On why Calvin Klein’s campaigns changed fashion marketing forever


We’ve got some quickfire questions for you. You ready?

  • Name the most iconic underwear brand…
  • Name a brand that’s worked with young Kate Moss…
  • A brand with the most catchy slogan…
  • A brand that’s tapped every celebrity ever…

We may be wrong, but there’s a preeeetty high chance you had the same answer for each: Calvin Klein.

Since the early ’80s, the design house has been synonymous with iconic advertising. But its impact goes further than just Calvin Klein campaigns. Those original Brooke Shields/Marky Mark/Kate Moss days have left a lasting impact on fashion advertising today. 

This is how they did it:

Controversial advertising

We’ve all seen our fair share of controversial fashion ads. There’s Tom Ford’s 2007 men’s fragrance ads, Gucci’s 2004 ‘Public Enemy’ campaign and American Apparel’s racy campaigns (vale). 

But look closer and you’ll notice the majority of these campaigns happened post-1995. It was Calvin Klein that did it first. 

In 1982, CK had a 16-year-old Brooke Shields ask the world: ‘You know what gets between me and my Calvins? Nothing.’ 

A 16-year-old suggesting to the world she wasn’t wearing underwear? It was shocking to say the least. 

A decade later and Calvin Klein was making headlines once again. This time the label was accused of promoting child pornography in its 1995 campaign, shot by Steven Meisel. The American Justice Department opened an investigation which was later dropped, after the company provided proof that all the models featured were adults. 

So with all the uproar surrounding these campaigns, why continue the controversy? 

Because it worked.

In a 2016 interview with CNN, Calvin Klein himself reflected on the effectiveness of these campaigns. 

“Parents were upset,”said Calvin Klein in a 2016 interview with CNN.

“But the people we were trying to reach, young people, they were thrilled to have something their parents were upset about.” 

And thrilling they were. Following Brooke Shields’ breakout campaign, Entrepreneur reports that CK sold 200,000 pairs of jeans in that first week alone.

Selling more than just a product

Prior to 1980, fashion advertising was all about selling product. Calvin Klein’s ads stood out because they were about selling something bigger: a lifestyle.

Take the 1982 launch of Calvin Klein Underwear, for example. Shot by Bruce Weber, the campaign depicted Olympian, Tomás Hintnaus, lying on a roof in only his briefs. It depicted underwear as sexy, rather than functional. And, as the old saying goes, sex sells. 

That campaign revitalised a market that was previously focused on comfort and practicality. Instead of buying underwear, you were buying into a sexy new lifestyle.

As the Guardian explains: “[Calvin Klein Underwear] was designed to be seen, conferred status and wealth, and was totemic of its wearer’s tribe.”

Marky Mark joined the CK lineup soon after, further cementing the idea of underwear as a marker of status. ‘Calvins’ quickly became a fashion must-have.

Keeping it real

There’s no doubt the fashion industry is changing. We’re increasingly seeing labels push the boundaries of the traditional fashion campaign, using real women, street-cast and Instagram-cast models to front their campaigns. 

But while this movement has seen accelerated growth in the past few years, the ‘real world’ has always been pivotal to Calvin Klein’s campaigns. 

Take Richard Avedon. The photographer quickly built a reputation for CK shots that captured the personalities of models. There are casting tapes that show Avedon spending hours getting to know his models (think Kate Moss and James King), in order to accurately capture their personalities for the CK be campaign.

His 1996 TVC for CK be went even further, depicting a street-cast selection of tattoo-covered, pierced models. The brand’s talent of the era had pale skin, angular features and androgynous looks, a far cry from the Klums and Schiffers of the time. 

“We use a lot of real people… So the world is seeing a reflection of what’s really going on. I think people get it, and I think they like it,” Calvin said at the time.

Over a decade later, it seems the rest of the industry is finally cottoning on.

The brand today

Decades later, and Calvin Klein still holds its position as a social and cultural barometer of cool. It’s a tough feat in an industry as fleeting as fashion, but unsurprising, given the brand’s desire to push conventional boundaries.

Today, Calvin Klein still uses street-cast models and seeks to reflect what’s going on socially. In 2015, the brand’s global campaign captured the world of digital dating, with snippets from Tinder and Grindr conversations. 

This year, the brand has worked with a long list of celebrities, harnessing the power of social media’s most influential people. The flow-on effect has been massive, with celebrities who aren’t even brand ambassadors posting pics in their Calvins (that’s how Justin Bieber scored his CK campaign). Naturally, the world has followed suit. 

There are currently 452,853 images on Instagram with the tag #mycalvins. And with a continuing stream of users and influencers posting their #mycalvins pics, we can assume there are more iconic images to come.

Now that’s how you market.


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