This recent CFDA winner is reinventing the modern man
Story by Tim Yap / Photography by Eddie Brannan
Italo Zucchelli, creative director of Calvin Klein Collection for men, makes clothes that are as immaculately tailored as they are unabashedly modern. Take this season’s minimalist one-button sport jacket, made of molded foam blended with jersey, or a sheer sport performance-inspired nylon parka, paired on the Spring/Summer ‘10 runway with a Lycra tee and shorts and rugged desert boots. As Eric Jennings, vice president and fashion director of menswear, home, gifts and food at Saks Fifth Avenue, explains, “What Italo brings to the table is fearlessness. He’s not afraid to innovate boldly in his collections yet always stays true to the spirit of the Calvin Klein aesthetic. He pushes the envelope in unexpected ways, yet never loses sight of the commercial elements within the collection that will drive the business.”
If Calvin Klein himself perfected the idea of combining luxury with mass, Zucchelli is reinventing substance for the 21st century man. He is also responsible for reaffirming Calvin Klein as the bedrock and the future of American men’s fashion since joining the division in 2003. “Italo Zucchelli has brought Italian craftsmanship to American men’s fashion. We are very proud of him,” CFDA President Diane von Furstenburg insists of the Italian native, who won the Council of Fashion Designers of America Menswear Designer of the Year Award this year.
Growing up near the coastal town of La Spezia, Zucchelli graduated from the Polimoda International Institute of Design and Marketing in Florence. He became a designer at Romeo Gigli, then worked as a menswear designer for two years at Jil Sander before joining Calvin Klein in 2000 to work on womenswear for two seasons. Zucchelli suggests he wasn’t dependent on Klein for his direction nor did Klein issue specific advice in the three years they worked side by side. A chance encounter during his youth with a Bruce Weber photograph of Olympic pole-vaulter Tom Hintanhaus in Calvin Klein underwear has been no less a constant source of inspiration for him. “It was the first time you were seeing something like that. That image not only was sexy, conveying a new concept for design, but it was projecting a very American feel,” Zucchelli recalls from the company’s headquarters in lower Times Square.
Calvin Klein Collection is the luxury tier of the $5.8 billion global Calvin Klein lifestyle brand, but because the brand’s owner Phillips-Van Heusen considers the line a “halo” brand, it is strategically important and closely watched as it sets the tone for all other Calvin Klein brand businesses around the world. Collection is sold in 10 stores, including Saks, its biggest account, and one store in Canada, but within Collection alone, there is apparel, outerwear, dress shirts, neckwear, eyewear, socks, footwear and bags.
Zucchelli nonetheless has been steering the company forward with consistency and ease. “I always try to maintain the core message of what I think this brand is about: effortlessness, American sportswear, masculinity and sexiness,” says Zucchelli, who designs two pre-collections and main collections a year. “Sometimes it’s about the clothes, sometimes it’s more about the shapes, and sometimes it’s more about the feel, but in general what I bring is the innovation, the love of new materials, new technologies, which I think is relevant right now,” he says.
Critics suggest Zucchelli is right on the mark. Of the Fall 2009 collection and what many have called one of his best collections, Women’s Wear Daily, the fashion industry bible, wrote: “Commercial viability? Minimalism? Athletically toned physicality? Check, check and check. But the collection also succeeded in advancing Zucchelli’s unique body of experimentation.” “The message was very clear, very real and, at the same time, very new,” says Zucchelli of the classic to downright forward collection for which he collaborated with bicycle seat-makers in Italy. In addition to classic Klein minimalist wool/linen tweed suits, the line includes standouts such as a felted bouclé overcoat, a shimmering liquid-like twill suit and a studded cashmere coat in sumptuous colors such as zinc grey, anthracite, marine blue, clay and onyx.
When asked how he is getting customers interested in the technological aspects of his line, he says: “A lot of people experiment and wear new stuff.” He goes on to say that when he created the now-famous fluorescent pieces for last spring, he had initially envisioned them as “editorial” pieces. But then the suits sold out of the store, then at Saks. According to Jennings, two of his best-selling items from Collection were a neon red suit and a neon yellow tie, followed by two-button classical suits in black and dove grey. “The Calvin suit’s sell well because they’re modern, not fussy and great fitting; a man looks professional at the office and cool out at night,” Jennings says. Zucchelli suggests sales are up about 10 percent.
The reality is that consumers and fashion are adapting, Zucchelli explains. “We are on the brink of a big shift in fashion. Nothing’s going to be the way it was. Values are going to change. Behaviors are going to change. The press is going to change. The way we see and buy fashion is going to change, and there’s going to be a lot of appreciation of newness,” he says, adding that the most successful designers of tomorrow will be the ones who can design items that can enter people’s lives.
According to the company, no additional categories have been planned, but it is likely that Collection, which has stores in Manhattan, Beijing, Dubai, and Milan, as well as a seasonal outpost in Porto Cervo, Italy, will open another international store. Saks’ Jennings, in the meantime, has suggested to Zucchelli the idea of an additional “active” element in the collection.
If the company is guarded, it is because Zucchelli, for all his modernist leanings, prefers to build an air of respect, industry and prescience that define the brand today. Collection, for example, eschews the norm of using celebrities in its advertising, but collaborates on select occasions with artists and actors such as Kanye West, Patrick Wilson, Kevin Bacon, Chace Crawford, Bradley Cooper, Billy Crudup, and Edward Norton. “I don’t believe so much in putting celebrities in my clothes in advertising because I find it a little too easy, too commercial. I prefer to do something a little more sophisticated than that,” says Zucchelli. The mix-master of ideas adds: “I think for me it’s very important to always innovate, go forward, push yourself to do new things, and take risks, but I think it’s still essential that the attitude needs to be easy for this kind of line. This American style is about easiness, not overly conceptual or over designed. That’s always in my mind.”