American Icon: Francisco Costa celebrates 10 years as creative director of Calvin Klein Collection

Text by Caroline Issa

Photography by Nik Hartley

Styling by Sara Gilmour

Instantly recognisable as one of the most iconic American brands, Calvin Klein has been a dominant force in fashion for over four decades. Its message has been singular, too. Far from being a typical US dream factory, producing nostalgia or myths of the wild country or some fake upper-class European sophistication, the brand has maintained a rather minimalist modern – even modernist – aesthetic. It has always been about stripped-back, unfussy clothes fit for the rigours of metropolitan life. This commitment to a simplicity that verges on the austere has given New York its own version of the conceptual fashion we are more used to seeing in Europe.

It’s a formula that has worked, and worked big time – especially since the late 1980s, when Calvin Klein’s advertising used powerful photographs by the likes of the great Richard Avedon and Bruce Weber, channelled by strong graphic designs. The combination, applied carefully but on a large scale, achieved the monumental task of creating something greater than a mere business or fashion label. Calvin Klein’s ubiquity and power make it a textbook example for students of branding everywhere. Its name and logo are now globally recognisable, primarily through its huge jeans and underwear business – immortalised by that famous bedroom scene in Back to the Future. “Well, that’s your name, isn’t it?” the young woman asks Michael J. Fox. “Calvin Klein? It’s written all over your underwear.”

Yet the core of the brand’s proposition has always been fashion, without which the edifice wouldn’t survive for long. The designer who ignored the dictum “never step into a great man’s shoes” was Brazilian-born Francisco Costa. Calvin Klein handed over the reins as creative director in 2003. At the time, Costa was his principal womenswear designer, already well known to industry insiders for his talent and complex experiments with textiles. The expectations were so huge that most thought the young shoulders would buckle. But Costa became an American sensation overnight and is here and thriving a full decade later – and he isn’t even done yet.

In an exclusive interview, he reflects on his 10 years in charge and shares his vision for today – and tomorrow.

Caroline Issa Tell us about some seminal moments in your career at Calvin Klein that have stayed with you.
Francisco Costa Well, I was working for Calvin for a year prior to him leaving. After he sold the company, there was a lot of confusion here and so really, I just fell into the position. I didn’t realise what had happened. What I do remember is looking at all the bad reviews after my first show! Although it was also historic, as it was the first time the Times featured a fashion story on their front cover. My second show, at Milk Studios – that received amazing reviews, which was surprising. People looked at what I was doing in a different way, which opened doors for me to be more exploratory. It was seminal in the sense that it woke me up. There was a moment of lightness. I felt really free, and it was amazing to feel that the company supported me.

CI At what point did Calvin Klein begin to feel like your own brand?
FC I think it’s Calvin’s brand. I’m just one of the elements. He left us a very strong legacy. It’s the most difficult legacy to follow or to keep fresh because the standard was so high. His gift for cutting was quite unique. And he mastered what he did. I get very invigorated by the unknown, how to keep the brand relevant, how to approach minimalism. It’s more of a challenge every season. Which is good, it keeps me on my toes. I’m not at all at ease or comfortable. I take ownership of what I’ve done here. I think I’ve brought interesting things to the table. And obviously Calvin recognised that in my work and that’s why he hired me. But for me it’s a work in progress.

CI You were once quoted by W magazine as saying: “New York was a foundation for everything I do today and Rio was the bridge.” How do you think your work has reflected your global footprint?
FC Well, as the company grows – what was once a $7 million company is now an $8 billion one – our global approach develops. We want to grow stronger in Asia, for instance. Opening stores, developing the business there. When I spoke about Rio and New York it was on a personal level. I left my hometown and went to Rio and then I came to New York, so it was a transition. New York is already very global. London too, right? All these mega cities have become so much more diverse. They all look like their own world. I think it’s my responsibility to be aware of that.

CI The industry, along with the rest of the world, has transformed in the past decade. The fashion cycle has sped up. What do you think it means to be a creative director today?
FC In general, we have to move faster. The internet, Twitter, Instagram – we have to be ahead of it all. It used to be that yesterday was old news. Now, even what’s next is old news! I find it very difficult to plan ahead and stay the course with how we work on collections now. We produce eight collections a year, and we have to! There has to be constant refreshing of merchandise and so we are putting ourselves, I think, in a different market category by speeding up. It produces great pressure, great excitement. And it’s a reflection of what life has become, how bored people have become and also how great the competition is. There is so much competition! We need to be so accurate about pricing, about deliveries, about getting the fabrics faster. Those tensions mean we have to produce at a much higher level.

CI Your fabric research is now legendary. Do you have time to think about 3-D printing or intelligent fabrics –
is there something that has got you excited recently?
FC There’s something really interesting about polyester and rayon right now, the way it’s being treated. Viscose back in the day used to represent a really easy, breezy way of wearing something, and now there’s something about nylon and polyester mixed with cotton. I love that mix of very high-end fibres like cashmere silks with technological fibres. If you look at the American pavilion at the Venice Biennale this year [Sarah Sze’s “Triple Point”], it is a great representation of what’s going on today – the sensibility of putting things together, democratisation, the internet. The search for new fibres, the mix of the technical and organic. I was in a mill in Italy and they had this incredible yarn in the archives – tons of fabrics that had never been touched in 30 years. I think there’s something interesting about the notion of recycling. We inevitably have fabric left over here, so I ask myself, what can I do with it, can I reweave it, can I reappropriate it? You look at it conceptually. How can you keep up the pace without wasting?

CI Do you think the time has come for fashion brands to use moving images, especially for the web?
FC Yes. There’s a fantasy about a moving picture. People are curious and want to see backstage, and they want to see the shows directly. Movies create both that excitement and that immediacy.

CI You’ve worked a lot with models, actresses and fine artists. What has been the most interesting or challenging of these collaborations?
FC We’ve just finished a collaboration with Ellsworth Kelly, one of the most important we’ve ever done. It was magical. Of course there was a lot of feeling intimidated on my side and a total lack of interest on his side! But we came together and did a lot of interesting things.

CI Why do you love bringing fashion and fine art together?
FC I’m heavily influenced by it. There’s not one season that we don’t start by looking at at least 10 different artists. Art has an ability to reflect the times.

CI Calvin Klein has always looked to the future. How would you reconcile that with its great heritage in design?
FC The greatest thing about the heritage of this brand is that it’s so timeless. And if you think of the advertising, it still transcends time. What Calvin has done, no one else has – he’s influenced the world. I don’t look back. I have great respect for the future he created. It’s almost like looking back to the future.

CI How do you envisage Calvin Klein positioning itself in the next 10 years?
FC It’s very exciting. We have new business coming over the horizon, and we’re expanding with the acquisition of Warnaco. I think it’s going to give our collection much more substance, vision and exposure. We’ve got another new beginning. It’s really, really amazing what’s about to happen. §

Styling assistant Elizabeth Black
Hair assistant Denziel Grant

  • American Icon: Francisco Costa Celebrates 10 Years as Creative Directo