In Conversation: Calvin Klein Creative Director Italo Zucchelli


During his decade designing menswear for Calvin Klein, Italo Zucchelli has consistently produced futuristic clothes bordering on science fiction. His men’s collections surge light years ahead with sportswear that capture the futurist imagination, from the shimmering translucence of Spring 2010 to the Turrell-inspired cloud prints of Spring 2014. But he doesn’t see it that way; “I would say that it’s clothes for today, for the present.” In town to celebrate the brand’s continued expansion within Asia, Zucchelli chats with Men’s Folio on how he has grafted the infallible promise of technology to the masculine energy of the brand to keep the cool of Calvin Klein alive.

Below: Italo Zucchelli with Canadian Rapper DrakeItalo Zucchelli with Drake

Why do you think Calvin Klein’s presence in Asia is so important at this point in time?

Asia’s a big market, and what’s great is that menswear is booming here. There’s so much more interest, education and awareness. And Asian men especially love fashion. It’s very exciting. It gives us designers an outlet for our creativity and allows us to create a product that is appreciated.

Do you think the Calvin Klein aesthetic is suitable for Asia?

Yes I do. Because there is design to it, but there is also simplicity. It’s very wearable; the aesthetic is clean, modern, and I try to inject a bit of fashion in it, which is very important today in this part of the world. Again, because Asian men love fashion, they really appreciate good design and good clothes in China, Korea, Japan and even here [in Singapore].

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You said the aesthetic is clean and modern – minimalist in a way.

That’s the usual word everyone uses. Well it is. It’s simple and effortless and timeless. It describes the concept very well, but I like to think that our clothes also have a design element, albeit with a minimalist vibe.

What is it about the minimalist aesthetic that appeals to you?

It’s very easy to understand. It makes things immediately modern, which is very important to me as designer. Fashion is about today, and a little bit of the future, it’s not about retro, and minimalism – whether in architecture, design, furniture or fashion – provides that modern edge.

We’re guessing you’re a neat person in real life then.

I am! I like spaces with very little in it. Even before Calvin Klein, I worked with Jil Sander and it’s been almost 20 years since I’ve been imbued with this kind of aesthetic, so it’s really second nature for me.

You’ve been with Calvin Klein for 15 years now.

It’s amazing. I was lucky enough to work with Mr Klein for over three years on the men’s and women’s [collections], and when I became creative director, it’s great to be able to progress and evolve the brand’s DNA, which has always been effortless, timeless and very American. I brought in new elements like colours, prints, new fabrics and new technology, while still retaining the core, because it’s important to do so as it is timeless and always modern.

Calvin Klein

How different is it now from when you first started?

These last ten years, there’s been a revolution called the Internet, which has changed everything. People are now very aware of clothes – you can watch a runway show half an hour after it’s shown from wherever you are. That was not possible before, and it’s one of the reasons why menswear in particular got this major expansion in terms of awareness, popularity and education. [Fashion] used to belong to the times. Now it’s evolving. As I said, I added new elements like bright colours (there was a collection that was fluorescent) and prints while still retaining the legacy, but I make sure to evolve with every season. Lately, I’ve been bringing [the clothes] to a younger, cooler audience, because it’s also our job as creative directors to appeal to a younger customer. Everyone wants to look young, even if they’re not, so it’s a win-win situation.

Do you feel that it’s very fast right now, to have to keep evolving the brand?

Yes and no. It’s fast, but I take my time. I think it’s important to do it gradually, slowly but surely, and let people digest new things. It’s very exciting to see when they do. Like the [Turrell-inspired] prints we did on the t-shirts. They were a big success editorially and commercially, and our store in New York just sold them out. It’s all very exciting to see how people respond.

Do you think you’ve changed the definition of what Calvin Klein is?

I think I’ve evolved rather than changed it. Calvin Klein is about masculinity. It’s about real clothes, about confidence, and I gave it that little extra bit with colours, prints and fabric innovations, so that it’s relevant for today. I give my own spin to the brand because the fashion world is evolving and it’s important to be a part of it.

