Throwback Thursday: Calvin Klein Ads of the ’90s

Known for pushing the boundaries of acceptability, Calvin Klein’s sometimes shocking and always newsworthy advertisements were the key element to the designer’s success. Today, we celebrate the iconic campaign imagery from one of Klein’s most memorable eras, the `90s.

When you think back to denim the `90s, your mind will instantly conjure images of Calvin Klein’s provocative campaign imagery. It seems the whole era was defined by the then bad boy American designers “sex sells” vision. From the launch of the Heroin Chic obsession, to his infamous 1995 campaign modeled after ’60s porno screen tests and his perfect encapsulation of the grunge movement – Klein’s controversial yet subliminal approach tapped straight into the psyche of America’s youth, and the parents hated it. The hype surrounding these ads served as a rocket ship, propelling models like Kate Moss to stardom and caused his jeans and underwear to become “must-have” sensations.

So let’s take a look back at the cultural revolution that was started by a pair of blue jeans. The year 1992 saw Klien cast then relatively unknown Kate Moss and Mark Wahlberg in what was to become one of Calvin Klein Jeans most iconic commercials and also what would define the “Heroin Chic” aesthetic of the era.

Shot by photographer Herb Ritts, the F/W 92 shoot was a complete anthesis of the healthy vibrance of current campaigns that featured models like Cindy Crawford, Claudia Schiffer and Heidi Klum. This new low-fi style championed a more grungy and subdued look that glamorized pale skin, dark circles, emaciated bodies, angular bone structure and androgyny. Moss went on to become the face for CK Jeans and featured in later ads like the S/S 1995 commercial shot by Steven Meisel (also featured above).

Three years after these CK Jeans ads, Klein pushed the envelope yet again with a series of even more controversial print and television ads for diffusion label. In the F/W 1995 campaign, shot by Steven Meisel, an off-camera voice (of an eerily older man) interviews scantily clad, barely legal teenage models in a dimly lit, wood-paneled recording room. The aesthetic closely resembled soft-core screen tests, with the young teens dressed in suggestive open jackets and micro shorts both for guys and girls. In one ad, a young man who identifies himself as being 21 is told “You’ve got a real nice look. How old are you? … Are you strong? You think you could rip that shirt off of you? … That’s a nice body. Do you work out? … Yeah, I can tell.

As you could imagine, the set of commercials, sparked explosive controversy and led to charges of child pornography. Parent groups and retailers threatened a boycott, and the Department of Justice launched an investigation into the models’ ages. Klein ended up pulling the controversial campaign.

While Klein’s bad boy reputation was still in full swing, his Fall/Winter 1996 campaign for Calvin Klein Jeans took somewhat of a more reserved approach compared to the previous headliners. Minimalist master David Sims (who shot the first campaign for CK Jeans) was tapped to lens the new season, introducing a more colorful and normal look for the label. Once again model Kate Moss was snapped for the billboards, appearing alongside street-cast models . The same year Klein also introduced The Khaki Collection, signifying the changes in casualwear at the time.

These Calvin Klein ads remain timeless and iconic.

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