Design: A Tell-All About Calvin Klein

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The fashion shows in New York City last week produced little good news, but Calvin Klein could, as always, be counted on to unveil something appealing. For next fall he showed an array of suits and separates quite in keeping with the clean-lined, tasteful clothes he has made for the past 25 years. Klein's importance to American fashion is unsurpassed, and even those who don't buy his clothes certainly know his name. Years of suggestive marketing campaigns — from Brooke Shields admitting that nothing came between her and her Calvins to Marky Mark pitching Calvin Klein underwear — have seen to that.

Despite Klein's fame, virtually the only place to read about him has been in fawning profiles commissioned by the glossy magazines that depend on him for ads. As a rich, handsome man he is a big target, though, and the arrival of a tell-all expose like Obsession: The Lives and Times of Calvin Klein, by Steven Gaines and Sharon Churcher (Birch Lane Press; $22.50), was almost inevitable. The authors do not fawn — they revel in describing the people Klein copied, the deals he made, the collaborators he turned against. Above all, they dwell on his heavy drug use and bisexuality.

Gaines and Churcher interviewed tirelessly to portray Klein's Bronx childhood, spent under the thumb of a domineering mother. Like many designers, little Calvin began sewing as a tyke and was impatient with school. After a couple of dead-end apprenticeships, his future dawned with the opening of an elevator door. In 1968 he had a tiny garment-district office when a Bonwit Teller executive on his way to another floor glimpsed some coats. He ordered his assistant out of the elevator to check them out. Soon the young designer was the star of the store's young line.

Obsession contains a wealth of fascinating shop talk about the garment industry: endlessly fluctuating deals, shifting alliances and enmities, financial escapades of the riskiest sort. Klein has endured his share of rough times, especially when, with the help of Michael Milken, he issued some junk bonds. Only the generosity of Klein's billionaire friend David Geffen — a $50 million investment in 1992 — kept the firm afloat.

But the authors' greatest preoccupation is with Klein's private life. He married young and fathered a daughter, Marci, whose kidnapping in 1978 was a media circus and a personal trauma. By that time, Klein had discovered drugs and vodka and immersed himself in the luxurious pre-AIDS life of rich gays. He developed a passion for Studio 54, even staying after it closed to help the waiters count change. Then it was on to Flamingo, a gay after-hours club. Final stop was the Mineshaft, a "warren of rooms crowded with men, many openly having sex . . . no cologne or Lacoste shirts, only work clothes and leather allowed." At home, the authors say, Klein plied hustlers with cocaine and Quaaludes, and the wonder is that he has survived at all. Finally, in 1988, he entered a drug-rehabilitation hospital and joined Alcoholics Anonymous. By then he had also married Kelly Rector, a pretty assistant with whom he lives the country gent's life in the Hamptons.

Like most expose writers, the authors hunt down the bad news about their subject. But on a narrower, parallel track they offer evidence of a driven, sensitive man who has made the most of his considerable talents. As retailers learned anew last week, Calvin has always served Seventh Avenue — and women — well.