A look back at all times Calvin Klein broke the internet

Words by Bianca O’Neill/@_thesecondrow

Marketing genius.

When you consider iconic moments in fashion history, there is one name that seems to pop up time and time again: Calvin Klein.

The start of 2018 was no exception: Among the eager baby-watch fever, Calvin Klein quietly but boldly threw fuel on the fire with Kylie Jenner’s blanketed baby bump. It was an obvious clue – after all, the campaign was centred around the hashtag #MyFamily – and, yet again, the brand hit headlines around the globe.

This time around it was Raf Simons talking to a new generation in an entirely different way, and yet one that fits perfectly within the inventive brand narrative. The intersection of fame and fashion is what this brand does best.

As we reflect on Calvin Klein’s most iconic branding moments (including those pre-internet) and how this new campaign fits within the historical context, it becomes abundantly clear that the brand’s bold marketing moves have kept it fresh and relevant for decades (and more to come).

Here’s to yet another year of #breakingtheinternet.

Marky Mark and his funky bunch

Reportedly improvised by Mark Wahlberg on set, *that* crotch grab has to be the most famous Calvin Klein marketing moment in history. Perfectly aligned to the brand’s penchant for a hefty wink, the now-famous print ads were accompanied by a short film-style advertisement featuring Marky Mark explaining that his Calvin’s don’t get “stretched out” like other underwear. All while grabbing his funky bunch.



Calvin Klein ex-Senior VP Neil Kraft explained to AdAge the frenzied response to the campaign at the time: “This was fifteen years before social media and cell phones, but when we had him up to do fittings, people got word of it and across the street, they were putting their phone numbers in their windows. To this day, I can’t figure out how they knew he was in the neighbourhood.”

Justin Bieber fever

Following on from the incredibly successful stripped back Mark Wahlberg campaign, Calvin Klein looked to recreate some of the fervour with our generation’s answer to a controversial male musician: Justin Bieber.

Similar black and white print ads were again accompanied by black and white shorts, but the reaction was completely different. Now released in the age of the internet, the news cycle covering the campaign reached fever pitch within days.


Day one courted admiration, day two misbelief at Bieber’s ample package, day three brought a fake story about alleged retouching and the rest of the week? Well, let’s leave that in SNL’s capable hands. Arguably, we have Calvin Klein to thank for both those Bieber images AND Kate McKinnon’s quick rise to fame.

From sex sells to sexting

Calvin Klein ads have always been sexy. After Kate Moss’ naked Obsession ads in the ’90s and Lara Stone’s webcam-themed campaign in 2011, it’s clear the brand has enthusiastically subscribed to the “sex sells” adage over the years. In 2015, however, Calvin Klein entered the age of Tinder with a real-life-meets-art ad campaign that spoke strongly to Millennials.

Introducing Tinder-style propositions via sexting, overlaid on models in Calvins. The brand brought the conversation (literally) to the party. From discussions about a “light threesome” and late-night booty calls, to the first gay couple to feature in a Calvin Klein ad, this campaign was as talked about as it was engaged with. Luring in your audience with a familiar narrative so they actually read an ad? Brilliant.

My family, my secret pregnancy rumours

And so we arrive in 2018: a year when the news cycle is dominated by ‘is she or isn’t she’ headlines about Kylie Jenner’s rumoured pregnancy. Instead of shying away from the fascination, Raf Simons ran headfirst into the speculation, draping a blanket over a bulging pregnancy belly and accompanying it with the line “my family, my Calvins.” Although surrounded by the rest of the Kardashian klan, it was Kylie’s blanket that made the news.

Calvin Klein had been selling sex for generations, but Simons wanted the brand to return to a more wholesome ‘true American’ image. And what a way to do it. Using the brand’s strongest asset – Calvin Klein’s long-standing affiliation with celebrity – it was time to court controversy in an entirely different way. And it paid off in spades.

Long after the dust settles on this pretty radical brand refocus, we’ll still be talking about that blanket… and the baby it knowingly sheltered from the prying eyes of the world for just that little bit longer.


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