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He is fashion's Frank Lloyd Wright. In the more than 50 collections he has produced since 1968, Calvin Klein has remained Seventh Avenue's most devout modernist, its pre-eminent avatar of form-follows-function thinking. Each season his models have ambled down the runway in clothes created in quiet protest against fashion's outlandish theatricality. He has never dabbled in a world of beaded headgear or rubber cocktail dresses. "I've always believed in simplicity," Klein reflects. "I've never been one to see women in ruffles and all kinds of fanciful apparel. To me it's just silly." No matter what the Gaultiers and Gallianos are doing, Klein, 53, keeps his palette defiantly muted, his lines aggressively clean, his style obsessively grounded in reality.
And were it not for Klein, reality might have always been one of fashion's dirtiest words. Early on, colleagues, editors and critics alike mistook his distaste for the fantastical as evidence of artlessness. But they eventually began to appreciate the gracefulness and clarity of his vision. "The clothing is extraordinarily important," notes Richard Martin, curator of the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "He is the true American Puritan. Even as his style has evolved over time, it's always about eliminating anything that is not necessary, and always thinking of the garment as being pure as possible."
One could even argue that Klein's elegant take on minimalism has come to define the look of the late 20th century in the U.S. "There are hardly any major designers who have not been influenced by the kind of American style Calvin epitomizes," notes Valerie Steele, a professor at New York City's Fashion Institute of Technology, Klein's alma mater. Indeed, his spare-chic ethos is reflected in the work of everyone from superstars like Donna Karan, Michael Kors and Miuccia Prada to up-and-comers like handbag designer Kate Spade. More significantly, it is the bedrock of the no-fuss aesthetic peddled by the Gap, J. Crew and Banana Republic, increasingly the purveyors of the American uniform.
But then Calvin Klein, more than any other major designer, has maintained a keen sense of mass-cultural tastes. He has kept his position as a beloved clothier of urbane working women, all the while forging a lucrative star status at the mall with his CK, fragrance and underwear divisions. With the launch of his jeans line in 1978, he became one of the first designers to put Vogue-world cachet within reach of ordinary consumers. In the process he helped strip fashion of its elitism; now countless designers offer lower-end lines.
Klein's appeal owes much to his genius for marketing. His clothes may be subtle, but he realized early that advertising never should be. His ubiquitous and controversial campaigns featuring near-naked models--Kate Moss, Marky Mark, Antonio Sabato Jr.--have blatantly used sex to move product. His most successful adventure in boundary pushing came last summer with a series of jeans ads that featured models who looked like teenagers in sexually evocative poses. Even President Clinton protested. Klein pulled the ads, but only after he'd reaped as much press from them as possible. A master at elevating his own celebrity, Calvin Klein may be one of the most recognizable names anywhere in the world. Few Puritans can claim that.
WILLIAM JULIUS WILSON Sociologist