Leading the iconic brands of ck Calvin Klein, Calvin Klein Jeans and Calvin Klein as the global creative director, Kevin Carrigna has been overseeing them for close to two decades. In this role, he sets the unified seasonal design aesthetic, direction, fabrics and colour palettes.
This month, we caught up with the renowned designer who shared the story of his journey from Europe to North America, the dynamic of his friendships with fashion icons and the highlights of his most recent collections.
HANNAH YAKOBI: After working and studying in the U.K., you moved to the U.S. How did you find the transition from European style to American?
KEVIN CARRIGAN: Actually, it was extremely easy. Funnily enough, when Calvin [Klein] asked me to come over to New York for an interview, he’d done his research and asked a lot of journalists about me. It was one particular journalist, Kate Phelan, a fashion director at British Vogue, who highly recommended me. Kate worked at Vogue for about 20 years and then went onto other things, but her personal style was very in tune with the 90s minimalism. We did lots of projects together in London.
So when I came to New York for the interview, it wasn’t really an interview, Calvin had already decided, he’d done his homework. He basically said: ‘Oh my God, you’re going to love living in New York.’ I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve got the job then?’ And he was like, ‘Well, of course you have.’ It was really, really hilarious and I’ve never looked back.
I worked in London, I worked in Italy and I wanted to work in another fashion capital whether it be Paris or New York. New York came beckoning and calling, and here I am. It was an absolutely easy transition — there was a sense of style here in New York, a sense of energy. Obviously, it’s not as eccentric or kind of street-crazy as, for instance, London.
When I moved here in the 90s, walking past everybody, all out in basketball wear, and people skateboarding on the street, was so phenomenal. It was great to embrace that sport culture that you didn’t really find in the U.K. back then.
What has been the most memorable highlight since you’ve joined Calvin Klein? Is there one collection, piece or project that really stands out to you?
Yes, I mean obviously coming here in the mid 90s, it was the height of Kate Moss and Mark Wahlberg. And there’s this whole jeans’ world – that is such a hard thing to do again. But what I actually really did love was my ck one launch. It was the whole beginning of the resurgence of androgyny and the looseness of clothes, girls wearing extra large sweatshirts or baggy jeans. It was kind of the antithesis of the skinny body, conscious look. To me, that was a great moment. That campaign and that project were all shot in black-and-white. It had its own website and we did underwear, jeans, tees and sweatshirts. It was just amazing to do something so culturally relevant. We worked with Pixie Geldof, Rita Ora, Sky Ferreira, Rob Evans, Lara Stone. It was great to work on a campaign that really resonated with a young and new, street-smart generation. That project was really personal to me.
You’ve mentioned a couple of models, do you have a current muse or somebody who inspires the work that you do?
I actually don’t use muses, although a lot of designers do. I use emotions and words in my work. I have to connect with it: what’s the emotion that I want to say in the clothes? Is it androgyny, is it looseness, is it a new generation of really strong powerful women who are confident in what they say and what they do?
Even with #MyCalvins, there are so many women showing off their amazing bodies. For #MyCalvins, you’d think it would only be a male thing to reveal their underwear, but it’s really about strong, confident, intelligent women and men of today.
That is what inspires me, as well as working with many people like Lara and Kate [Moss], they’re all really inspirational, so there’s not just one person.
What about somebody who supports you? Is there a friend or a family member who plays a very important role in your life?
My partner, Tim Furzer. He’s an artist and he’s an amazing, patient, strong, creative person, who I’ve been with for over 15 years. He’s not in fashion, but he really understands who I am creatively. We’re very similar in the way that we approach things, a certain poeticness and a certain emotional way of addressing projects. But yet there is a real pragmatism, I always call it poetic pragmatism, art and commerce, that balance off really well.
He is really 200 per cent supportive and because he is an artist he can travel with me, we go to Hong Kong, he’s got that freedom to support me and come on my travels with me. We also have a weekend house in the Hamptons, and that’s where his studio is.
What kind of art does he do?
He paints in watercolours actually, it’s very organic and it’s about time and how the earth rotates. I won’t get into it, you have to look at it, but when you look at the work it’s very simple, natural, soft but very strong.
I was reading about some of your past work and biography. It’s quite fascinating that you have a Master’s degree. There are very few fashion designers who go that far in pursuing academics, as they tend to mostly focus on the practical work considering the nature of this profession. So I’m curious to know how that influences your work. I know you have a mix of art and fashion in your background — would you say that it has helped you and would you recommend that to emerging designers?
