By Shirley Clurman
January 18, 1982 12:00 PM

Calvin used to be the name of an austere 16th-century French theologian. Today it’s a verb. Women have been Calvinized. Men are getting Calvinized too. The English language has been transformed. But Calvinization is less important to the de-Klein of grammar than to the rise of fashion. In an age when designers are society’s shamans, affixing their names to everything from sofas to chocolates to teapots, the hottest label of all belongs to a shy 39-year-old millionaire named Calvin Klein. With 15 million of his jeans Calvinizing American backsides last year alone and more elegant designs draping the limbs of Jackie Onassis, Candice Bergen and Farrah Fawcett, the Bronx-born Klein has become the most successful designer the U.S. has ever produced.

As a result, Calvin Klein now measures his business the way Orson Welles measures his waistline: The numbers are huge. Independent retailers and Klein’s own boutiques in London, Tokyo and Milan will sell $750 million worth of his products in 1982. That total will include menswear (he launched his first line in 1978), women’s garments, accessories, cosmetics, home furnishings (sheets and comforters) and colognes. With the help of his friend and sweet-16 pitch girl, Brooke Shields, his firm has been selling up to an incredible 400,000 pairs of jeans a week. While much of the country struggled through economic doldrums in 1981, Calvin Klein had a personal income of some $8.5 million.

Klein’s status as a fashion colossus comes by design, of course—the clean and supple look he has made his trademark. Last year, after 72 models had quick-changed their way through a showing of his fall and winter collection (fees for the models alone came to $250,000), Women’s Wear Daily, the often snippy bible of clothes retailers, dubbed the fashions “America’s best.” His creations have “become the American fashion signature all over the world,” proclaims Geraldine Stutz, owner of New York’s posh Henri Bendel store. “In the most marvelous way they say ‘U.S.A.’ and owe nothing to European design.” Klein is already a three-time winner of fashion’s Oscar, the Coty.

He is also a celebrity. Autograph hunters dog him in public, and once when he showed up at Saks Fifth Avenue in Manhattan to introduce a new line of products, 4,000 people elbowed onto the main floor for a glimpse. Klein wears such renown as uneasily as he wears his own fashions. At work he prefers tan bucks, Brooks Brothers button-down shirts and corduroys—only the pants are by Calvin. He protests: “I can’t go around wearing only my own labels.” When TV’s Barbara Walters praised him for designing “classics,” Klein demurred by insisting that “it’s too soon to know. Only if you can wear them 20 years from now are they classics.”

In his personal life, Calvin’s ride to the top has not been smooth. In 1974 his 10-year marriage to childhood sweetheart Jayne Centre ended in divorce, and four years later Klein suffered through the dramatic nine-hour kidnapping of his only daughter, Marci. Police arrested the culprits soon after Klein paid a $100,000 ransom, but the episode “was worse than death,” says the still-shaken father.

Now 14, Marci lives with her mother across town from Calvin’s apartment and visits him frequently. When not acting the dutiful father, Klein leans toward Manhattan discos, trendy restaurants (among his latest favorites is the Odeon) and a circle of cronies that includes designer Giorgio Sant’ Angelo, former Studio 54 owner Steve Rubell and Paramount chairman Barry Diller. “Calvin is a force among his friends,” notes fellow designer Chester Weinberg. “When Calvin’s sad, we’re sad; when he’s up, we’re up.” Klein often takes model Lisa Taylor with him on his evening rounds, but friends say the relationship will go no further. “They’re both so beautiful,” gushes one acquaintance. “It would be like marrying themselves.” (Calvin displayed Brooke Shields on his arm at the reopening of Studio 54; she admires his “quiet intellect.”)

Klein’s boyish good looks today belie the strains of his career. Several years ago the 6’1″ designer weighed only 140 pounds. Seventeen years of off-and-on analysis have helped rein in his anxieties, and 90-minute workouts every evening in the private gym adjoining his Seventh Avenue office have put on 20 pounds. Although he insists “I go crazy when I have too much time off,” he has begun curtailing his work routine by relaxing on weekends.

