the evolution of calvin klein and cultural impact of their scents

​Capturing the spirit of a generation, then and now, with Calvin Klein’s provocative approach.

by Rosie Dalton
15 March 2016, 11:35pm

photography ryan mcginley

This month Calvin Klein launched their new ck2 fragrance, a genderless follow-up to their iconic ck one. But can their latest offering live up to the legacy of its older sibling? A scent that, when first launched in 1994, totally changed the fragrance game. Suddenly, the focus shifted from the big, heady fragrances of the eighties to the more sheer scents of the nineties. And, in many ways, it was this unassuming scent that kicked off a genderless trend; one that is only now really reaching its peak. With ck2, there are certainly some similarities — mostly a zingy freshness that is difficult to place. But the use of 'genderless' instead of 'shared' or 'unisex' in describing this latest release feels very much deliberate; a reflection of the current moment, in which gender fluidity is no longer an abstract concept.

An image from the ck2 campaign shot by Ryan McGinley in 2015.

What was it about nineties ck one that made it feel so magnetic? Perhaps it was the androgynous simplicity, on the one hand, and a sense of belonging on the other. Looking back on the original formula that is ck one, it seems that the scent's cult status was just as much rooted in provocative imagery as it was in a rejection of gender norms. The very first ck one ad, for example, was lensed by Steven Meisel in 1994 and shows both men and women conversing, at times quite heatedly. 

The black and white campaign features a tribe of models the likes of Stella Tennant, Johnny Zander and OG Calvin girl, Kate Moss. Just a few years after her debut with the label — for that renowned Marky Mark campaign — these ads captured an icon on the cusp. Which is something that Calvin Klein has also proven quite adept at over the years; extracting an idea or snagging a fresh face right on the brink of success. With ck one, that idea was belonging and, whether it's to do with the current resurgence of nineties culture today, or the niche nature of the Internet generation, that sentiment still feels as resonant now as ever.

A shot from the iconic ck one campaign shot by Steven Meisel in 1994.

Certainly, the fragrance market was a very different beast back then though; with only around 100 new releases each year. But with an eye for incendiary imagery, the youthful attitude of ck one has been kept very much alive ever since. Still one of the brand's most controversial campaigns was the ck one reload in 2011, featuring a semi-clad Lara Stone, plus Abbey Lee Kershaw, Pixie Geldof and boxing champion Robert Evans. These images were all digitalised — echoing youth culture — but were called out for employing subliminal messaging techniques, namely the subtle spelling out of the word 'fuck'. As was the case with so much of Calvin Klein's iconic imagery, though, the controversy here only really added to the rebellious spirit of CK one.

A shot from a ck one relaunch campaign shot by Steven Meisel in 2011.

In 2016, unisex fragrances have become far more ubiquitous than they once were. And in the midst of the 1400-plus new scents released each year, a point of difference is paramount. It is for this reason that a 'genderless' approach makes much more sense now; channelling the zeitgeist of today by reflecting what is also taking place on our runways, streets and all around. 

As a concept, gender has become far less rigid over recent years, so the arrival of ck2 is perfectly timed in that regard. But while the offbeat amalgamation of concrete, rose and oakmoss might be enough to catch the attention of certain fragrance aficionados, I suspect the scent's real staying power will lie in the strength of its presentation. And the brand couldn't have tapped a better photographer to lens their latest campaign than Ryan McGinley.

ck2 campaign shot by Ryan McGinley in 2015.

Casting fresh faces including sisters Baylee and Kelsey Soles, plus Luka Sabbat and model/dancer Victoria Brito, the renowned photographer set up camp on location in Puerto Rico. The resulting imagery is a celebration of diversity and — shooting a series of different duos — McGinley has delivered a candid portrayal of unadulterated modern love. It has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with emotional connection; just like the fragrance declares. 

As we saw with those very first ck one ads and their 2011 follow-up, Calvin Klein's vision of sexuality is always right up to the minute. In this latest campaign, too, the fluidity of modern relationships is aptly captured by the rawness of McGinley's lens. Because, above all, this brand has nailed the art of reflecting the world we live in, as well as actually influencing it. Whether it's through viral marketing, boundary-pushing provocation or a lo-fi aesthetic. In this way, wearing their scents has become a symbol of alliance with specific youth culture of the time. If ck one's original raison d'être was all about being part of a tribe, then ck2's is all about creating your own tribe. 

Calvin Klein campaign shot by Herb Ritts in 1992.

It is a difficult scent to unpack, though. Because ck2 is not straightforward, nor exactly what you would expect. In fact, the unusual balance of opposing elements feels more reminiscent of certain independent perfumers cropping up on the scene right now. Which is a good thing I feel, as we yearn for a departure from the uniform scents released in countless numbers each year. There's a sense of both the now and then in its composition, too. Because it was conceived in collaboration between perfumer Pascal Gaurin and fragrance legend Ann Gottlieb — who was also one of the noses involved with the original ck one. According to Gaurin, this opportunity was a chance to disrupt what a fresh fragrance means today. "[ck2] redefines the fresh territory by tearing apart and reconstructing the structure of a classic fresh fragrance," he explains.

Calvin Klein campaign shot by Mert Alas and Marcus Piggott in 2015.

Certainly, those nineties ads and McGinley's distinctive modern aesthetic are testament to Calvin Klein's ability to tap the intangibility of youth culture. Their fragrances may distill this spirit into a series of notes, but it is the strength of their imagery that first draws us in. The brand's countless polemic campaigns have become almost as iconic as the products themselves. And whether ck2 will enjoy the same stellar fate as its predecessor still remains to be seen. But one thing I do know for sure is that this is a brand that's got the icon formula down. Immediately, a cast of legendary faces spring to mind. Not just Kate Moss, Brooke Shields or even Marky Mark, but also Kendall Jenner and Justin Beiber in equal measure. It's there in the branded waistband of their classic briefs, or the leather patch at the back of their denim. It was there, too, in the fresh ambiguity of ck one and it could very well be there, lingering amongst the notes of concrete and vetiver in ck2's new genderless potion. Only time will really tell.

In collaboration with ck2

ck2 a new scent for #the2ofus by Calvin Klein. Check it out here.

See our ck2 Straight Ups here, fashion story here and portraits of creative duos here


Text Rosie Dalton

Calvin Klein
Ryan McGinley
CK One
think piece