Trio That Keeps Cool of Calvin Klein Alive: Meet the team of fashion designers—Kevin Carrigan, Francisco Costa and Italo Zucchelli—who together have kept the cool of Calvin Klein alive and built the brand into a global juggernaut

The Threesome Behind Calvin Klein

Meet the team of fashion designers—Kevin Carrigan, Francisco Costa and Italo Zucchelli—who together have kept the cool of Calvin Klein alive and built the brand into a global juggernaut


Dec. 5, 2013 11:39 a.m. ET


HOUSE PROUD | From left: Francisco Costa, Italo Zucchelli and Kevin Carrigan, the creative directors of Calvin Klein’s fashion lines, with longtime house muse Christy Turlington in a Calvin Klein Collection top and skirt. Calvin Klein Collection top, $2,995, and skirt, $1,495, 212-292-9000 Photography by Dan Jackson, Styling by Tina Laakkonen for WSJ. Magazine

ELEVEN YEARS AGO, when Calvin Klein, along with his longtime business partner, Barry Schwartz, sold his company to Phillips-Van Heusen PVH -1.02% (PVH), the designer had just turned 60. In 36 years at the helm of his fashion line, he had gone from selling coats in the now-defunct New York store Bonwit Teller to having his name recognized around the world. In a way, it was time. Klein had endured a bitter lawsuit with his largest licensee, the Warnaco Group, and unbeknownst to the public, his company’s earnings had begun to slip. In the next year, he would give an interview describing his battles with addiction. PVH’s $700 million offer must have seemed like a lucrative reason to lay down his sword. “He’s at the top of his game. He’s a living logotype, and now he wants to rest a bit,” said his spokesman, Paul Wilmot, at the time. But the question everyone outside the company asked was could Calvin Klein Inc., survive without its charismatic founder?  The naysayers were voluble, especially given that PVH was known for making workaday button-downs, not marketing sexy minimalism. The luxury landscape is tricky terrain where many an able executive has lost his way, and PVH, then worth $1.5 billion, would have to balance the high with the low: selling $4,000 coats as well as $17 pairs of underwear. Even more surprising was a plan that did not replace Klein with an equally central figurehead. Instead, PVH (which owns several other labels, including Tommy Hilfiger, Izod, Arrow, Van Heusen, Warner’s and Olga) decided to forge ahead with the relatively unknown team that Klein had already put in place: Francisco Costa as head designer of the ultra-luxe women’s collection; Italo Zucchelli at the head of the men’s collection; and Kevin Carrigan at the helm of the more moderately priced bridge lines. The initiation of these three creative directors for the fashion lines was a departure from the cult of personality that marked Klein’s reign, during which he fulfilled countless roles. “He was a merchant, a businessman, a marketer and a creative,” says Carrigan, who has been with the company since 1998.

“Any time a designer leaves a major name like that, the risk is high,” says retail consultant Robert Burke. “We can count more times when it hasn’t worked.” When Tom Ford left Gucci in 2004, his position was filled by three designers: Alessandra Facchinetti for womenswear; John Ray at menswear; and Frida Giannini for accessories. The strategy floundered both commercially and with critics, until Giannini took over the creative direction of the entire brand. “Part of the reason it works [at Calvin Klein ] is that everyone understands the Calvin aesthetic extremely well,” says Calvin Klein Inc. CEO Tom Murry, pointing out that Klein hired all of them. “Each creative director is a specialist in his area.” (After a brief tenure as a consulting creative director, Klein officially stepped away in 2006 and now does not speak publicly about the company he cofounded.)

