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He also explained how deep his investment in the work was. Right from the get-go, Klein saw what it meant to work hard.
His father, Leo—who’d arrived in the States from Budapest at age five—was often absent, because of the long hours he put in at the family grocery store, on Lenox Avenue in Harlem.
After a show, for instance, there is always the protocol of going backstage to schmooze the designers. In one sense we were appealing to Wall Street, trying to be a real business, where you’d say, ‘It’s a business that’s not emotional—it’s all marketing, it’s all figured out.
It’s almost a tribal rite practiced by most of the big shots in the business. Once, after a men’s-wear show in Milan in 2000, he just turned his back on me and marched off. You don’t have to worry.’ But let me tell you, it’s very emotional, it’s very personal. By the time [a show] was over I just wanted to go home and be by myself.”This is a reason that Klein’s name has transcended the field of fashion: for all its commercial savvy, his work has, indeed, been highly personal, a product not just of its times but more specifically of the way the times influenced the designer. What went on in the mid- to late 70s—when he became an international celebrity hanging out at Studio 54, a designer who reinforced America’s arrival as a fashion force and set the retail world on fire with Calvin Klein jeans (and his controversial commercials featuring a sexed-up teenage Brooke Shields)—is the most extreme example of this interplay, but it has really been true of his entire career.
When Calvin Klein sold his business, five years ago, he stepped off a four-decade juggernaut that harnessed obsessive perfectionism to a gut understanding of what the American body wanted. How wrong I was.” Klein’s daughter, Marci, a TV producer, couldn’t imagine her father without his label. Most people sitting courtside don’t get up and breeze over to say hi to one of the players, as Klein did with the Knicks’ Latrell Sprewell while the player was trying to inbound the ball at midcourt. off-balance” Klein grabbed Sprewell’s arm and started to chat him up, until a friend and two security men escorted Klein back to his seat.
His vision moved fluidly from the sensuality of the Studio 54 years to the serene classicism that followed his marriage to Kelly Rector, to an edgy 90s aesthetic with Kate Moss as muse. “I didn’t know that was him,” Sprewell said after the game. I was like, Is security going to come over here at some point or what?
When he talks about that time today, he sounds like someone at peace with the idea that he can’t always be perfect.“I crashed after I actually did the deal,” he says. Then, once again, I dealt with getting my life together.“I think I was overwhelmed with what was going to be next—the future. I knew that I was looking for other challenges or maybe other things. Since then, it’s been the best time in my life.”We began our conversations for this piece in the summer of 2006.Our first taped session took place in Southampton at his large, turreted Gothic mansion, which sits on one of the best sites on Long Island, facing both the ocean and Shinnecock Bay.The designer had recently finished temporary renovations, removing every arch, squaring off planes, getting rid of all the pink and black and gold—wiping out all traces of the monstrous renovation executed by a previous owner—and coating the whole place in a Calvin-approved shade of white (it’s never simply white), so he could bear to live in it while he figured out what to do with the joint.