- Photography by Mr Billy Kidd
For anyone old enough to remember the ad campaigns of the 1980s and 1990s, the name Calvin Klein will forever be synonymous with sex appeal. Blame it on a denim-clad Ms Brooke Shields. "You wanna know what comes between me and my Calvins?" she asked in 1981. Her answer - "nothing" - could have implied a vow of chastity. It could just as easily have suggested an enlightened attitude to underwear. Or blame Mr Mark Wahlberg. "Now that could definitely come between me and my Calvins." Those were the words spoken by the front man of The Funky Bunch back in 1992 as a topless, 18-year-old Ms Kate Moss cavorted by his side.
Before Tom Ford, before Abercrombie & Fitch, Calvin Klein was the leading purveyor of sexy cool. His name wasn't just on Ms Lea Thompson's lips as she tried to seduce Mr Michael J Fox in Back to the Future - it adorned the waistbands of an entire generation.
One man who remembers the label's provocative heyday is the men's creative director of Calvin Klein Collection, Mr Italo Zucchelli. "I must have been only 17 at the time," says the now 49 year old, recalling his first encounter with the brand. "It was the early 1980s, and I remember seeing an advert in L'Uomo Vogue - a Bruce Weber shot. It was typical Bruce: a good-looking guy with a muscular physique not wearing a lot. It's the sort of thing that's on every street corner now. But back then? No designer would have done that. It was groundbreaking." He disagrees that the brand's arresting imagery - overtly sexualised yet never vulgar - was merely a tool to court controversy. "Calvin didn't set out to shock people for the sake of it," he explains. "That was just a side effect. All he wanted was to have an impact. To do something that hadn't been done before."
It's the sort of thing that's on every street corner now. But back then? It was groundbreaking
It certainly had an impact on Mr Zucchelli. He spent his teenage years immersing himself in all things new and experimental; he listened to post-punk, krautrock and new wave - he mentions Joy Division in passing, and cites "Song to the Siren" by This Mortal Coil as a favourite track - and spent hours poring over British fashion bibles i-D and The Face. Despite growing up in the northern coastal region of La Spezia and studying architecture and fashion in Florence, his cultural identity hardly reflects his Italian roots. He visited London before he ever visited Milan, and only ever served as assistant to one Italian fashion designer, Romeo Gigli, before moving to Jil Sander, one of the high-profile torchbearers of the minimalist movement - the other, of course, being Calvin Klein.
"The m-word! Minimalism is such a love-hate word," says Mr Zucchelli, when asked if he feels comfortable being defined in those terms. "In the early 1990s, the simplicity of it all came as a shock. We were emerging from a decade of sequins, decorations and embellishments, so when Jil and Calvin started sending models down the runway wearing a simple zip-up blouson, that was something radical - something exciting. It's a bit of a cliché now, of course, but the term still applies. It describes a simple, modern attitude to design. And it gives you a good idea of what Calvin Klein is still striving towards: a purity, and a timeless modernity. But yes," he concedes, "you can call me a minimalist, if you want."
It describes a simple, modern attitude to design. But yes, you can call me a minimalist if you want
Mr Zucchelli has worked hard to leave his own impression on the brand that he took charge of some 11 years ago, bringing a sophisticated, futuristic edge to the Calvin Klein brand of "modern sportswear". To his credit, he's done it without compromising the strong design signature - not to mention the sex appeal - that brought the label such huge global success. In 2010, seven years after taking the reins, he made 23-year-old Mr David Agbodji the face of his spring campaign, and the star of a series of double-page magazine ads that showed the model fully clothed on one side and completely naked on the other. "It was a celebration of masculinity and of black skin," he says. The shots were also a nod to the brand's history of provocative marketing tactics. "It's so much harder to create that kind of reaction today. It's a question of context and execution. But then, we've always been about providing people with the shock of the new."
By constantly returning to the codes of the house, by referencing the language and iconography of the brand, Mr Zucchelli has been able to bring that blend of sex and minimalism to a new clientele. It's his restrained take on classic, early 1990s Calvin Klein that caught our buying team's eye this season, with Buying Director Mr Toby Bateman particularly taken with an overcoat cut from double-faced cashmere. The fabric, which is unlined, drapes incredibly well, giving the coat a relaxed, soft-shouldered silhouette. It's accompanied by a selection of richly textured flannel suits, chunky knits and super-minimal shirts, in typically subdued shades: grey, black, navy blue and camel - a colour we'll be seeing a lot of in the coming season.
We're very proud to present Calvin Klein Collection, which is available now for the first time on MR PORTER.
Styling by Mr Dan May, Style Director, MR PORTER
Words by Mr Chris Elvidge, Senior Copywriter, MR PORTER