Calvin Conquers America: The Rise of Calvin Klein Ltd.

When he was 26 years old, Klein finally decided to stop taking apprenticeships and to venture out onto his own. With $2,000 of his own money that he had saved and a $10,000 loan from his friend, Barry Schwartz, Klein founded Calvin Klein Ltd. Schwartz became a partner and the two set out to make Klein’s dreams come true.

Focusing first on a line of coats, Klein created his own designs using the skills he had gained from his previous on-the-job training. The company’s first major step to success came by accident a year after its inception, when a businessman got off the elevator on the wrong floor and happened to wander into in Klein’s office. This businessman turned out to be a coat-buyer from the major department store Bonwit Teller. After placing an order for $50,000 worth of coats, he told Klein, “Tomorrow you will have been discovered.” In its first year, the company booked $1 million worth of business.

While Bonwit Teller’s order did help Klein create a significant presence, it wasn’t until 1973 when Klein created his first line of sportswear that he would become a major player in the fashion industry. His collection, with its sleek and simple designs, became known as ‘The Calvin Klein Look’. As the company began to grow in size and wealth, Klein was recognized for his efforts by being awarded the Coty Award – the highest award for fashion – for three consecutive years beginning in 1973. Klein had essentially created the phenomenon of American leisurewear.

While Klein saw his professional success rise steadily, he was suffering on a personal level. His divorce in 1974 led Klein on a path of drug addiction and partying, most notably at Studio 54 where he was a frequent visitor. It wasn’t until his 11-year-old daughter, Marci, was kidnapped in 1978 that his life quieted down. Marci was returned safely and Klein returned to focusing on his work.

In 1980, Klein’s career experienced another upturn when he launched a daring new marketing campaign for his latest line of tight jeans. With a 15-year-old Brooke Shields in a provocative pose saying, “Nothing comes between me and my Calvins,” Klein sold 200,000 pairs of jeans in the first week and sparked a nationwide controversy. Feminists criticized his ads, but sales continued to increase. Klein had single-handedly changed the way fashion would be marketed from there on out.

Controversy revisited Klein in 1982 when he introduced a line of men’s underwear. Again, Klein launched a risqué advertising campaign featuring male models wearing nothing but his underwear and, again, it was a success. The next year, Klein’s company was in peril due in part to the new dangers of AIDS and the accompanying changes concerning sexuality. Klein’s tight clothing was no longer in high demand. After having purchased Puritan Jeans, his licensee for $65.8 million, Klein found himself in debt.

He remarried and again began to experience problems with drugs and alcohol, checking himself into the Hazelden Clinic in Minnesota. After rehabilitation, Klein was able to renew his company when his friend, media mogul David Geffen, bought $60 million of the company’s junk bond debt. Klein introduced new, more affordable product lines and began licensing his name to other products, including sunglasses, watches and purses. He also introduced the first unisex perfume, cKone. Slowly, the company began to rebound.

In 2002, Klein sold his company to Phillips Van Heusen Corp for $400 million and $30 million in stock. Before the sale, Calvin Klein Ltd. had 900 employees and worldwide sales of over $3 billion. Legal battles continue to plague the company, but Klein’s influence on the American fashion industry and his work in creating a billion dollar company remains undisputed.

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