When Calvin Klein stepped down as designer for the Calvin Klein Collection in 2003, many wondered if the man who practically invented an entirely new American fashion aesthetic could be replaced. Could the brand continue when Klein, who embodied the clean, Hamptons-and-modern-art lifestyle was no longer at the helm?
Enter Francisco Costa.
Born in Brazil, Costa cut his teeth at Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta, and Gucci. In his relatively brief time with each of those brands, he was able to prove that he could channel the essence of a brand with a dash of innovation. He instantly gained him recognition from industry insiders. Coaxed away from Gucci by Tom Ford, he landed at Calvin Klein and in a relatively short time proved that the brand is not only alive and well, it is just as relevant today as it was when Klein launched it in 1968.
Costa was recently in town for a trunk show at Saks Fifth Avenue, and I spoke with him about the merits of minimalism, the legacy of Calvin Klein, and why the brand is as all-American as Coca Cola.
- A look from the spring 2011 Calvin Klein Collection.
BP: When you think back to your first collection for Calvin Klein, did you have the confidence to create a collection, were you not intimidated at all?
FC: Well with my first collection, it was kind of daring when I think about it because it broke all the rules of the house. I showed tons of really kitsch prints, but I was so young and so new to the job and I had no… It was the process. The greatest thing about that was that I felt no question about what I was doing. I was just doing it.
BP: You didn’t have the mantle of Calvin Klein weighing upon you?
FC: I did but I was genuinely very naïve about the situation. I just knew a collection had to be done and I did the best that I could. I was just doing the job.
BP: Which is really remarkable because so many designers, potentially, would be really freaked out: “Oh my god, I have to pick up where this guy left off,” and “how do I create a collection that isn’t derivative, but something that is fresh and original and carries the spirit of the house.”
FC: That’s right, but it was somehow different for me. It’s not that I was trying to make a statement it was simply to make a deadline. Today I think now I am more confident to add details that are less obvious and truer to me. Now it’s ok for me to move into softness.
BP: I feel like your spring and fall collection have made a subtle departure from what we’ve seen before. There’s a different emphasis on structure.
FC: Structure always comes down to construction. You start with a pattern and the work that goes into it must always translate. I wish that people could see that even in a seemingly structured garment, there is softness.
- Costa continues to explore Klein’s minimalism with an eye towards making it “relevant” to today’s customer.
BP: That’s what makes it so interesting, where a particular garment might not seem to have any structure, in fact, it is because of that structure that it is able to exist as a garment.
FC: Yes. A woman came up to me today and she said: I am finally understanding your clothes.
BP: And what do you think she meant by that?
FC: It meant all of a sudden she was able to recognize something that she wasn’t able to recognize before. And by seeing the collection as a whole, there was a language that was explicit, a language that came across in communicating the depth behind the simplicity.
- The fall collection was inspired by the mod, “Teddy Girls” of swinging London.
BP: The fall collection really made me think of Courreges.
FC: Really? I never thought of that. It was the mod influence. When I see those pictures of those girls with the teddy bear coats, I just thought let’s make some these hairy coats with great mixes of vicuna, wool, and mohair, and then how can we translate that into silks, with theses sort of eyelash dresses. It’s so soft and feathery. I wanted it to be tactile.
- Costa experimented with subtle blends like Vicuna, silk, and wool to create unusual effects such as this “eyelash” coat.
BP: I can see that. There’s a gray sleeveless dress that is very much like Catherine Deneuve in “Repulsion.”
FC: You have all the references!
BP: The fall collection in particular, feels like there is an assertiveness: as if She is saying “I feel very comfortable with who I am.”
FC: Yes, these are clothes for women who have reached a point in their lives where they are comfortable with themselves. There is nothing to prove, they are comfortable in their own skin.
BP: Calvin Klein, the designer, certainly had his detractors who said that his minimalism undermined a woman’s femininity — that it effectively removed it. Do you think that’s true?
FC: Not at all. Minimalism is not so much about removing detail but presenting it in subtle, intricate ways. When Calvin was designing, it was a seminal time in fashion. To design in such a way is challenging but that’s what I find exciting.
- Select pieces from the fall 2011 runway were recently on display at Saks Fifth Avenue San Francisco.
BP: Do you think that sometimes people don’t understand that a fashion designer goes through a process from season to season and that like an artist, you cannot necessarily expect consistency?
FC: Yes, I don’t think people understand that. I sometimes read critics reviews and I find them interesting. But any design collection is part of a larger process. Calvin’s legacy is incredible. I’m still working on where the brand needs to go now, and each collection is an experiment towards that.
- BertrandPellegrin and Ethan Hon admire a piece from the fall 2011 Calvin Klein Collection.
BP: But what about Francisco Costa, what is the essence of you as a designer?
FC: I think it’s more reductionist and minimalist. Emphasizing cut and fabric. I mean coming from Bill Blass, and then going to Oscar de la Renta, and then Gucci, at the time I thought: I am not fit for Gucci. But I learned how to speak that language. When Calvin called I realized then that this would be a remarkable challenge: to understand the purity of pure design.
BP: So what are the challenges to marketing a brand like this one? Let’s pretend it’s 50 years from now, you’ve got a whole generation that’s never heard of Calvin Klein, the designer.
FC: I think it’s all about timing. Being relevant to your own time. To me that’s the most challenging part. Forget the clothes. I realized the relevance of the brand because Calvin was always relevant to his time and then he evolved from there. He made all the right moves. I think this brand will be here forever. It’s like Coca Cola.
- Guests at the Saks Fifth Avenue San Francisco store event for the Calvin Klein Collection
BP: But you don’t think Calvin was calculated in how he marketed this brand?
FC: No I don’t think he was calculated at all I think it was very much part of his lifestyle.
BP: Do you ever worry that working for a brand, you will become trapped as a designer?
FC: It’s all an evolution. I have been fortunate enough to be at the top of my game and with such a great company that has allowed me to experiment. But it’s collaboration too. Because I really respect what’s there but I still use my own language, my own way of being relevant and interesting. It would be very easy for me to just go to the [Calvin Klein] archives for inspiration. But if I did that I wouldn’t be here talking to you. I wouldn’t be successful; I would be very mediocre, and probably really unhappy!
The Calvin Klein Collection is available at Saks Fifth Avenue. Click here to see the new collections.