Sex sells: just take it from Calvin Klein. The designer, who founded his namesake label in 1968, built his brand on elevated basics before venturing into the highly profitable categories of jeans, underwear and fragrance.
Over the years, the company’s advertisements have made headlines for their boundary-pushing subject matter. Calvin Klein campaigns have launched the careers of sex symbols and supermodels alike, with Mark Wahlberg, Kate Moss and Christy Turlington becoming household names after fronting billboards and commercials for the brand.
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Ahead, WWD looks back at over 50 years of Calvin Klein advertisements.
1978: Calvin Klein Launches Jeans
Calvin Klein was one of the earliest pioneers of an entirely new category of denim: designer jeans. He first advertised his skin-tight designs after a 1978 test shoot featuring model Patti Hansen. Charles Tracy, the house photographer for Saks Fifth Avenue, captured the image that would eventually appear on Calvin Klein’s first billboard for jeans. Due to its popularity, the advertisement remained in the same spot for two years.
1980: Brooke Shields Causes Controversy
Calvin Klein initially hesitated at the thought of producing television advertisements, but the designer changed his tune in 1980. The brand caused a stir when it aired a series of denim commercials starring 15-year-old Brooke Shields. The campaign, shot and directed by Richard Avedon, included an ad featuring the seemingly suggestive tagline: “You want to know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” This spot, among others, were pulled off the air in some countries, including on local affiliates of the American networks ABC, NBC and CBS.
“I didn’t set out thinking how to be controversial,” Klein told WWD in 1994. “With Brooke Shields years ago, I thought it was a hoot, but all these people went crazy. We need newness and excitement in fashion. That’s what it’s about — that’s what puts the fun in fashion….We’re always questioning people’s values. How much can you provoke? How much are they willing to show? Is it decent? Is it exciting? is it valid? Is it over the line? It’s a whole process, but it’s not about trying to be controversial or trendy.”
Despite the uproar, the campaign was a huge success, leading many customers to ask for “Brooke Shields jeans” in stores. Unfortunately, this correlation led Shields to being dropped from the brand, as Klein preferred the pants to be associated with his namesake.
“I didn’t get renewed for the second year, and my feelings were really hurt. I thought I’d failed,” Shields said on an episode of “WTF with Mark Maron” in 2023.
Still, Shields doesn’t regret having starred in the campaign. “There was nothing in me that ever had the idea [that the ad] was sexual,” she said in her 2023 documentary, “Pretty Baby,” calling the backlash “ludicrous” on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.”
1982: Calvin Klein Debuts Underwear
Klein entered the briefs business in 1982. To kick off the launch, he tapped photographer Bruce Weber for a $500,000 advertising campaign. Olympian pole vaulter Tom Hintnaus was the first face of Calvin Klein underwear, appearing on a Times Square billboard and in television commercials.
Bloomingdale’s sold $65,000 of Calvin Klein briefs in just two weeks, with sales for the first year projected at $4 million. Klein found similar success with the introduction of women’s underwear, selling 80,000 pairs in just 90 days.
Today, Klein is credited with inventing the category of designer underwear.
1985: The Birth of Obsession
Klein became known for his fragrances after the release of Obsession. “The name Obsession is big, like a movie poster for this era, I think of everything I’ve ever done, how obsessed I was. Everyone is obsessed in the ’80s. And, of course, the name suggests an obsession with someone. A man obsessed by a woman,” Klein told WWD in 1985. “I wanted something direct, sensuous and provocative.”
Klein’s advertising budget, clocking in at $13 million, was the largest amount the brand had ever spent. It paid off, with Bloomingdale’s selling $7,000 of Obsession the day of its launch.
Richard Avedon re-teamed with Klein to produce four television spots for Obsession with help from writer Doon Arbus. Starring model Josie Borain, the black and white advertisements had an advantageous effect on sales.
1988: Christy Turlington Poses for Eternity
The success of Obsession led Calvin Klein to create Eternity, which came out in August 1988. The brand spent $18 million to launch the women’s scent, and it eventually surpassed Obsession as Klein’s highest-grossing fragrance, raking in $35 million within the first year of its release.