Any hiccups came from quality and distribution issues with licensees, who help produce enough goods to outfit an entire Calvin Klein lifestyle, from jeans and underwear to jewelry, watches, fragrances, cosmetics and home design. “We had some missteps early on,” says Murry, who along with PVH CEO Manny Chirico has overseen a significant expansion of Calvin Klein Inc. Part of Murry’s strategy is maintaining a delicate status quo, and a key tool in his arsenal is using the luxe women’s Collection line, designed by Costa, as an ambassador for the rest of the house. “You don’t get into that business to make money. You get into it to create image,” he says. “It generates $400 million a year in the cost equivalent of editorial coverage. It’s hard to quantify, but for example, we got the September cover of Vogue, and in US Weekly there were 10 celebrities wearing Collection dresses.” Jennifer Lawrence, Gwyneth Paltrow, Emma Stone and Kerry Washington all regularly wear Costa’s creations. “That’s what sells the [lower-priced] dresses.”

“I look at what we do as the think tank of the company,” says Costa. “We have the white label, we have jeans. They all serve their own purpose. I could not compete with my own company. When I do a fashion show the objective is to create excitement and talk.” His spring/summer 2014 collection was inspired by references as diverse as Pablo Picasso, Phillippine villages and contemporary movie posters. It employed typical Costa flourishes: architectural pieces that both reveal the body and stand apart from it, including a finale of slashed and fringed gowns. “I was apprehensive it wouldn’t be in the realm of Calvin,” he says of the clothes. “But we successfully managed to create a language of modernity in this very edited Calvin way.”

“For me, it’s very easy to work within this kind of aesthetic. It’s like my second skin,” says Zucchelli. His men’s collections are known for their innovative tech fabrics, futuristic references and lean lines. The latest, presented this summer, featured cloud-patterned T-shirts inspired by artist James Turrell and Zucchelli’s own Fire Island summer home. “In my work, I keep the idea of the sophistication and elegance, but I like to inject the iconography of [the rest of the house]. This is a hyper-modern brand, so for me, innovation is very important.”

“Innovation in all aspects of clothing will take us forward,” agrees Carrigan, who oversees “everything under Collection,” including the lucrative jeans and underwear lines. He is clear that his designs serve a different purpose from the ultra-luxe black-label collections. “I love both the commerce and the design aspects. I’m a businessman and an artist,” says Carrigan, who sees himself as the conductor of an immense worldwide orchestra and whose heroes are designers and architects like Florence Knoll and Le Corbusier. “I’ve never been the type of designer who wanted to design a one-off dress. I like the industrial design of creating something that has mass appeal.

“I’m very reverential to the archive; I constantly instill the ethos of what Calvin put in place,” adds Carrigan. “You can walk down the street and know the Calvin Klein brand.”

TODAY, CALVIN KLEIN INC. has defied its doubters by growing into a juggernaut with nearly $8 billion in annual sales, placing it in the same stratosphere as its two biggest competitors: Ralph Lauren RL -0.07% Corporation and Giorgio Armani S.p.A. According to Murry, the brand’s exponential growth is due in part to its positioning in the imagination of its customers. “When you ask people, ‘What is Calvin Klein?’ Most say it is a luxury brand, which it is not. It’s an incorrect perception, but I love it.”

That reputation is the result of a tightly controlled corporate identity, communicated by a clearly defined in-house lexicon. “Clean, modern, sexy, classic” is how Murry defines the ethos, while Carrigan keeps his licensing partners in check by supplying them with new catchphrases for each season, like “seduction,” “memory” or “bold minimalism.” Minimalism was a touchstone for Klein himself, particularly throughout his last decade designing, in the ’90s. “Ecru,” says Christy Turlington, who has been a face of the brand for the past 20 years. “That was such a Calvin color. Who else says that word?”

Such uniformity carries over to the brand’s advertising campaigns, instantly recognizable for their black-and-white photography portraying models, actors and sports figures—from Kate Moss to soccer player Fredrik Ljungberg —as sex symbols. Igniting a cultural conversation has always been part of the plan. “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing,” lisped a 15-year-old Brooke Shields in the 1980 ad campaign filmed by the late Richard Avedon. “The controversy seemed ridiculous to me,” Shields says now. “But that kind of controversy was what ended up separating Calvin from the others.”

