New Book Goes Inside the 'House of Klein'

For nearly three decades, Calvin Klein (search) has been one of the foremost names in American fashion.

Whether it be jeans, T-shirts and underwear displaying his name, cosmetics or ready-to-wear designs, CK Inc. is a brand that is as ubiquitous as Coca-Cola.

So how did a shy kid from the Bronx, N.Y., rise to the top of the fashion industry?

"The House of Klein: Fashion, Controversy, and a Business Obsession," (Wiley 2003) a newly-published book by former New York Post business writer Lisa Marsh, gives readers an insider's view on the sometimes fantastic, sometimes controversial journey that made CK Inc. the fashion industry powerhouse it is today.

From the early days of wheeling a rack of designs down Seventh Avenue in Manhattan to the $700 million dollar sale of his company to Phillips-Van Heusen in 2002, Klein and childhood friend and business partner Barry Schwartz revolutionized everything from how perfumes smell to how the industry advertises its wares.

But as with most visionaries, the impact Calvin Klein Inc. made on American pop culture did not come without controversy.

It started in the 1980s when a teenaged model named Brooke Shields (search) provocatively stated in a television commercial, "Do you know what comes between me and my Calvins?  Nothing."

The ad drew heat from groups claiming Klein was sexually exploiting the young model, but it also put the designer and his company on the front covers of newspapers and magazines across the globe.

Taking from that lesson, the company continued to push the envelope in its advertising, eventually sparking a Justice Department investigation after an ill-conceived underwear campaign used children, appearing on-camera in nothing but their skivvies, who answered questions to an off-camera voice that suggested the making of a pornography film.

The company quickly pulled the campaign.

"The House of Klein" goes into several aspects of the CKI business, from licensing to distribution, and sheds some light on the elusive practices of the fashion industry.

While Marsh touches briefly on Klein's personal life, including his marriage to his design assistant Kelly Rector and his rehabilitation from drug and alcohol abuse, the author manages to leave the salacious elements of the designer's life to the gossip pages.

The book's focus on business may make an interesting read for anyone curious about how the fashion world revolves on its axis of egos, models, advertising and ultimately consumers.

There's also some insight into the contentious relationship between Klein and onetime industry powerhouse Linda Wachner, the ousted CEO of Warnaco, the company that helped make CKI a force in jeanswear and underwear.

And while Klein likes to run with the rich and famous, several household names do appear in the book, including DreamWorks SKG (search) partner David Geffen, who bailed out his designer friend by buying off the company's debt to the tune of $43 million in the early '90s.

It wouldn't be the first time Geffen would be a valuable asset to his friend.

Geffen recommended the company hire former rapper-turned-actor Mark Wahlberg — known then as Marky Mark (search) — to model Calvin Klein underwear, which helped attract the MTV generation to the brand.

The book contains numerous quotes from newspapers, television biographies and magazines, particularly from the so-called fashion industry bible, Women's Wear Daily, where Marsh began her journalism career.

Perhaps the main drawback of "The House of Klein" comes in its prologue, which categorizes the designer as a man who can be "charming and entertaining" one day, and "offensive and invective" the next.

As an example, Marsh describes two meetings she had with Klein, one before she started her book, in which he was charming, and a subsequent one in which she met with an entirely different Klein.

"My companion that evening, a particularly tenacious British travel writer," Marsh writes, "kept quizzing Klein on why he wouldn't sit for interviews, trying to make a logical case while I stepped back to view this scene."

As a man in the public eye trying to preserve his privacy, it doesn't seem out of line that Klein would be annoyed by a "particularly tenacious" reporter. And Marsh's jab at him seems unfair.

Despite the petty opening, "The House of Klein" provides a satisfying look into Calvin Klein, and the story of how the American dream can be experienced through vision, persistence and survival.