Francisco Costa talks to Caroline Issa

Text by Caroline Issa

Photography by Danny Clinch

Francisco Costa was named creative director of Calvin Klein Womenswear in 2003, and has steadily won the support of the press, retail industry and consumers for his quiet luxury, exploration of modern fabrics and impeccably beautiful clothes. The brand recently hosted a dinner in celebration of the Design Museum's intended new location for 2014, at the former Commonwealth Institute in London. Tank's fashion director, Caroline Issa, sat down with him prior to the evening.

Caroline Issa Tell me a little bit about the inspiration behind this spring/summer 2012 runway collection.
Francisco Costa Well, for me it was really like an effort to return to something I started when I first joined Calvin. Instinctively, I wanted to bring myself back to working and focusing on femininity and softness. What felt relevant as a starting point was to imagine a woman's bedroom, feeling what her belongings might be, the luxury of her environment. The colours were inspired by underwear shades, pale lingerie. I felt like I needed to create this system where you put on the underwear, the stockings, then get dressed…. there's this fantasy about under garments and the process of putting on lingerie.

CI What do you mean when you say you wanted to return to what you started at Calvin Klein?
FC Because when I first joined Calvin, my first collection was feminine. It was really soft. The cuts were similar to what I just presented - a lot of bias cut, shapes that went around the body, contours on the skirt. I figured "enough with the strictness". I wanted the hair to be loose, I wanted the skirt to move and I think it really created a language. It just felt like going back to where I started. That's probably why he [Calvin Klein] hired me at the time, because he saw that I could do that.

CI As the head designer for the collection, you are responsible for so many different elements. How do you find the time to take a step back before you have to think about the next collection?
FC Honestly, I don't think "take a step back" exists in anyone's vocabulary in the fashion world because you are under so much pressure. The calendars have been pushed back. We are working on eight collections a year and while I don't know how other people work, I tend to get very involved, even picking the colour of thread. So this makes my life a little complicated and a little crazy.

CI Do you have enough time to derive inspiration for each collection and create different stories?
FC I'm always travelling. I buy tons of books and am constantly flipping through them. There is a genuine excitement about discovering things all year round. I don't find myself becoming jaded. I get very excited about the smallest things. Often, I start with one idea and towards the middle of the collection I change it completely and then it comes back to where I started.

CI Several years ago, you mentioned in an interview that your customer was a "mature, intellectual woman, the kind of woman who wants to be on top" - which I love. Is the woman you design for that same woman, or has she changed at all since that interview?
FC Well, when I say "mature", I don't mean old. Mature, for me, means secure. I love women in their forties. That's the strongest age; women in their forties really understand what they are about.

CI Yes, they're comfortable and confident.
FC There's something about them that's really fascinating to me. It's not that our clothes are not for the youth. They are for the young and for the youthful, but I have an attraction to women who have reached a stage in their life, independent of age really. There's a sense of maturity that's very interesting to me and it's very sexy. That's why I probably said that. I think women are very powerful. They hold all the cards.

CI We like to think so anyway.
FC They do in many ways. It's wonderful. I was talking to somebody in Paris, a journalist. She approached and started saying to me, "I love this spring/summer 2012 collection so much - you really found the language to empower women." And when she told me this I was thinking, "What is she talking about?" Funnily enough, in the past, I thought I empowered women by putting them in rigid, strict clothes, but it was the opposite.

CI You've worked with Oscar de la Renta and Tom Ford, and you've been with Calvin Klein for eight years. What has been the most noticeable change in the fashion industry during that period?
FC Oh, it's a different world. It's completely different.

CI What has driven that?
FC A company like ours, which is known as a lifestyle brand because we are totally lifestyle-driven, has multiple collections with multiple price points - so we cover the full range of customers interested in Calvin Klein. That allows us to be part of that dream without compromising the style. And also, 10, 12, 15 years ago, there weren't as many offerings. If you think about how many designers there were in the '80s and '90s, you could count them easily; today it's the opposite. There are so many. And then you have high-street fast fashion, which has really damaged, in a way, the perception of fashion.

CI And what the craft is.
FC Yes, but then I guess it has allowed people to explore and be part of fashion without having to be too serious about it. The negative aspect to this is that because the craft and quality are gone in fast fashion, the time we need to make clothes that will last is also gone. Some of us are holding on to that, and trying to keep collections relevant or still believable. We are on a calendar that's no longer a collection calendar.

CI It's a retail calendar.
FC Yes, and a high street calendar, because you have to do eight deliveries a year. You used to do a collection twice a year and you had four deliveries maximum. Now you have to compete. You have merchandise sitting in the store and you'll realise the high street has already copied you with clothes in stores two months before you.

CI Which has sped up the entire business.
FC Yes, completely. What has changed most dramatically in the industry is the stress. Interestingly enough, I was watching that documentary on Yves Saint-Laurent.

CI L'Amour Fou?
FC Yes, and Pierre Bergé said that Yves decided to stop designing because the business had changed. He couldn't understand it any more. And then you have Alaïa who took a different route.

CI Yes, he left the calendar and decided he was going to step out of the race and do it according to his own schedule.
FC Yes, which is amazing. He still has his business, is highly successful and true to what he does. I wish there was more of that. It adds a little more legitimacy to the business itself.

CI As a brand, Calvin Klein has always been close to the world of art, as evidenced by your collaborations with Martin Creed and Anthony Goicolea, and your seat on the Whitney Museum's board. What is it about art that attracts you so much?
FC Well, it has to do with the interests of the people who work in the company. It's not just me. We have some incredibly talented people with whom we work and we all love art. Art is so far ahead and there is a true freedom of expression. You just get completely absorbed by it. It's also nothing new. Designers have always had that relationship. But we do take it very seriously. I remember a partnership with Vik Muniz, Ghada Amer and Billy Sullivan, which was probably one of my first Calvin Klein collaborations, and it was so fantastic, so organic and so cool.

CI What would you like your legacy at Calvin Klein to be?
FC I'd like to think that I was current. At one moment in my career I thought I should be known as a futurist, because I always used to worry about the future. I feel I've changed. Now is the moment and now is the future. It's now that I want to live in. If you are timeless, you will always be current. And I also want to inject a bit of sex appeal. §

  • Francisco Costa - Caroline Issa