FUELING, FEELING THE HEAT;CALVIN KLEIN PUSHES INTO 'DIFFERENT EDGE' WITH CONTROVERSIAL JEANS ADS

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Is Calvin Klein a dirty old man? Or simply a shrewd if cynical businessman cashing in on an American appetite for sexual titillation? Or a bit of both?

Last week, even The New York Times seemed confused. On the op-ed page Maureen Dowd ripped Calvin as a purveyor of kiddie porn. In the same edition was a page and a half devoted to the glories of Calvin's new retail shop opening this week on Madison Avenue. Since Mr. Klein is a big advertiser, you had the feeling of, "Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's...."

I think I know how the Bible Belt and committees of outraged parents feel about Calvin and those famous (infamous?) ads and commercials. Tar and feathers, anyone? But what of professionals in the fashion biz and in fashion journalism? What are they saying about Calvin himself and about his ads and the furor they've inspired?

Some declined to be quoted by name and then spoke frankly. Others agreed to be quoted but chose their phrasing carefully. Some wouldn't talk at all or return calls. When you work in or around a business that lives off fash ion and fragrance advertising, you become prudent. Some stressed the interlocking nature of relationships in fashion journalism, noting that the creative director of the Klein commercials in dispute is also the creative director of Harper's Bazaar.

Others felt I shouldn't write about the affair at all. One professional told me, "Look, by writing about this, you're playing right into his hands."

One who spoke briefly but on the record was Michael Gross, Esquire writer and author of the best selling hardcover, "Model," all about what he calls "the ugly business of beautiful women." Gross was off to London for British publication of his book last Thursday when we spoke.

"He's got all the right people mad at him," Gross said, "the religious right and the censors. The kids think he's a rebel and the [protesting] parents think they've won. Actually, it's a win/win situation for Calvin."

Another speaking for attribution was Rochelle Udell, a former art director for Vogue and for Harper's Bazaar, and today a senior exec helping guide Conde Nast into the cyberspace tomorrow. She's a fascinating witness since she worked for Calvin years before as creative director on another set of ads that ignited furious debate, those starring 15-year-old Brooke Shields.

"Calvin always wanted to be at the edge," Rochelle said, "but this is a different edge. Calvin may be speaking to a mood in the country. The heat level has risen, the whole stimulation level is up. People eat spicier food. What we [adults] value as intense, even a film like `Apollo 13,' the kids find boring. They want more stimulation, more heat."

Sure, Rochelle said, there was static over the Brooke Shields ads. "But that was different. In those, the words came out of her mouth and she looked so gorgeous."

At the Ford model agency, perhaps the industry's largest and, in an often sleazy trade, boasting a generally solid reputation, Katie Ford talked to me.

"We work with Calvin a lot but none of the youngsters in this campaign were ours." Is there a morals clause or some other sort of protection written into modeling contracts for youngsters under a certain age? Said Katie Ford, "Usually the agent discusses such things with the model. `Ever do topless?' `Don't do topless?' Like that." And aren't the parents brought into the discussion? "Depends on how old the child is. A 17-year-old living on her own, no. Under 17, yes, you talk to the parent."

According to a source, the model agency repping some or all of the kids in this current batch of Calvin Klein ads and TV commercials is Women Model Management on Greene Street in Manhattan, where I was told to call "Paul Roland or Jennifer." When I called there was only a recorded message saying they were closed for the holiday and would reopen right after Labor Day.

Now, getting down and dirty with sources who won't be quoted by name, these comments about Mr. Klein and his kiddie campaign:

"He doesn't care about the people who care about these ads.... by pulling the ads now, he's saved a quarter of his ad budget and gets all this free publicity....Has he gone too far this time? I really think this is not responsible.... Calvin isn't stupid so therefore he can't believe what he says in his statement [about having been `taken aback' by the adverse reaction]...."

The worst savaging by critics I spoke to was directed at Calvin's choice of Fabien Baron and Steven Meisel to create the ad campaign. "These are the guys who produced the Madonna sex book for God's sake." Baron, the Harper's Bazaar executive, has a design studio and business of his own and did the Klein job on assignment and independent of his magazine. Meisel, the photographer, works frequently for Conde Nast.

What I hadn't known until I began asking questions was that Meisel took the original photos not for Calvin but for Italian Vogue. Said one of the fashion pros with whom I talked:

"The bottom line is why would Calvin choose photos by the notorious Steven Meisel, a self-confessed promoter of `the queer sensibility'?"

The answer, in this person's mind, is that Calvin Klein knew precisely what he was doing and got the ad campaign he wanted.

And while we're at it, doesn't this whole business raise the larger issue of conflict of interest? Here's the creative chief of a major fashion magazine doing the ads for one of the magazine's biggest advertisers. Should Women's Wear Daily, the industry's great trade paper, have been on this story earlier than anyone else? Or were considerations taken regarding the ad pages Calvin buys in its sister magazine, W?

Years ago Calvin said for quote: "Anything I wanted to do, I did. If there's something I want, nothing stops me!" He got the ads he wanted; he got the shocked reaction; he got the publicity. Maybe he even sold some jeans. Maybe in the end, he did win.

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