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Decade-Defining Brands: Calvin Klein


The Me Generation lets nothing come between them and their Calvins.

What a way to usher in a decade: In 1980, ads for Calvin Klein jeans featured a 15-year-old Brooke Shields breathily asking, "You want to know what comes between me and my Calvin's? Nothing."

People were scandalized -- but they bought over 200,000 pairs of Calvin Klein jeans in the week after the ad first appeared, and 2 million per month in the years thereafter. Only one thing eclipsed the controversy surrounding the barely-pubescent-yet-come-hither Shields: the even more controversial figure of Calvin Klein himself.

Thanks to his high-profile membership in New York's ultra-rich party set, Klein had become the first superstar designer, someone whom people asked to autograph their underwear (even those already emblazoned with his name). Studio 54 -- where Klein could be found dancing alongside Andy Warhol, Bianca Jagger, and Halston -- was both the place where his fame first took hold and the place where those must-have jeans were born. As Klein told Playboy in 1984:

"I was at Studio 54, dancing, at 4 a.m. I was going to Frankfurt the next day and had decided to stay up all night, then get on the plane and sleep. A guy came up to me and asked if I would be interested in putting my name on jeans. I'd had a few drinks, but I straightened myself up real quickly, because when someone talks business, I listen. ... And I thought it could be a fun thing to do."

Again and again, Klein captured the 80s zeitgeist, releasing a bestselling line of power suits and sportswear just when women were heading back to the workplace in droves. The brand unapologetically celebrated the shamelessly narcissistic, pleasure-seeking mood of the time - what the New York Times has called the "Me Me Me" Generation.

Commercials for Klein's first fragrance, released in 1984 and called Obsession, generally depicted orgiastic scenes of abandon. One featured 4 naked women in a tangled embrace. (Oddly, that one was for the men's cologne).

The slogan: "Love is child's play once you've known Obsession." The tag line: A male voice moaning "Ah, the smell of it."

As the Washington Post noted at the time: "You don't often hear the word 'smell' in perfume advertisements. Manufacturers usually prefer the more discreet 'scent,' 'aroma' or 'fragrance.' " No such subtlety for Calvin Klein.
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