Original Publication: Vogue, September, 1988
Calvin Klein—drug free, relaxed, and talking about family—has a whole new attitude that, given his influence, may change the way a lot of us think, and look.
Nineteen eighty-eight has got to be one of the most amazing years of Calvin Klein’s charmed life. A masterly designer, a merchandising genius, he is currently enjoying unprecedented success with his billion-dollar fashion empire. He and his wife, Kelly, are in the midst of redoing not one but two houses—and they will finally live together. Most important, he has kicked an addiction to vodka and Valium, with the help of Hazelden, a treatment center in Minnesota.
Pink cheeked, blue jeaned, and sitting in the nearly empty living room of his new town house on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Klein says, “I’m in the first year of my second life. I feel reborn. I really am seeing things differently.”
Calvin Klein has built his influential empire by cultivating an unerring sense of the cultural flow; when his values shift, the style of the American woman is bound to be affected. Klein’s new thinking will manifest itself in his collection next spring. He has tried to release all of his old tension—“the terrible anger,” envy, and self-doubt—and translate the catharsis into a softer look in his clothes. “Now I’m thinking about easier clothes, looser construction—not a lot of padding. Just more natural.”
The inspiration is Gauguin, the artist who shucked the artifice of civilization to live closer to nature. “His exhibit at the National Gallery is wonderful!” Klein says. “Now that’s a lot of color—not electric but romantic, sensual. This is a romantic time, a time for commitment.”
The shift in his vision will be apparent this month on TV screens across the country, with the $17-million-plus launch of Eternity, Klein’s new $185-an-ounce “clean, floral, romantic” perfume. Gone is the eerie decadence that characterizes the ads for his sensual fragrance Obsession—an extremely successful pitch that has pushed Obsession’s sales over the $100-million mark in just four years. Instead, the Eternity ads feature a couple that Klein says is based on himself and Kelly Rector, his former assistant and bride of two years. There is even a baby in the background! “I don’t think the thing to be is provocative anymore,” says Klein. “I’ve done everything I could do in a provocative sense without being arrested.”
The dramatic turnaround in his thinking is not without roots in his recent experience. Last May, Klein checked into Hazelden for a rigorous thirty-one-day chemical-dependence program. For sixteen hours a day, he had to challenge the assumptions by which he had lived and to come to grips with the fact that addiction is a chronic disease—all while experiencing painful physical detoxification. For a week, Kelly joined him for family therapy. “It’s not an easy place,” Klein admits, “but it’s the best thing I’ve done in my life. I’ve had a terrible problem with Valium for years. The quality of my sleep is much better—I feel like a different person.”
In his first extended interview since leaving Hazelden, Klein is uncharacteristically relaxed. “I used to be a real worrier, thinking, ‘Oh, God, everything is great now but what’s going to happen? The bubble will burst.’ It’s absolute nonsense to be concerned with stuff like that. . .I suddenly realize that the universe doesn’t rest on my shoulders. Everything doesn’t always have to be the way I think it should be.”
Klein admits that overcoming a desire to control is as tough as shaking substance abuse. “I’ll be working on that for the rest of my life; That’s a real problem of mine. I like to be in control. But it can be terribly frustrating.”
His relationship with Kelly is an important part of the new life he is trying to build. “I didn’t think another relationship was possible. Because of the health crisis that’s going on now, people are just so much more conscious of the fact that you can’t go fooling around. You start questioning—‘Who has this person been with?’—and saying, ‘I’m going to be more careful before I get involved.’ Your values change! It didn’t happen, bang! I fell in love over a long period of time.”
Before finding their “dream house,” a six-story Federal town house in the East Seventies, Klein lived in a modernistic apartment on Central Part West and Kelly had her own apartment nearby. “We had been looking to come together for a long time,” says Klein, “but we were looking for the perfect place. Now we’ve found the place we really love.” Calvin and Kelly found their first new furnishings at the Andy Warhol auction. “We bought a beautiful Empire mirror for our bedroom that was in Andy’s bedroom.”
Today, the forty-five-year-old designer, the father of a twenty-one-year-old daughter from his first marriage, declares, “This is a big house. I have a family, and I would like to have more of a family.” The news is startling given Klein’s previous history. In the ‘seventies, he was the leader of the androgynous disco brat pack who never seemed to care who knew about his wild life. (In 1984, Klein told Playboy, “Anyone I’ve wanted to be with I’ve had.”) But despite world fame, immense wealth, and having had an enormous influence on fashion, Klein says he had been restlessly searching to fill the void that came with getting everything he ever wanted. “It does leave one empty. I think success is more that just financial. There’s got to be more.”
Certainly, Klein is struggling mightily to change his own life. “I’m not going to the old haunts.” Instead, apart from work—where he is contending with a full schedule of expansion into leather accessories, retail stores, and an Eternity for men—he is concentrating on the new town house, restoring a country house in East Hampton, taking riding and sailing lessons, and, for the first time in years, going to a lot of movies. “I never had the patience to sit still for very long before,” he says.
Most importantly, he realizes that he’s embarked on a momentous change in the way he lives, a change that takes time. “It took a few years of saying, ‘Well, I’m bored with the old scene—there’s got to be more going on in this life that I’m just not involved with,’ and then taking the time to meet new people and to experience new things.” Applying his prodigious force of will, Calvin Klein has managed to do just that and as a result is “wonderfully happy.” Says Klein, “I was blessed when I was a child; I was given a gift by God to design.” He pauses thoughtfully. “I don’t know that I was grateful enough before.”