Italo Zucchelli: Calvin Klein's Mastermind

Italo Zucchelli: Calvin Klein's Mastermind





Photography: Inez & Vinoodh

Text: Katharine K. Zarrella

Italo Zucchelli is an unlikely minimalist.

Born in San Terenzo, Italy, the 49-year-old creative director of menswear at Calvin Klein Collection -- a brand built upon streamlined American sportswear -- grew up pouring over British indie zines like i-D, The Face, and BLITZ. While he studied architecture and design in Florence, the '80s music scene and the dawn of MTV provided Zucchelli with his initial fashion education. "It was the first time in history when an artist's image -- what they were wearing -- was just as important as what they were singing. I was always inspired by that," says Zucchelli. He still is, though now Zucchelli's not just observing -- he's the one doing the image making. Most recently, he outfitted Sam Smith for his In the Lonely Hour tour.

Equally as impactful as the glammed-up characters Zucchelli observed in magazines and on his television screen were the ones he encountered during late nights at London's Taboo and Camden Palace, Paris' Les Bains Douches, and Milan's Plastic, among other New Romantic era hot spots. "The first big city I ever visited was London. I was 16, just learning English, and I'd see all these crazy people in the clubs wearing crazy outfits. It was then that I developed this passion for clubwear and clothes related to music," recalls Zucchelli. As it turns out, the same man sitting across from me in black jeans and a V-neck sweater assembled some rather extraordinary evening ensembles back in the day. "One that was actually pretty recurrent -- and you need to imagine it, because it was actually quite masculine -- involved a skirt," he says. "It was a black latex pair of jeans, a jean jacket, and a red tartan miniskirt with S&M images that I applied with safety pins. I'd wear a scarf with it." Zucchelli also divulged that he did "everything you could imagine" to his hair. "I was platinum blond for years. That's actually why I'm bald now." That explains the dome (which is considerably becoming on Zucchelli, I might add). But this aesthetic history makes the designer's current pared-down tendencies -- or rather, their origins -- all the more mysterious.

"I've always enjoyed artists that have clean aesthetics," he says when pressed on the subject. "Even when I used to go out, there was a crispness that I appreciated. And I've always enjoyed a spare room without a lot of stuff."

Zucchelli's office at Calvin Klein's Manhattan headquarters is just that. When I meet him there on a miserable December afternoon, Zucchelli greets me with a zealous hello before taking a seat at his meticulously organized desk. Behind him is a print of a cloudy sky with a sharp rectangle in the center -- the same motif that appeared on S/S '14's James Turrell inspired tees and sweatshirts. (Drake, if you'll remember, wore a customized hoodie version throughout his Would You Like a Tour tour.) To Zucchelli's right are two Steven Klein photographs of a naked, oiled-up David Agbodji. Both are outtakes from Calvin Klein Collection's Spring '10 campaign, which depicted the chiseled model both in the label's slick suits and separates and in the buff. "Those ads were inspired by Grace Jones," Zucchelli notes, adding that the singer's Nightclubbing album cover -- the one where she's posed in an angular Armani jacket with a cigarette dangling out of her mouth -- is minimalism at its best. "I gave Steven a picture of that album and said, 'This is it.'"

Zucchelli cut his teeth assisting Italian designer Romeo Gigli, a man known for his romantic, understated creations. "He was a genius, and he really revolutionized fashion," professes Zucchelli before slicing the air with his hands to demonstrate his former boss's masterful (albeit frenetic) cutting techniques. A brief stint at Prada came next, followed by two years designing menswear at Jil Sander, where he learned about fabric experimentation and the importance of wearability. It was during his time working alongside minimalism's main madam that Calvin Klein came knocking. After a six-month courtship, Zucchelli signed with the American house -- and the timing couldn't have been better. "Every time I talk about it I get goose bumps," he whispers, leaning forward. "The day I received my contract from Calvin Klein, Jil resigned from her own company. I remember thinking, Okay. This is meant to be."

Zucchelli moved into the top menswear spot after Klein sold his company and stepped down in the early aughts. S/S '04 was his first solo season, and, despite the label's deep American roots, it was immediately evident that Zucchelli's eclectic youth and Italian upbringing groomed him well for the gig. "I think as an Italian, I idealize America," Zucchelli muses. "That brings a little bit more of a fantasy element to my designs."