His reputation as a perfectionist endures just the same. “He insists everything be the best, from the stitching to the trucks that deliver his clothes,” notes one admiring fashion editor. Still, Klein’s least expensive off-the-rack ensembles sell for a relatively modest $500, compared to the $4,000 and up charged by some couturiers. His most expensive item, a suede dress and belt, retails for $1,250. Klein scorns polyester in favor of natural fibers, designs all his own fabrics and refuses to cater his creativity to movies, TV, the theater or individuals. When Ali MacGraw wanted some of Calvin’s dresses for a film, she joined the rest of his monied clientele by choosing from his ready-made collection.

Klein’s own sense of fashion developed in the Bronx, where his father was a grocer and “my mother was a clothes freak. I got much of my feeling for clothes from her.” While his school chums were spending their spare time on the sandlot, Calvin was following the latest styles. After New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology and a brief stint as a copy boy at Women’s Wear, he went to work as a $75-a-week apprentice to a coat maker.

When childhood pal Barry Schwartz came to Klein in 1967 with an offer to go into a grocery business, the would-be designer was tempted. “He told me that one day we’d be another A&P,” says Calvin, who went to his parents for advice. Both urged him to “stick it out for a while longer” in the clothing business, and one year later Klein and Schwartz set up a small designer workshop with $10,000 that Schwartz had inherited. Calvin’s first “collection”—six coats and three dresses—was enough to get an appointment with the president of Bonwit Teller in 1968, a meeting Klein still regards as “the equivalent of going to the White House.” Klein himself rolled his rack of originals the 23 blocks from Seventh Avenue to the midtown department store. “One of the wheels broke en route,” he now recalls with a laugh. “The trip was a disaster.” The meeting was not. Bonwit president Mildred Custin increased Klein’s asking price by $20 per garment and gave him his first order.

The Klein-Schwartz partnership has stayed intact, with Calvin supplying the inspiration and Barry the business brains behind their privately owned company. “There are many good designers,” allows Calvin, “but the difference is that I have Barry.”

It was Schwartz who in 1978 engineered the dandiest deal in U.S. fashion history by convincing Puritan Fashions to market Calvin jeans and pay Klein a $1 royalty on every pair. Calvin and Barry’s next move raised eyebrows throughout the industry. They bought $5 million in TV time and hired photographer Richard Avedon to direct nymphet actress Shields in a half dozen soft-sell but decidedly sultry commercials. Brooke was given a half million (and reportedly an $80,000 horse) to pose in skin-tight jeans and purr: “You know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.”

The spot caused a furor, and stations from New York to San Francisco banned it from the airwaves. Shields was confused by the uproar and now refuses to discuss it. Klein himself was so flabbergasted that he hired Jimmy Carter’s pollster, Pat Caddell, to find out why people seemed so upset. “It was mostly an older group who objected,” Klein reports. “It was someone who couldn’t even relate to why anyone wears jeans, which is a very sensual thing to begin with. It just went over the heads of many people.”

At about this time Calvin and Barry locked horns with the reigning king of the jeans business, Murjani (maker of Gloria Vanderbilts), by hiring away the firm’s president, Warren Hirsch. Two months later, however, Hirsch left after he was said to have questioned the propriety of Klein’s TV campaign. Calvin’s denims now outsell Murjani by at least two to one. Brooke’s bottom has survived the hot seat to star in 10 subsequent Klein commercials, and several more are planned this year.

With royalties rolling in, Calvin and Barry have invested in oil, gas fields and a string of hotels. Calvin owns two co-ops in Manhattan (one, recently refurbished, has a greenhouse and a gym), a third home in Salisbury, Conn., a beach house on Fire Island and another in Key West. Several years back he bought himself a Rolls-Royce but sold it shortly afterward. Calvin was so immersed in work he kept leaving the car in no-parking zones and “it was forever being towed away.”

Until recently such perks have always made Klein uneasy. “Coping with success is very difficult. You start thinking maybe you don’t deserve it,” he reflects. “Then you come to realize how hard you’ve worked.” Which just may mean that Calvin has more in common with his 16th-century namesake than anyone ever suspected.