Nineteen-year-old Christy Turlington was the face of Eternity, with the supermodel-to-be having made her runway debuts for Marc Jacobs and Michael Kors the previous fall.
1992: Marky Mark Fronts Calvin Klein Underwear
In 1992, Mark Wahlberg famously displayed his physique in a Calvin Klein campaign photographed by Herb Ritts. At the time, Wahlberg was best known as the frontman of the hip-hop group Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. David Geffen, who was an investor in Calvin Klein, suggested Wahlberg after seeing him wearing the brand’s underwear on the cover of Rolling Stone.
Kate Moss, who was then in her late teens, appeared topless alongside Wahlberg in print and television advertisements. Although the campaign turned Moss into a household name, decades later, she admitted that the shoot caused her to have “a nervous breakdown.”
“You felt objectified?” Lauren Laverne, host of the radio show “Desert Island Discs,” asked Moss 2022.
“Yeah, completely. And vulnerable and scared,” she replied. “I really didn’t feel well at all before the shoot. For like a week or two, I couldn’t get out of bed, and I had severe anxiety, and the doctor gave me Valium.”
Calvin Klein earned a permanent place in the pop culture zeitgeist when “Seinfeld” parodied the brand in a 1992 episode called “The Pick.” The plot revolves around Kramer (Michael Richards), who is frustrated after learning that Calvin Klein has released a new fragrance based on his idea for a perfume that smells like the beach. Kramer later visits the company’s offices, where he is hired to model their underwear.
1993: Kate Moss Is the Face of Obsession
Moss changed beauty standards in the fashion industry when she became the face of Obsession in 1993. With her lithe frame, Moss ushered in an era of extremely thin models after the more athletic figures of supers, like Cindy Crawford and Elle Macpherson, ruled the ’80s and early ’90s.
1994: Calvin Klein Invents The First Unisex Fragrance
Calvin Klein set trends with the invention of unisex perfume in 1994. Moss returned to promote the gender-neutral fragrance CK One, with Steven Meisel behind the lens. “The initial vision was inspired by 1969 photography by Avedon, Andy Warhol and members of the Factory,” Klein told Artsy in 2017. “I wanted to capture a liberal and rebellious attitude, featuring unique people, for our anti-perfume. I knew Steven could do that.”
The CK One campaign featured a diverse cast of models including Jenny Shimizu, who was discovered while working as a mechanic. She eventually became the first person of color to open a Prada show in 1995. One of the few models that was openly queer at the time, Shimizu was romantically linked to Angelina Jolie and Madonna.
Today, gender-neutral scents are commonplace, with countless brands including Maison Margiela, Tom Ford and Diptyque cashing in on the category. “When CK One originally launched in 1994, it helped redefine the boundaries of the modern fragrance because it blurred societal, gender boundaries and offered a freedom from convention and the status quo, a breaking of rules,” said Simona Cattaneo, the then chief marketing officer of Coty Luxury, the beauty company that owns Calvin Klein fragrances, in 2018.
1995: More Advertising Controversy
Calvin Klein once again found itself embroiled in scandal — this time with the feds — after the release of its 1995 jeans campaign. Meisel photographed several models, including Moss, in a set dressed like a wood-paneled basement. Television commercials for the campaign proved even more risqué, with an anonymous man behind the camera asking models to undress.
The ads caused outrage, with C.J. Doyle of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights calling the images “cynical, exploitative and immoral.” The American Family Association, a conservative Christian group, said it would boycott all retailers who carried the jeans. Even President Bill Clinton publicly chastised the “half-dressed adolescents” in Klein’s new ads.
Klein was eventually investigated by the Justice Department’s Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section, though charges against the designer were dropped after the company proved that its models were of age. The commercials, however, were ultimately pulled from the air.
2006: Moss Makes Her Calvin Comeback
After allegations of drug use led to Moss getting dropped from contracts with H&M and Chanel in 2005, she triumphantly returned as the face of Calvin Klein the following year. Appearing alongside actor Jamie Dornan, Moss was photographed by Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott for Calvin Klein Jeans’ fall ad campaign.
2008: Eva Mendes Becomes a Calvin Klein Spokesmodel
Calvin Klein tapped Eva Mendes as the face of its new fragrance, Secret Obsession, in 2008. The actress was photographed in the nude by Meisel for print and television advertisements, the latter of which were banned from American television networks before airing.
