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The Reductionist

Francisco Costa, Fashion Design ’90, creative director of Calvin Klein Collection, is redefining minimalism
by Alex Joseph
Portrait by Romer Pedron ’09  A few weeks ago, a messenger brought me an invitation to a fashion show. It was like no other I’ve received— deliberate, sans-serif type incised in weighty foam core in a shade so subtle it seemed designed to start arguments over the difference between cream and white. Not a drop of ink spoiled the elegance; you had to tilt the thing toward the light to read it. Naturally, this austere artifact was an invitation to the fall 2012 Calvin Klein Collection show. The clothes would be created by the Brazilian-born designer Francisco Costa, and they would be of a piece with that invitation. Meaning: I would have to pay strict attention, to notice everything, in order to understand.

When it comes to Costa, minimalism can be a bad word. No designer wants to be pigeonholed, and anyway, the term isn’t precise enough. Costa pointed this out when we met. “I like to think of my work as more ‘reductionist’ than minimal,” he said, “because you’re editing and editing and editing. But it’s also very full! Full of volume, excitement, thoughts.” In his introduction to a recent book, Minimalism and Fashion, he defined the word in the context of his work at Calvin Klein: “[It’s] about creating a perfect balance out of imbalance— about pairing shapes, fabrics, proportions, and colors that speak to the harmony of the whole.”

His designs have been called conceptual and architectural, full of erudite, modernist references. One of his first collections at Calvin Klein was inspired by sculptor Constantin Brancusi, famous for Sleeping Muse (1908), an eerily smooth, alien-like bronze head; artist Donald Judd, creator of the famous Stack (1967)—12 galvanized green iron “shelves”—is also a touch point. The crass, image-cluttered contemporary world seems a far cry from Costa’s work.

There’s another, obvious reference, of course: the aesthetic of Calvin Klein, Fashion Design ’63, himself. In Minimalism and Fashion, Costa described what happened to his own work after joining the house in 2001: “I learned to strip an idea down to its very essence, and then have the discipline to look for more to refine. I call it being ‘Calvin-ized.’”

Searching for my place in the dark, cavernous room where the show would be, I wandered through a crowd that included actresses Rooney Mara and Emma Stone, both wearing Costa. The clothes lacked any superficial effects, so at first I hardly noticed Mara’s sleeveless black wool lace dress or Stone’s vermilion separates; instead, I noticed their faces, which looked somehow luminous in the gloom. I was reminded of Chanel’s epigram: “Dress shabbily, they notice the dress; dress impeccably, they notice the woman.” It’s a sentiment Costa himself might have uttered.

The show began with a burst of stripped down electronica music. Then came the Calvin-ized outfits. Dresses and coats were rendered in black or parchment hues, or, occasionally, vivid poppy red. Many were bisected with matte glazed silver belts. Full, flared skirts provided volume. There were simple black evening dresses featuring shiny black embroidery, and sexy, capacious leather pants. What struck me most, though, was a motif of deliciously tactile wools.

Costa told me that he starts each collection with a fabric. “There’s a concept, but the fabric really is what tells the story.” He chooses one from the previous season to create continuity. No sketching is involved. Instead, he feels his way along. “I do a basic silhouette, and then I take that fabric and I drape, and I cut and paste,” he said. “I cannot design any other way!”

The 33 outfits for fall 2012 looked like what a girl with a dragon tattoo would wear if she quit computer hacking and became, say, a high-powered literary agent. She could wear them today and she could probably wear them in 2022. They were a hit. International Herald-Tribune critic Suzy Menkes wrote of the collection, “The skill of Mr. Costa has been to give a fresh identity to Calvin Klein, introducing not just 21st-century fashion pieces like low-crotch pants, but also a surface tension with gleaming stitched leather or rougher, shaved shearling. The result was a focused collection so apparently simple but so densely achieved.”

At Klein headquarters, I sat beside Costa on a leather couch in a small, white fitting room with a purple orchid nodding dutifully on a shelf. He’d cut short a design session for our chat, but when he arrived, wearing a tailored white oxford, he seemed perfectly at ease.

Critics have pretty much given up on finding stereotypical “hot Brazilian” touches—blaring flower prints, say, or racy hemlines—in Costa’s work. Last year, he told Menkes that those associations belong more to Rio than the small town, Guarani, where he’s from. I asked how it felt for him to be in charge of an iconic American brand, and further, how his particular take on this style came to be so unlike the busy, artificial America of, say, Times Square. As we talked, he drew together the strands of his childhood and the particular American style he reveres, and renders in his designs.

