Oh Francisco! I had a lovely time catching up with Calvin Klein Collection’s Womenswear Creative Director Francisco Costa in Savannah. Francisco is this year’s recipient of the Andre Leon Talley Lifetime Achievement Award by the Savannah College of Art and Design.
Bryanboy: A lot of young people go into fashion design with the dream of one day pursuing their own label. Considering your path, would it be ideal to contribute to the work of existing designers or focus on developing themselves as a brand?
Francisco Costa: They have to focus on developing their own personality and then everything will fall into place. When I ended up at Calvin Klein, I felt like this is an ideal situation because it is a brand with so much strength and I really try to bring what I like in combination with what Calvin did. I feel very blessed to have such a structure under me, but I’m also very nurturing to young students.
For instance, I had somebody that I hired temporarily who was an architecture major and had no idea what fashion was. So I said, “come work for us and see how you like it.” He showed interest. After awhile, I hooked him up with this one organization which held an international contest. Next thing you know, he was one of the participants and he ended up becoming very successful with it. Then he came to me after winning the contest and asked me what he should do next. I said, I don’t know, go open your own business because I felt like it’s the right time. This is a guy who has a lot of talent. But then again, maybe he is young enough and he could explore. Every experience is individual, right?
I’ve been working for a long time. Andre Leon-Talley came to me a long time ago, when I used to work for Gucci. I was in London and he asked me, “why don’t you open your own business?” I said, “Andre, I am truly happy.” I made a conscious decision not to. I could have done something, I could have played, I could have. But in retrospect, I am extremely happy.
Bryan: Speaking of Gucci… Tom Ford is known for his va-va-voom, high-octane, glamazon aesthetic whereas Calvin Klein Collection is the polar opposite — pure, luxurious, modern American sportswear. How did you refine your aesthetic considering the differences between the two brands?
Francisco: Interestingly enough, what Tom Ford did was really based on Calvin’s aesthetic. All the advertisements, the imagery, the sexiness — they were all very, very strong and very Calvin in many ways. So I don’t think that was a challenge so much because, you know, we are talking about the same thing.
The primary challenge for me was, as the business grew bigger and bigger, after it was sold it went from $700 million to $8 billion, the company exploded into so many different areas. The challenge for me is to keep that flame of the collection genuine and really protect it. So whatever it is that we are doing has to have a true essence and not just an essence, but a personality that wouldn’t be mixed up with all the other products in other categories.
Bryan: That’s another question for me — how do you bridge Calvin Klein Collection, your collection, which is very architectural, pure, modern and very technical whereas whereas the general public’s perception of Calvin Klein the brand? You have sexy, you have provocative, you have underwear, you have fragrance… how do you bridge the two?
Francisco: It’s all about securing that high-level position. A brand can actually exist both in high-end and low-end categories. It’s seamless. It’s totally seamless. If you think of the Calvin Klein lifestyle, you get it. A woman is able to explore both ends of the spectrum. One can have extraordinary clothes, very fine clothes while at the same time, have a lifestyle that’s cool. The juxtaposition is very modern. A cool woman goes shopping and mixes it all up today. I think that’s the most exciting part because it reflects independence.
Bryan: You’re one of the very few designers who actually push new fabrics, new, modern techniques in fabrics. What’s your relationship with fabric?
Francisco: I love fabrics! That’s the most organic part of designing because its tactile and you have to be part of the development. For example, for Fall/Winter 2013, it took me three years to get certain mills to agree to develop the same kind of fabric. Because you buy cashmere from one mill, you buy suiting fabric from another, you buy this from another, so you have to make them agree to make the same thing at the same time. It’s very costly for these people to change their techniques and what have you. A lot of fabrics for fall, for instance, those are actually woven and not cut-out.
I could have achieved that by cutting and boiling but I didn’t. It thrills me to be experimental — this is how you learn about the essence of fabric. Experimentation triggers fabric mills to create other things and further their development. It’s the same experimentation that would be seen two, even three seasons later. It’s all a great exercise.
Bryan: Do you start your design process with fabric itself or do you conceptualize shapes and silhouettes before deciding which fabric to choose?
Francisco: It goes both ways. A collection starts with an idea and could take up to years to materialize. And then all of sudden, you saw something on the street that inspires you and feels really relevant and it’s just this is the way to go. The design process comes in very different forms but ultimately, fabric is really the catalyst for a collection to work or not.
Bryan: If your next ten years of work could be described into one word, what would it be?
Francisco: In one word?
Bryan: Go on…
Francisco: I think it’s… I could give you three words (both laugh)
Bryan: Three is good!
Francisco: I think what I do is, you know, essentially provocative, strong and current and strong in many ways. If it had to be described in one word, I would have to say having a pulse. Pulse, pulse.