4 Things I Learned Building The Calvin Klein Brand

Tom MurrySeptember 6, 20186 min

For over 17 years (1999-2016) I served as the CEO of Calvin Klein and I had the distinct pleasure of being able to work with one of the world’s most preeminent creative geniuses of our time, Calvin Klein, not to mention his incredible design team, specifically the legendary designer and Creative Director Zack Carr. It was an amazing experience, and truly the highlight of my 40-year-career working in the fashion industry. However, one of the most challenging parts of my tenure at Calvin Klein was overseeing the purchase of Calvin Klein by PVH in 2003. The challenge wasn’t working with PVH, but rather it was making sure that the brand that Calvin and his partner Barry Schwartz worked so hard to create not only maintained its excellent reputation, but that it continued to be a profitable company.

Before PVH purchased the Calvin Klein company in 2003, I recall PVH owners referring to Calvin and the design team as design and brand “fanatics.” They seemed to see Calvin’s approach to branding as hindrance, rather than the solid, proven, and successful method that it was. The perspective on the outside of Calvin Klein may have been that we at Calvin Klein were difficult to work with or “fanatics,” but the reality was that Calvin and his team simply knew what they were doing. In my opinion, they were geniuses. They knew how to create a demand. They knew how to create a look that would have people clamoring to buy. They knew that quality and excellence exceeded all. Eventually, PVH did purchase Calvin Klein, to ensure creative control—but they never could quite contain the supposed “fanaticism,” or what I would simply call commitment to the brand. After all, Calvin’s name was on every single product, and it was his reputation—his life’s work and the future use of his name—that was up for sale.

If Calvin didn’t believe in his vision, if he didn’t seek to create beauty and clean lines, we wouldn’t have Calvin Klein. It is that singular vision that ultimately created the brand. His vision was everything. It was distinct. It was pervasive. It was, if I am being honest, a bit fanatical. But, nothing great was ever achieved with mediocrity, with keeping the bar low, and just trying to make a profit. Calvin built an empire from a singular belief that quality and perfection matter. His name and brand mattered. He believed it was worth protecting.

I understood that intimately. I knew the value of a brand. I knew that it wasn’t something you could recover if you ever lost it, if you let someone else have their way with it. That’s why when PVH bought Calvin Klein, I did everything in my power to protect his brand, to make sure the quality and designs never suffered in the pursuit of a profit.

I did my best and tried hard to translate his creative ideas to the powers that be. Sometimes they listened, sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes I got Calvin to see my point of view—or at least the merchandising side of things. Calvin was always a gentleman and always listened.

For a while, we ate lunch together after the PVH deal. But, eventually, I think it was too difficult for Calvin to see the company he created cede its creative control to someone else. Calvin’s creative pull was strong, and I respected that. I still respect it. He needed to move on to find a better fit. Sadly, the company he created wasn’t a fit for him anymore. However, Calvin Klein the brand continued to grow and be successful after he decided to part ways.

After Calvin left, I did everything in my power to make sure his creative team had what they needed to continue Calvin’s legacy and maintain the quality of the brand. Even though the company tripled in its worth during my tenure, I would have considered myself a failure if Calvin’s brand was tarnished in anyway during that time.

In order to maintain the Calvin Klein brand, I followed these four rigorous steps in the execution process to make sure the brand stood the test of time:

1. The Design Has To Be Extraordinary

Every aspect of a product’s or service’s design must be impeccable. No detail is too small or overlooked. No matter what the product or service, it is created with an end-user or a consumer in mind. From start to finish, it’s created for the desired effect—whether it’s the perfect fit, beauty, speed, accuracy, precision, you name it—the design fulfills that buyer’s wishes. How something looks and feels is a result of design.

Great design can make us want to buy a car, a house, a pillow, a suit, a phone. It can also turn us off immediately. I recently walked into a store and was horrified by the aesthetic choices—the haphazard design and flow of the interior. Everything felt off immediately.

Overlooking the design of anything—no product or service is too small—can be a devastating mistake. Take time to assess your choices. Pay attention to the details and make sure you know who the end-user or buyer is before you start.

I remember once saying to a former boss of mine: “It doesn’t matter if you like it. It only matters if the customer does.” So get to know your customers intimately. Understand what they want, how they want it, and what works for them. And then design accordingly.

2. The Quality Must Be The Best

I cannot overstate this. If you want to create a thriving and successful business, focus on quality before quantity. Make sure everything is up to your exact standards. Don’t settle for anything less.

In my early career, I learned this hard lesson when running my company Intuitions with Gus Van Sant. We went with an unproven and deceitful manufacturer, and the results were disastrous. The quality of the products was awful, and they were shipped to our clients in that manner. We could never recover from this. No one forgets a bad order or bad quality. No one. If you want to have a consistent, reputable business brand, the quality of your product or service has to be impeccable.

3. The Delivery Must Be On Time

Delivery dates are not optional. Deadlines are not negotiable. Excuses are useless. If you want to be successful in business, deliver exactly what you said you were going to deliver, on the date you said you were going to deliver, in the manner you said you were.

If, for some reason, you will be late in your delivery, don’t offer excuses; instead, offer only an apology and assurance that it will never happen again. Shifting blame—on someone in your own organization, especially—makes you and your entire company look bad. You have to be willing to accept responsibility.

Here’s the thing: when you deliver the goods consistently and on time, you will have the same expectation of others. The more you hold tight to boundaries and deadlines, the more likely everyone inside and outside (vendors, etc.) the organization will, too.

4. And The Fit Must Be Great

What do I mean here by “fit”? Well, in fashion, it goes without saying that the quality will be such that the fit is great, but that’s not what I mean here. Your product has to fit your market. Your product and service fills a need that your customers have, and nothing else except your product or services fits that need to a T. Make sure your product or service is where it belongs, where it will get noticed, and where your customers can find it.

Bottom Line:

No matter where you are and what you do, if you hold yourself accountable to making sure execution of your product or service is nearly perfect—and by that I mean, making sure the design is impeccable, the quality unmatched, the delivery on time, and the fit great—then you can guarantee your brand will withstand the test of time.

Contributed to Branding Strategy Insider by: Tom Murry, the retired CEO of Calvin Klein, who ran the company for 17 years and facilitated the brand’s growth from 2.8 billion to $8 billion.

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