American designers Ralph Lauren (1939–) and Calvin Klein (1942–) both began their designing careers during the late 1960s, but it was in the 1980s that they became fashion superstars. At a time when designer fashion was identified with outlandish outfits modeled on Paris fashion run-ways, both Lauren and Klein created designer clothes for ordinary people.
Lauren was born Ralph Lifschitz in Brooklyn, New York. Fascinated with fashion from an early age, he dropped out of college and apprenticed in the fashion industry by working at various clothing companies. In 1967 he got a job at Beau Brummel, designing the wide neckties in bright colors for which he would first become famous. By 1968 he launched his own line of men's clothes, which he called Polo. With the name Polo, Lauren said much about his design philosophy. The game of polo was associated with rich Europeans, and Lauren's designs came from classic European traditions. Often referred to as "preppy English tweed" style, or "American country" style, Lauren's early designs, which included a variety of casual and semiformal wear, were updated versions of basic designs, sewn in classic materials, such as wool tweed and corduroy.
Besides his clothing, Lauren made other contributions to the fashion world. He licensed his designs (sold the right to manufacture them) to a range of clothing companies as long as the clothes bore his name, and he also branched out into many different areas of design. Following the success of his men's clothing line, Lauren introduced a line of women's clothes, followed by cosmetics, perfumes, bath towels, bed sheets, and even house paint, all with the unmistakable Lauren quality of traditional elegance. Though some have accused Lauren of being unoriginal and boring, many men and women find his designs to be comfortable and dependable. Other famous designers, such as Donna Karan (1948–) and Bill Blass (1922–2002), have praised Lauren for his contributions to classic style.
Calvin Klein was also born in Brooklyn. As a boy his interest in fashion led him to teach himself to sew and sketch designs. He attended New York's High School of Art and Design and the Fashion Institute of Technology and, by 1968, he had established Calvin Klein Limited, his own line of clothing. Klein's designs were characterized by simple lines and subdued colors sewn in elegant, luxurious fabrics, like linen, silk, and cashmere.
Though Klein produced many different products, he is best known for his lines of underwear, blue jeans, and fragrances, such as Obsession and Eternity. One of Klein's major innovations in the fashion industry was his use of sexuality in advertising. Though many people were shocked and horrified by his use of sexual imagery, Klein became the first, and perhaps the most expert, at using sex to sell basic clothing like blue jeans at high prices.
During the socially conservative 1980s, Lauren and Klein helped create a major change in the way average people saw designer fashion. Where clothing designed by a high fashion designer was once seen as only for the wealthy, the styles created by Klein and Lauren were designed for everyday wear at the office or on a date. Their elegant styles succeeded simply because they made the average person feel like one of the elite.