Schooling is everything. I did a Bachelor’s degree for three years and then went onto the Royal College of Art for two years to do a Master’s. And I just didn’t feel ready, as a designer I wanted to know more about the merchandising side, the business side, the marketing side. And so I just wasn’t ready to go straight out there. I felt that I didn’t have all the knowledge that I wanted from an educational point of view.
I really, really enjoyed my time at the Royal College of Art because I could mix with architects, industrial designers, artists — it wasn’t just a fashion school. I feel the even mix of people I still keep in touch with today are part of the alumni, I just feel that college really rounded me out as a designer.
I would still love to do a Ph.D. one day. So yes, education is everything — I love education and I really enjoyed it.
In terms of the latest fashion, what are the key trends for fall/winter 2014?
Let’s start with jeans. There are two things happening in my collection: I’ve done a new surface treatment, which I call varnish. I felt that the surface treatment of jeans is very important. I’m really fascinated by how women have really taken to leather in everything in their lives: whether it’s a biker jacket, leather-pleated skirt in sportswear or leather skinny jeans — so I just wanted to really push that idea.
And the other concept I worked on is stitching and ergonomic seaming, which I was calling conceal. This is hidden seaming and hidden ergonomic seaming that is basically devoid of top stitching. So there are several goals: reducing double-needle top stitching on denim, cleaning denim up and putting seams in new places to flatter a woman’s body. I did the same thing for men – conceal and varnish.
It was about design, it was about finishes and then, obviously, I introduced a new flare fit. And then I introduced something that is on our ad campaign with Lara Stone, which is a leather and denim combination, devoid of stitching.
In my Calvin Klein White Label line, I looked back to the slouchy days of the 90s in Soho when I first moved to New York, so there is a lot of sweater dressing, layering and softness. And I showed everything with flats.
Are any of these trends also translated into menswear?
Absolutely. Flannel, soft denim, the conceal and the varnish I talked about goes into menswear too. It’s a slim, straight silhouette, we are moving away from skinny styles. It’s definitely long, low on the hip, a little bit of slouch on the hip too that makes it extra long.
I mean, everything’s a little extra long, men’s and women’s, whether it’s a sleeve of a sweater or an extra little bit with the rolled up jeans. It’s very much soft, luxe, casual at the moment for both men and women.
In general, what do you think makes a good pair of jeans?
Fit is number one for me — you have to spend time on it. I always say: you spend more time fitting a suit or an evening dress that you wear once to a party, but the jeans that you wear every single day, the jeans that are your go-to clothing, you sometimes buy in 10 seconds flat.
If you’re going to buy denim, take your time, understand what you’re working with, take multiple sizes into the fitting room because the process of jeans from washing to shrinking, to pebble washing to over-dyeing, means that not one pair is ever the same. The tolerance level between 26, 27 or 28 waist is something that can change dramatically.
Treat them differently too: don’t fold them up — I hate the creases on the sides of jeans when you fold them on your bed or in your closet. I always hang my jeans by the back hooks of the hanger, whether it’s on the hanger in my wardrobe or on the hook of my door. You have to love your jeans, I think we all do.
Since there are five creative directors at Calvin Klein, what is the dynamic between you?
We actually don’t work together, we are very separate. Francisco Costa does the women’s collection, he invites me to the shows, sets the angle for the brand down the runway and celebrity dressing. He really has to be fearless and move the brand forward. Italo Zucchelli does the men’s collection, shows in Milan, focuses on the angle of the brand again, runway, celebrity. Amy Mellen, who does home, Ulrich Grim who does all the accessories, and myself who does everything else below collection — we all come to each others’ presentations, we all are very supportive socially, we all hang out together, but work-wise we don’t interact. Ulrich does: he does all the shoes and accessories so he interacts with Francisco, Italo and myself, because of the accessories being an extension of ready-to-wear pieces.
Also, we have an archive here [in New York], which is phenomenal – from 1968, they have every collection that Calvin did and every collection that was worked on since he left. We have a photo archive, that is from our in-house advertising agency, Calvin Richard Klein, CRK – it is one of the first advertising agencies in-house at designer brand images, so we have every image here. You are obviously looking into this Zeitgeist fashion moment and Calvin has so many moments from the late 60s, 70s, 80s and now 90s. Sometimes, Francisco, myself or Italo might pick on a similar decade and push it forward — there is nothing really nostalgic about what we do, but we do look back at what our heritage is and move forward. The French and the Italians are very well-known for keeping their archives. But it’s pretty amazing for an American designer to have one.