FLASHBACK: Francisco Costa, A Study In Calvinism
Another delve into Ten Towers’ bulging archives, this time back to Spring Summer 2011 when Max Blagg talked to the now departed Creative Director of Calvin Klein womenswear, Francisco Costa. Enjoy Mr Costa’s wise words, and, to pepper the story with a little visual stimulation, we have taken the liberty to include a few backstage piccies from Costa’s CK shows that we’ve loved, passed and present. Over to Max…
The arc of Francisco Costa’s career is a perfectly ascending curve that should be studied by any young designer aspiring to climb the steep stairs of the fashion world. Eight years after his appointment as Creative Director of Calvin’s enormously successful operation, the brand’s name is becoming synonymous with his own. Costa has moved fluidly toward the top, making crucial pit stops along the way to study and learn from influential fashion icons, following a path that so many young artists dream of when they are first drawn to New York, like filings to a magnet. His new spring line looked ready to leap off its hangers when we met for a chat in the fitting room at the CK corporate headquarters, in the heart of New York’s original garment district.
Your career has a mythical aspect to it. Small town boy from Brazil comes to New York and finds fame fast. And your star is still rising. Can we blame it on the bossa nova?
I would give most credit to my mother, and the clothing business she started when I was a kid. That was the first successful business enterprise I was involved in. It taught me the value of hard work. She started out selling clothing from home and then one day sent out some samples with a traveling salesman. He came back with dozens of orders and before you know it we had a factory running fulltime.
Was that unusual, for a woman to have her own business like that?
She just did it. She was a very hardworking and singleminded person, obviously a huge inspiration. I worked for her all through school, through my teen years. I did everything from tagging, which by the way had to be done by hand, tying each piece and then snipping the long thread, to putting on the appliqués, to eventually designing some of the clothes. You know, kids’ clothes, lots of badges and buttons.
So that was your first design collective.
It was a great apprenticeship, all of us worked there after school every day, and the only thing I didn’t like was that MTV had just started in Brazil, it was the only thing worth watching on TV, and because I was working in the factory, some days I missed my show.
Was it MTV that made New York call out to you?
I was always interested in New York, I knew I would get there eventually, even if I had no idea what I would do there. I was eighteen when my mother died, it was very traumatic, but that was like a cutting of the cord with home. There was nothing to keep me in Brazil then, I was ready to go. And my father was very understanding about it. So I was a teenager when I arrived here, and hardly spoke a word of English. The city looked filthy, but the energy was amazing. I just felt so open to everything, and New York somehow was not at all intimidating, I knew I was in the right place. I felt very comfortable very quickly. I didn’t really care in which direction I went, it could have been art or the theater as easily as fashion. I enrolled in the evening classes at F.I.T., and then good things began to happen. I entered a school competition and to my surprise I won it. But it turned out the award was only supposed to be for daytime students, so they couldn’t give it to me. Then two weeks later the Dean of F.I.T. called and offered me a scholarship. That was a great opportunity, it opened up a lot of things for me, and obviously gave me a huge shot of confidence. But I have to admit that while I was at F.I.T., I wasn’t a particularly good student, I didn’t care about my grades that much, I really just pursued what interested me…
La vida loca? Don’t answer that. Still, you made rapid progress when you left college and entered the real world.
Yes I got a good job at Bill Blass. Where I met Herb Rounick, who was a larger than life New York fashion guy, very funny man, and a real visionary also – he was responsible for first establishing a lot of great European labels to this country. Herb introduced me to Oscar de la Renta, and I began to work for Oscar, which was an absolute dream job. The workmanship and the detail – the way things were stitched and sewn, the fabrics –the quality level of everything was just so high. It’s a situation that really doesn’t exist anymore. Oscar had a team of people working for him who’d been with him for years. I just loved the precision and the details, the way things are actually constructed, such valuable lessons that I am still applying to my work. Though things are quite different today, there is so much competition, the rules are different. The new spring line for example, the clothes are so beautifully finished. We really give so much attention to the details, the quality of the fabric, the cut. It’s absolutely vital to do that. And working for Oscar also taught me to understand color. In Brazil, people are so surrounded by, immersed in color that we don’t actually know color at all. But the use of color in American fashion back then was not so good. Americans needed an education in how colors work, how they are worn. The pinks especially, they were so distasteful!
From stitching with Oscar you went onward and upward to Gucci?
Yes, working with Tom Ford was another terrific opportunity, and a very fertile period for me. He had such incredible confidence in what he was doing, and the work was always so sexy.
What do you find sexy about a woman’s body?
Everything! But sexy never means vulgar. It should always be covered yet revealing, concealed by a structure to match nature’s structure. It’s actually what we spend a great deal of time on here. We are constantly trying to conceptualize that, to arrive at the essence of what works best for a woman, what magic combination of color and comfort and fabric and fit will deliver the goods.
You spent four years at Gucci and then the call came with Calvin in 2002. You have managed very well not to be obscured in the least by that long shadow.
I think because I went completely my own way when I began here, and I am so glad that I did, because the result has been so much genuine growth. The essence of the house is obviously very powerful, I really think what Calvin created is genius, I didn’t want to deviate too far from the path he laid. The body of work he created, that he constantly refined for thirty years, it’s simply amazing. I would never have succeeded here if I had simply copied what he did, or merely recycled the archive, which is filled with so much brilliant work. It certainly has taught me to become more reductive myself. Last year for example, my country house was filled with flowers, everything was very festive, and without even thinking about it I reduced them all to their stems, I no longer needed the flower itself, just the upright stems. And you know what, they looked perfect that way!
I should open a conceptual florist shop! No flowers necessary! Is this where fashion is headed now?
Well fashion never stops evolving, it is in a constant state of change. Businesses expanding, companies merging, that’s the reality of the world today. The fashion business is incredibly competitive, but excellence in design will always remain, even if there are less and less people who understand that.
Do you think megastores like H&M and Target are diluting ‘fashion’ design by hiring marquee names to do cheap lines for them?
I think it’s fabulous that people have the opportunity to wear designer clothes, even if it is not necessarily the most well made version of that designer’s work, but I don’t think it devalues the purity of design itself. Purity is a very important aspect of what designers bring to the world. And simplicity, these things are very important. As life becomes more complex, we need to retain the essence of things. Certainly there is not a great revolutionary spirit in evidence at the moment in fashion. There is a desperate need to stay current though, and [laughing] for sunglasses, bags, fragrances….
Speaking of fragrance, would you every consider posing naked to promote your brand, the way Marc Jacobs recently did?
Certainly, if I had the body for it! I think what Marc has been doing with Juergen Teller is so brilliant, it’s such a perfect, synergistic relationship, because it is so genuine. Marc has found the perfect language in which to communicate his vision.
Thank you Francisco, see you in the gym.
Text by Max Blagg
Photographs by Jason Lloyd-Evans, at Calvin Klein (in order) AW12, SS12, AW13, SS14 and AW16