"Anything I wanted to do, I did. If there's something I want to do, nothing stops me."-Calvin Klein


His casual chic style brought American fashion into its own and onto a par with Paris. He single-handedly created the designer jeans craze of the 1970s, and then revolutionized fashion advertising in the 1980s. Today his name adorns everything from underwear to perfume. And his stylish designs and business acumen have built a fashion empire. But unlike his clothes, Calvin Klein's rise to the top of the fashion world has been anything but uncomplicated.


Born on November 19, 1942, Klein was largely influenced by his mother who instilled in him a love of art and fashion. While other kids played stickball, Klein preferred to tag along with his mom while she shopped at discount clothing stores in New York City. A loner who taught himself how to sketch and sew, Klein claims he always knew he wanted to be a fashion designer.

After graduating from New York City's Fashion Institute of Technology in 1962, Klein married Jayne Centre and went to work in the garment district as a $75-per-week apprentice sketching designs from the European runways for coat mogul Dan Millstein. The tactic of copying was typical for fashion at that time, because no original ideas were coming out of America. But Klein wanted to change that. He dreamed of starting his own fashion company, and nothing was going to stop him-not even the fact that he was nearly broke and still working at his father's grocery store to make some extra cash.


In 1968, at the age of 26, with $2,000 of his own money and a $10,000 loan from his boyhood friend Barry Schwartz, Klein founded his own company, Calvin Klein Ltd., with Schwartz as his partner. Their first order came literally by accident, when a coat-buyer from department store titan Bonwit Teller got off on the wrong floor and wandered into Klein's workroom. Impressed by his line of trench coats, the buyer placed a $50,000 order, telling the young designer, "Tomorrow you will have been discovered." And indeed, it was that order from Bonwit, along with a glowing editorial he received in Vogue, that put the Calvin Klein name on the map.

The provocative commercials marked a revolution in clothing advertising. It was a more sensual approach to marketing that would later be emulated by Klein's competitors. The commercials also prompted criticism from feminist leaders such as Gloria Steinem, who proclaimed they were pornographic and inspired violence against women. The negative publicity only served to fuel sales.

Klein would once again court controversy in 1982, when he put his name on the waistband of a line of men's underwear and started a campaign featuring near-naked men dressed only in his designer skivvies. Many publishers rejected the sexy ads. But once again, the controversy spilled over into Klein's favor, and stores simply couldn't keep the underwear in stock.

In 1983, Klein and his partner bought Puritan Jeans, their jeans licensee, for $65.8 million. It was Klein's first and nearly fatal misstep. Lifestyles were changing as the reality of AIDS emerged and halted the casual sexuality of 1970s. As a by-product of this, the demand for tight-fitting designer jeans waned. By 1984, the designer jeans business had dried up, leaving Klein deep in debt. He refinanced the debt with $80 million in junk bonds, leaving his empire in serious danger of crumbling. To make matters worse, rumors were spreading that Klein was dying of AIDS.

Klein pulled the ads, and in spite of the negative press, came out smelling like a rose-his cK one perfume and CK jeans selling well, his brand-new headquarters store opening in New York City, and his company with the healthiest financial picture in many years. Indeed, the man who popularized name-brand jeans, clean American lines, and men's underwear for women is unquestionably a stylish survivor as he enters the 21st century as one of the world's top fashion designers.