A Good Story Botched: This Calvin’s All Business

The House of Klein: Fashion, Controversy, and a Business Obsession , by Lisa Marsh. John Wiley and Son, 196 pages, $26.95.

Consider the extraordinary story of Calvin Klein. His father was a grocer; his best friend Barry’s father was a grocer. Barry was a good boy, but Calvin had the devil in him. He hung out in the Big City and didn’t even show up to get his picture taken for the yearbook. Barry graduated from high school and worked in his father’s store. But Calvin had no interest in that schlubby life; Calvin wanted to be a fashion star. So he went to F.I.T., got a chump job in some dress house on Seventh Avenue, and moved his young bride from the bubbeleh Bronx to the more fashionable Forrest Hills. Calvin, who can seduce anyone, convinced his old buddy to give him 10 grand to make a few coats and dresses of his own. Then-here’s where it starts to get really good-this in-debt pisher wheeled a rack of clothes up Seventh Avenue one morning and wheeled it back down that same afternoon with a $50,000 order from Bonwit Teller. And that’s all before we even get to the sex, the drugs, the underwear, the kidnapping, the bailout, Linda Wachner, Kate Moss, Marky Mark, Carolyn, Kelly, Latrell Sprewell and the greatest fragrance campaign since Catherine Deneuve pushed Chanel No. 5.

If Calvin Klein was mortified by the scandals revealed in Obsession: The Life and Times of Calvin Klein (1994), he’ll be bored to death by The House of Klein: Fashion, Controversy, and a Business Obsession . Lisa Marsh, fashion and retail reporter for the New York Post , has an inexplicable zeal for making the monumental life of Calvin Klein a biographical wasteland. Why would any writer take on this project? After all, the juicy bits about Klein’s personal life were already well covered in Obsession nearly a decade ago. Perhaps, with the recent purchase of Calvin Klein Inc. by Phillips Van-Heusen for some $430 million, the time seemed right for a summing-up. But ah, the bore of it. House of Klein has all the gravitas and insight of one of those insta-bios that appear on bookstore shelves following the death of a celebrity. “Klein’s self-doubt,” Ms. Marsh writes in an epilogue, “most likely fuels his desire to drink and indulge in recreational drugs, a habit that has tragically resurfaced in Klein’s daily life.” Nearly the same empty words could be found in books on Princess Di, Johnny Cash or a zillion other celebrities.

Ms. Marsh warns us early on that she is “writing a business biography”-the italics are hers-as though downplaying personal scandal has an inherent nobility that exempts her from writing anything of interest. And what about writing well? I can’t resist sharing a few choice lines: “However, not all was ducky in the Klein household.” Or how’s this for an image: “Once the fragrances hit the stores, the shit hit the fan.” And is this next one even a sentence? “Andrew Rosen fit the stereotypical dilettante.” This writer loves a cute phrase. Deals come “fast and furious”; a frustrated mogul has “bigger fish to fry”; consumers learn they don’t have to spend “beaucoup bucks” on designer fashions. Perhaps Ms. Marsh’s favorite-and most annoying-tic is to refer to Messrs. Klein and Schwartz as some variation of “scrappy men from the Bronx,” “the duo from Mosholu Parkway” or “the duo from the Bronx” on nearly every page.

Back to business: Ms. Marsh spells out in straightforward language that anyone can understand the cash-flow problems facing garment-makers, the basics of licensing deals and the tumultuous transition of Klein’s business from manufacturer to licenser. But so what? Conveying any true sense of a life-even the life of a business-demands more than summary. When the bumpy story of Calvin Klein’s roller-coaster ride of a career cries out for action or drama, Ms. Marsh buckles. We learn, in this book’s schoolgirl tone, that with the mega-launch of Obsession, executive Robin Burns “was not fooling around. She hired Ann Gottlieb, a fragrance consultant, sometimes referred to as a ‘nose,’ and asked fragrance houses for samples.” Imagine that. The woman was spending $10 million dollars to launch a perfume and she asked for a few samples. Or how about this: When there was a discrepancy in the acceptable parameters of the term “jeans-related products” in an offer from Fruit-of-the-Loom to buy Mr. Klein’s jeans business for $50 million, Ms. Marsh writes with gee-whiz wonder that “Klein and Schwartz, sticklers for details, preferred a narrow interpretation, and this deal also unraveled.” One hopes Ms. Marsh had a lawyer look at her book contract.

Remarkable as it may seem, House of Klein is not merely terrible; the book is downright implausible. Are we really expected to believe the stories in here? Former design assistant Jeffrey Banks has a T-shirt made with the young company’s soon-to-be-famous logo silk-screened on the sleeve. Barry Schwartz sees the thing and wonders if it’s for sale. “No,” Mr. Klein is quoted as saying. “Who’d want to wear my name?” Come on! But it gets better. Mr. Banks-perhaps the only Klein “insider” who would agree to talk to Ms. Marsh-goes on to say that designing men’s wear was his idea. Ms. Marsh has model Janice Dickinson claiming that she once said to Mr. Klein, “Why don’t you do a line of underwear …. Just put your name on it. I bet it’ll sell.” Why wait for Barry Diller and David Geffen to come running to the rescue when Mr. Banks and Ms. Dickinson could have sorted things out? The absurdities go on and on. Superstar stylist Joe McKenna is mentioned as one of the “hot photographers” Mr. Klein collaborated with; Fran Liebowitz is a “conversationalist”; the Obsession campaign introduces “the idea of ambisexuality”; the designer’s notorious advertising is “credited with … showing nudity and pushing sex and its various hetero-homo variations into the mainstream for all to deal with.” It’s too exhausting to go on.

Ever splashed on some Obsession? Compared your weight to Kate Moss’ or your chest to Travis Fimmel’s? Are you one of the millions of people who have pulled on a pair of Calvin Klein underwear? Then for God’s sake, you already know more about this legendary man than you’ll ever learn from reading this book. Sure, you won’t know about the takeover attempts and the backroom deals that nearly toppled the house of Klein on numerous occasions. You won’t know how a jeans-wear deal is ideally structured, or why the launch of CK One was so radically different from any other fragrance launch. You won’t know why Mr. Klein’s morning cup of coffee had to be matched to a Pantone chip or about his preference in paper clips. You won’t know the story a “former insider” shares about the “loyalty-testing” demands Mr. Klein put on the guy sealing the cement floor of his Madison Avenue store.

Now consider this: In the end, Calvin Klein’s clothes are completely irrelevant. This man built a brand-name empire with no significant contribution to the craft of fashion. He had no patience for scissors and pins. Calvin Klein could see only one thing: a future charged with sex. The next time you pull on those basket-enhancing briefs or spritz yourself with an illicitly marketed perfume, you will have become a part of Calvin Klein’s obsession. He manipulates us with a hustler’s secret: Make people feel desirable, and they will spend. As the elastic band from that underwear slides up your leg or the scent of a good shag fills the air, Calvin Klein will have won you over. Lisa Marsh, business biographer, will have left you cold.

Josh Patner writes about fashion for Slate .