“If you think of modern advertisement, it is based on Calvin Klein’s aesthetic, across the board,” says Costa. “Nobody had put a man in his underwear on a billboard before,” says Zucchelli of the 1982 ad campaign shot by Bruce Weber, which showed Olympic pole-vaulter Tom Hintnaus wearing only tight, white Calvin Klein briefs. Cut to the 2013 Super Bowl, when a 30-second spot showed model Matthew Terry in black briefs before an audience of 108 million viewers, reigniting the debate about what makes for family-appropriate advertising.

Today, the creative side of the company is run by an in-house advertising agency, CRK, the leaders of which have been there since the Klein era. “Calvin made it very simple,” says photographer Mario Sorrenti, who shot 1993’s controversial Obsession fragrance ads starring his then-girlfriend Kate Moss and has worked for the company ever since, including on the current underwear campaign starring Turlington. “He just let me free. He had an incredible instinct about what he believed in. Now, [the conversations] are more like ‘What is Calvin and how do we maintain what he stands for?’ ” he continues. “But I definitely think it’s one of the more creative brands out there, that embraces photography as part of their language.”

The brand has also seized control of much of its licensing. Just over a year ago, PVH executed a $2.9 billion acquisition of Warnaco, which was still the brand’s partner for jeans and underwear and operated nearly 2,000 Calvin Klein stores worldwide. The deal, which was applauded by the financial press and investors alike, concluded years of contentious relations with Warnaco over quality control, bloated inventory, distribution issues and weak sales—and cemented Calvin Klein’s position as one of the top-selling brands in the world. It also fundamentally transforms Calvin Klein’s structure from a licensing model, with most of the legwork done by outside companies, to an operating model. This will place more of the onus of production and distribution on Calvin Klein and PVH, with the results yet to be seen. (In fact, unexpected investment into the Warnaco businesses initially cut PVH profits in 2013.)

All of these efforts are focused toward increasing the brand’s global domination. The CEO sees the most promise in the East. “It’s all about Asia,” says Murry. “China is the number-one luxury market in the world and the fastest growing. I think it will be for the rest of our lives, unless there is a global war.” His goal for Calvin Klein is 8 to 10 percent growth a year—which means that in another decade the brand would be a $20 billion behemoth. “We always tell our team there is nothing we don’t do that we can’t improve,” he adds. “The minute you get arrogant and let your guard down that’s when you get in trouble.”

About bambooinnovator
Kee Koon Boon (“KB”) is the co-founder and director of HERO Investment Management which provides specialized fund management and investment advisory services to the ARCHEA Asia HERO Innovators Fund (, the only Asian SMID-cap tech-focused fund in the industry. KB is an internationally featured investor rooted in the principles of value investing for over a decade as a fund manager and analyst in the Asian capital markets who started his career at a boutique hedge fund in Singapore where he was with the firm since 2002 and was also part of the core investment committee in significantly outperforming the index in the 10-year-plus-old flagship Asian fund. He was also the portfolio manager for Asia-Pacific equities at Korea’s largest mutual fund company. Prior to setting up the H.E.R.O. Innovators Fund, KB was the Chief Investment Officer & CEO of a Singapore Registered Fund Management Company (RFMC) where he is responsible for listed Asian equity investments. KB had taught accounting at the Singapore Management University (SMU) as a faculty member and also pioneered the 15-week course on Accounting Fraud in Asia as an official module at SMU. KB remains grateful and honored to be invited by Singapore’s financial regulator Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) to present to their top management team about implementing a world’s first fact-based forward-looking fraud detection framework to bring about benefits for the capital markets in Singapore and for the public and investment community. KB also served the community in sharing his insights in writing articles about value investing and corporate governance in the media that include Business Times, Straits Times, Jakarta Post, Manual of Ideas, Investopedia, TedXWallStreet. He had also presented in top investment, banking and finance conferences in America, Italy, Sydney, Cape Town, HK, China. He has trained CEOs, entrepreneurs, CFOs, management executives in business strategy & business model innovation in Singapore, HK and China.

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