2009: Another Banned Ad
Calvin Klein’s spring 2009 jeans commercial, similar to Mendes’ aforementioned ad, never made it to television. The campaign, shot by Meisel, starred Natasha Poly, Edita Vilkeviciute and Anna Selezneva wearing Calvin Klein denim — and not much else. The unedited spot was eventually put to use, though it only ran on calvinkleinjeans.com.
2011: CK One Reinvents Itself
Calvin Klein relaunched CK One, expanding the line to include fragrances, jeans and underwear. Meisel updated his 1994 campaign with a grainy new look that mimicked surveillance footage. Models including Rita Ora, Lara Stone and Abbey Lee Kershaw posed in a small white room featuring little decoration, and naturally, little clothing.
2013: Calvin Klein Makes Its First Super Bowl Ad
Calvin Klein brought sex appeal to the Super Bowl with its first advertisement for Calvin Klein Concept, a new underwear line. The 30-second spot features model Matthew Terry showing off the seamless design.
2015: Justin Bieber Poses for Calvin Klein
After launching its ultra successful #mycalvins campaign in 2014, Calvin Klein tapped Justin Bieber as its newest spokesperson. The singer posed with Stone in a series of black and white photographs, shot by Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott, that clearly referenced Mark Wahlberg and Kate Moss’ 1992 campaign.
That year, the brand also made headlines with its fall jeans campaign, which was shot by Mario Sorrenti. Photographs of models were overlaid with screenshots of erotic text messages (which were supposedly based on “actual events and people”), nodding to a new era of “hookup culture” ushered in by the proliferation of dating apps like Tinder.
2015: Kendall Jenner Makes Her Calvin Klein Debut
Kendall Jenner scored a contract with Calvin Klein in 2015, posing for her first photos with the brand as part of the #mycalvins campaign. Klein himself wasn’t thrilled with the decision. “You know, I’m really not that familiar with it,” he said of Jenner’s ads in 2016. “I’m sure she’s a lovely young woman. It’s not the kind of thing I would have done, even today.” Klein sold his company to Phillips-Van Heusen in 2002, surrendering complete creative control.
2018: The Kardashians in Their Calvins
In 2018, Willy Vanderperre photographed Calvin Klein’s spring 2018 campaign featuring more than 20 models, including the entire Kardashian clan. Dressed in Calvin Klein jeans and underwear, reality television’s first family poses in a weathered barn and on a grassy lawn.
The same year, Calvin Klein said that it would no longer produce print advertisements, instead focusing on a “digital-first, socially amplified model” including video elements.
2019: #MyCalvins Goes Digital-First
In spring 2019, #MyCalvins introduced its debut digital-first campaign featuring Kendall Jenner, Shawn Mendes, Noah Centineo and A$AP Rocky. Advertisements ran across all social media channels, including TikTok, which Calvin Klein joined that year.
2020: Turlington Returns to Front Eternity
Decades after the release of Eternity, Turlington returned to front the fragrance, this time with her husband, actor Ed Burns. Similar to the original campaigns, the couple embraces on the beach in a series of black and white photographs.
“After shooting the first Eternity Calvin Klein campaign over 30 years ago, it’s a pleasure to be working with Calvin Klein again and to be a part of the history of such an iconic fragrance,” said Turlington in a statement.
2023: Calvins or Nothing
After launching in 2022, Calvin Klein’s spring 2023 campaign continued the Calvins or Nothing theme. Directed and photographed by Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott, new imagery featured a cast of global stars such as Jennie Kim of Blackpink and Kendall Jenner, as well as Michael B. Jordan and Aaron Taylor-Johnson in their debut for the brand.
Calvin Klein continued its banned advertisements streak after a campaign photo depicting a half-naked FKA Twigs was prohibited from running in the United Kingdom. The country’s Advertising Standards Authority found that the image “presented her as a stereotypical sexual object.”
The artist responded with a post on Instagram bashing the decision. “I do not see the ‘stereotypical sexual object’ that they have labelled me. I see a beautiful strong woman of color whose incredible body has overcome more pain than you can imagine,” she wrote.
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