. He was going to be a fashion designer and no one was going to stop him. Indeed, Klein would go on to become one of the most respected designers in the fashion industry, with a billion dollar company and a name brand that can be found on almost everything from jeans to perfume to underwear. Both his unique fashion sense and his marketing genius have earned him the nickname ‘Calvin the Conqueror’ for the impact he has had on the global fashion industry throughout his astonishingly successful 40-year career.

Klein’s passion for clothing and design stemmed from his early years growing up in the Bronx, New York. Born as Richard Klein on November 19, 1942 to Austrian-Hungarian immigrant parents, his childhood was a modest one. He was the second of three children and his father was the owner of a local grocery store, where Klein often spent time working. Klein was never one to play sports with the other kids in the neighbourhood. Rather, he spent his time indoors teaching himself how to sketch and sew designs. He had few friends and instead found solace in his hobbies. He would often accompany his mother on shopping trips throughout the city on her quest for discount clothing. He was able to further nurture his love of fashion while attending the High School of Industrial Art.

Clear in his vision, Klein enrolled himself in the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York. By just 20 years old, Klein had already graduated from the program. Soon thereafter, he married his first wife, Jayne Centre, and embarked upon his first career-related job as an apprentice in New York City’s fashion district. After a brief stint working for a dress designer, Klein moved on to earn $75 per week sketching European coat designs for Dan Millstein. Since no original designs were emerging from America, most of the country’s major fashion designers took simply to the practice of copying European designs. While the experience gave Klein an inside look at the fashion business and allowed him to refine the skills he would use later on in his career, the routine of just copying designs was not something Klein wanted to be a part of.

Klein had a dream of founding his own clothing company, one that would create original, unique and affordable designs that could compete with the overly expensive European imitations, which enjoyed a monopoly at the time. He believed that the US could indeed have its own thriving fashion industry that would be able to go up against the best throughout the world. And, Klein wanted to lead that effort.

Although he was practically broke and still working part-time at his father’s grocery store to earn some extra money, he was confident in his abilities to both design clothes and run his own business and, with the help of an old childhood friend Klein set out to do just that.

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