“I recently saw this exhibition, California Living, 1930-1965, at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art,” he said. “L.A. meant cars and freeways, and on the West Coast they associated them with freedom, with this beatnik sense of coolness, and that was where their style came from. Charles and Ray Eames lived in this house that, from the outside, looks like the Rietveld chair. And that chair is not decorative. Oh, man, is it not decorative!” (The severely planar Rietveld has nary a curve that might appeal to a cuddle-seeking human.) “But then the Eameses lived this kind of cool, hippie lifestyle there, and they made this furniture that’s organic, based on comfort, forward and modern. And so I find that is America to me, that spirit.

“Brazil is a very lush country and culture,” he continued, “but it also represents simple, modern values. Think of Brasilia, for instance.” The country’s capital was created in just five years, completed in 1960. “It’s a totally manufactured city. It was created in the shape of an airplane. The body of the plane is the body of the government, where all the services are located, and then people live to the north and south,” on the “wings.” It’s so immaculately ordered, he added, that the city doesn’t even need traffic lights. “That’s design utopia, exactly what modernism was about, you know?”

Costa’s mother started her own business designing children’s wear, but he says he was never influenced by her aesthetic. He did, however, observe her skills. “I think that is why I have this love affair with the scissors. We had to go to work in the factory after school. We would be sketching or cutting or pasting. My mom had this gift to follow the fabric or the paper and just cut—boomp!—and that was that.” Soon after she died, he left for New York.

Costa entered FIT in the late ’80s as a continuing education student; at the time, he was taking ESL classes at Hunter. Struggling fashion design students take heed: Costa says he was “terrible” at sewing, and, in fact, none of his garments was selected for the final fashion show. (In 2008, while accepting FIT’s Mortimer C. Ritter Alumni Award at commencement, he said, “I feel like this is my graduation, because I never attended the last one.”) One experience he had as a student, however, left a big impression. He wanted to participate in a design competition sponsored by the Italian Trade Commission. Georgianna Appignani, FIT’s director of International Programs, was instrumental. “I looked at his portfolio and I said, ‘Of course.’” Costa won. He was flown to Como, Italy, and, Appignani says, “he was introduced to the European sensibility, and that luxury market.” To this day, Costa credits Appignani for spotting his promise, and feels that winning gave him the confidence to forge his career.

For more than a decade, he worked his way up, starting at Bill Blass and burnishing his reputation at Oscar de la Renta, at Balmain Couture, and at Gucci under Tom Ford. In 2001, he was recruited for a position at Klein, and he became the creative director of Calvin Klein Women’s Wear Collection in 2003. Two CFDA awards for women’s wear designer of the year followed, in 2006 and 2008.

Costa is not a designer to turn to for celebrity gossip, though he has certainly dressed his share of red carpet habitués. A silver column dress with a slit in the bodice worn by Gwyneth Paltrow at the Academy Awards was one the most buzzed-about outfits in 2011. Asked to name a muse, however, he chooses eccentric British fashion editor Camilla Nickerson, for her intelligence and “subversive spirit.” It’s a quality he admires, and was reminded of recently when reading Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids. The woman he’s designing for might have nothing to do with the industry. She might not be Western, either; the Collection’s largest market is actually Korea.

Indeed, Costa sees fashion becoming ever more international. “I think the world is opening up even more, you know? We talk about the Middle East, we talk about all the up-and-coming countries—Russia, China, India, Brazil.... So much excitement in those parts of the world,” he says.

But while his own work may evolve, don’t expect wildly divergent designs. That essential continuity has less to do with the constraints of the Calvin Klein aesthetic (on the contrary, he feels “spoiled” to be working on the Collection, “the halo of the brand”) than with fashion itself—which has barely changed, he says, in the last 20 years. He refers to an article by Kurt Andersen in the January 2012 Vanity Fair. Andersen points out that during the 20th century, American culture (music, literature, fashion) changed radically every two decades, but it has remained mysteriously static in the face of recent technological revolutions. Costa’s work can be seen as part of the zeitgeist. Has he absorbed all the changes in media in the past few years? Does he process every tweet and Facebook update? “That’s ridiculous,” he replies, rightly. Costa’s brainy, stripped down creations are a monument to stability, exactly what our times— and fashion—seem to be calling for.

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