For many of us, our first glimpse of Calvin Klein is its underwear advertisements. Is that a fair representation of the Calvin Klein collections?

It is! And actually it was mine too, in 1983. My very first awareness of the brand was the men’s underwear campaign in Italy, and that has stayed with me because that campaign by Bruce Weber was the first time you’d see designer underwear on a billboard. It represented a lot of what Calvin Klein is about: Sexiness, masculinity, simplicity, healthy, American. That has been a big inspiration, and even now when I do my castings, I still think about that strong, American-looking, appealing kind of guy.

Calvin Klein Underwear

You have the underwear ads, and then you have your smart, technical designs.

Yes, but they’re not overly conceptual. There is an American ease to it, and that’s the difference. I have worked with Jil Sander and Calvin Klein, and it’s a similar aesthetic, but one is very conceptual while the other is more casual in its approach. And this is what I’ve been doing at Calvin Klein – you need to be conceptual but not overly so, because it’s an American brand.

How do you feel when people identify your clothes as ‘futuristic’?

I feel a little awkward! [Laughs] Because that word has got sort of a ‘space’ connotation to it, like we’re going to Mars or Saturn, and that’s not what we’re trying to do. Maybe it’s because I’ve often said that one of my favourite movies is Blade Runner (1982). I understand why they say it, because they probably want to convey how modern the clothes or collections are, but it’s not really the right word.

What word would you use?

I would say that it’s clothes for today, for the present. 

What inspired the use of technical materials in your designs?

I’ve always thought they have a nicer feel and texture that looks modern. They’re very versatile. Sometimes I like to take things that are very familiar, like a tuxedo, suit, pea coat or overcoat, and make them in an unfamiliar material, which makes them newer and more interesting. 

So what’s the most unusual material you’ve worked with?

It was probably years ago, when I did this modern puffer jacket in neoprene, with all the same motifs but instead of stitching, it was embossed. That was a very challenging process that took a lot of time, but in the end it was great. Maybe this shouldn’t go on the record, but they’ve used some of those clothes years later in the Star Trek movies!

Why do you think not many other designers are doing the same?

I don’t know! I cannot speak for them. A lot of journalists tell me I’m the only one. I find [technical fabrics] very interesting and I’ve been using them a lot in past collections. Now, not so much because I feel that I’ve done it extensively, but I still like to include them because it’s part of my language.

Calvin Klein

What will menswear be like in the future?

That’s the million-dollar question! It’s going to evolve. What’s exciting is that men are very educated – they want clothes, they like clothes, and they like to experiment. It will keep going in this direction and people will respond to new things, but hopefully we’re not going to wear a spacesuit!

Is street fashion challenging the kind of man Calvin Klein typically represents?

Calvin Klein is about American sportswear, and I’m taking that and elevating it to a luxurious level. It’s still very urban, very city-oriented, which Calvin Klein has always been about, but with a sophistication such that it’s never literally street. It’s important to incorporate the language of the streets because the brand has always been connected to pop culture, whether it is music, cinema or art.

What were your fashion influences growing up?

It was music, and it still is. It can be anything really – art, architecture, reading, nature, people – but I just find music the most inspiring, and lately I’m listening to a lot of instrumental and electronic, very cerebral kinds of music. I really enjoy it! Growing up in the 1980s, it was also the time when fashion boomed, especially in Europe, with all the French, Italian, British and Japanese designers becoming big. Fashion magazines like The Face and i-D also came about, which were more about music, style and clubbing. It was a very special time and that’s how it started for me.

Who is the one person you’d want to dress right now?

I usually don’t say a name, because I dress so many people and it’s kind of a disservice. Lately, I’ve been dressing more people from the music industry because, again, I like the pop culture element. I like to dress men who are confident and masculine, who can carry themselves and look and feel good in the clothes. I dressed Drake for his tour and the biggest compliment from him was that not only did he look good, he felt confident on stage, and that’s exactly what you want to achieve.

Calvin Klein