THE HOUSE OF KLEIN; By Lisa Mars; Wiley pounds 17.50; MT price pounds 15.00
Calvin Klein's brilliant brand-management underpins this biography, which Maria Grachvogel suspects is more a fairytale than reality
Design is a small part of the business of fashion. This quotation sums up the main message of The House of Klein, and marks it as an essential read for anyone contemplating starting their own fashion business.
It is not just the American designers like Klein who have proved that commerce is as important as creativity in the fashion industry. French and Italian labels, and the few British designers who have made a success of their business, rely on the value of the brand for licensing fragrance, accessories or diffusion products, which is where the profit lies. The key is always to keep the main brand elevated and not to let the diffusion products or licences become bigger than the brand itself.
The author plays with this complex matrix throughout the book in a journey through the business life of one of fashion's great legends. It begins with a rags-to-riches account of Klein's childhood and how he came to start the business. Over the years, Klein's natural skill unfolds and, in his desire to work in the fashion business no matter what the position, he works his way through various low-paid jobs, where his skills were taken advantage of but his talents remained unrecognised. This prompted Klein to start his own label, with financial help from his childhood friend Barry Schwartz; the business partners enjoyed overwhelming success.
For me, there is something missing in this early story. It captures beautifully the long hours, the hard work and the joy of success, but it also reads like a fairytale where nothing seems to go wrong. In the fashion business, something always goes wrong, whether it is fabric not arriving on time, the production company cutting the cloth wrong or someone not paying.
In fact, citing the first order that the company took, the buyer offered to pay dollars 20 more per item than the partners were asking and, in today's world, the buyer - particularly if it were a respected store that could 'make or break' a designer's career - would be asking for a discount or to take the items on a sale-or-return basis.
The story gets more fairytale from here, with success after success, as the company moves into various licensing operations, all of which serve to make Calvin Klein a household name and heralds him as someone who 'understands the zeitgeist'.
The book takes an interesting turn halfway through and illustrates the negative aspects of success. Klein falls prey to a common 'disease' of successful people - greed - and pays for this dearly, at one point nearly losing his business. Time after time, this message is reinforced, with Klein showing his distaste for anyone making money out of his name (the licensing companies), but failing to recognise the contribution of that other party to the success he had enjoyed throughout his career.
The pros and cons of licensing are all laid out, and the book shows clearly the importance of brand control, particularly within licensing deals.
It also illustrates quite clearly the skills necessary to be a success in what is widely regarded as a glamorous business.
Klein has all these skills, and the author paints a picture of a determined, ambitious perfectionist who in the end became unhappy and frustrated with the choices that he'd made. Klein is an artist at heart and a skilled designer, but he wanted so much to be financially successful that in a sense he sold out.
He realised that the big money was in the products that everyone can buy into and ultimately turned his company into a money-making machine at the expense of the main collection.
The author set out to make a business biography of the designer and achieves just that. This is a journalistic approach, focusing on facts but injecting a few opinions and thoughts along the way, and leaving you with just enough unanswered questions to make it an easy but in-teresting read.