The Calvin DNA -- simplicity, masculinity, and inescapable sexuality -- is woven into each of Zucchelli's collections. "I believe in repetition," he says. But don't mistake repetition for regurgitation. Zucchelli's design approach is studied and cerebral, and though he always respects house codes, he rarely revives the past without a wink and a twist.

Consider F/W '14, for which Zucchelli turned the brand's Obsession, Eternity, and Escape fragrances on their heads. Sweatshirts embroidered with those monikers were shown alongside sporty separates, wool trousers, and classic overcoats. "I nod to the past to bring a little bit of irony, because there hasn't always been much of it at the collection level. But it's very contained. It's tasteful. And it's playing with youth and pop culture, which is very Calvin Klein, if you think about it."

Indeed. Calvin Klein has a history of driving the zeitgeist. Those 1992 ads starring a topless teenage Kate Moss straddling a bare-chested Mark Wahlberg (which were recently replicated with Lara Stone and Justin Bieber) are up there with Clueless when it comes to pillars of '90s pop culture. "For me, they really defined the core essence of the brand," Zucchelli says of the Herb Ritts-lensed photos. "They defined the American-ness, the crispness, and the cleanness of Calvin Klein. They're timeless."

So timeless, in fact, that they had a conceptual hand in Zucchelli's flesh-toned S/S '15 outing, which toyed with the idea of underwear. "It was about skin," says the designer. "I wanted to celebrate sexiness and again play with pop culture to have a little bit of fun."

Sexiness is tricky territory these days, especially for a brand like Calvin Klein, which broke the mold with its controversial '80s and '90s campaigns. (Let's not forget when Brooke Shields told the world that nothing comes between her and her Calvins in 1981.) Thirty years ago, a nearly nude model on a billboard was shocking. In 2015, it's the norm.  "Today, I think something's sexy when it's effortless," suggests Zucchelli. "It's tougher to express that in a new way now because we're constantly bombarded by images. But it's still something that's very relevant for this brand, because it's what Calvin Klein was founded upon."

One need only look at Calvin Klein's menswear models -- all of whom go through Zucchelli's fastidious casting process -- to see that. Forget those waifish, sunken-cheeked boys favored by so many top-tier houses -- Zucchelli's catwalkers are strong-jawed, broad-shouldered hunks. "Looking good and having a great body is still relevant for this brand," says Zucchelli. "My guys are always handsome, and it's a specific casting that takes a lot of time to develop. The guys also need to wear the clothes, so they're muscly, but they're lean. That masculinity is very important."

Just like the concept of "sexy," the nature of masculinity is constantly evolving -- as are men's sartorial desires. Much of Zucchelli's success lies in his understanding of that. "Until 10 years ago, men had a different approach to clothes. Now, thanks to the Internet, they are very aware of what's going on in fashion. Their wives don't pick out their clothes anymore. They know what they want, and it doesn't matter if they're gay or straight -- they're looking for quality," Zucchelli argues. "It's no longer about just another gray suit."

That became abundantly clear during the S/S '15 shows, when "athleisure" (in layman's terms, a cross between luxury sportswear and gym clothes) ruled the runways. But Zucchelli presented this style long before the Internet came up with a cute word for it. "I began doing it because Calvin Klein is quintessentially an American sportswear brand," he says when questioned about his signature innovative tech fabrics and laid-back-meets-high-end threads. "As for why the rest of the industry is obsessed with this direction, I think it's rooted in reality. It's what people wear in everyday life. Everybody wants to express more of who they are, be more comfortable, be themselves. You don't have to prove that you're rich by wearing a suit today -- actually, it's quite the opposite. Thank God the world is moving on from those rules... because rules are made to be broken."

Zucchelli has been at the helm of Calvin Klein Collection's menswear range for over a decade now, which is certainly long enough for him to have made and broken a few rules of his own. So what, in Zucchelli's opinion, has been his crowning Calvin achievement? "I updated what was already there and I made something that is more me," he offers. "I needed to do that. But I kept the core integrity of the brand alive. I just added to it to make it right for this moment." This moment, and the next.



Credits: Grooming Wendy Rowe (Tim Howard)  Manicure Daria Hardeman  Lighting director Jodokus Driessen  Digital technician Brian Anderson  Studio manager Marc Kroop  Photo assistant Joseph Hume  VLM producer Jeff Lepine  Stylist assistants Sandra Amador and Coco Campbell  Grooming assistant Aliana Lopez  Production Stephanie Bargas, Lauren Pistoia, Disco Meisch (theCollectiveShift)  Retouching Stereohorse  Location ROOT Studios  Catering Dishful


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