Italo Zucchelli

He spent the summer listening to Krautrock and old Brian Eno records. The kind of visual aesthetic he is irresistibly drawn to is the glossy android perfection of British synth band The Human League as pictured on the sleeve of their 1981 album, Dare. And during his decade designing menswear for Calvin Klein, he has consistently produced futuristic clothes bordering on science fiction (think of the shimmering translucence of his spring ’10 collection, which was sci-fi of the subtle kind: more Gattaca than Star Trek). It’s unlikely anyone would ever accuse Italo Zucchelli of hot-blooded machismo, even though La Spezia, Italy—his birthplace—is a whisper away from the Mediterranean. On the day we spoke, the 44-year-old Zucchelli had just come from having a really good time in Madrid, where he picked up Spanish GQ’s best international designer award. So, truth be told, he was feeling a little friskier than usual. He should. Since he was hired away from Jil Sander at the turn of the century, Zucchelli has subtly shifted the emphasis in menswear at Calvin Klein from brawn to brains, a transformation he’s managed without compromising the sex appeal that is the label’s primal selling point. In fact, that appeal has been steadily intensifying and snaring a hot new clientele. Madrid was just Zucchelli’s latest encounter with it.

TIM BLANKS: Do you ever tap into your Latin roots?

ITALO ZUCCHELLI: I have to admit, I am aware of them now. In the past, people couldn’t place me. They thought that I was Danish or English or French. They never got that I am Italian. I’m not typical, maybe because my visual education was very mixed. There was a lot of London in my aesthetic: The Face, i-D, British music, and a lot of British fashion . . . But I really enjoy this contrast. I can go from Lady Gaga to Brian Eno in a split second.

BLANKS: It makes sense, because when you were growing up in La Spezia, you had English electropop influencing you and, at the same time, you had the Bruce Weber ad shoots for Calvin Klein.

ZUCCHELLI: If you think about those ads, they were very sensual and sexy. But there was also an element of . . . I don’t want to say coldness, but they were very clean, very stark, very minimal. Which means, in a way, there’s a link between those two worlds—London and Weber. That probably fascinated me.

BLANKS: So ending up at Calvin Klein was destiny?

ZUCCHELLI: Yes, I definitely would say that, but also because of what happened after I got here. I was going to leave after a year, and Calvin himself actually grabbed me and asked me to stay.

BLANKS: What do you think he saw in you then?

ZUCCHELLI: He told me that he really liked what I was doing and that he wanted me to go on doing it. This was almost 10 years ago, but I think he could see that I was not trying to bullshit or give information that was filtered or that was hiding anything. He’s smart, and he got it.

BLANKS: What made you so compatible with the whole ethos of Calvin Klein?

ZUCCHELLI: I really believed in the unfussiness, the timelessness, and the sexy attitude. And the most inspiring thing for me about Calvin Klein was how subversive the advertising’s message was. That’s what drove me in my creative process and also in my creating now. The new advertising campaign is Calvin Klein the way I see it today. It’s also bringing back the kind of subversive element that I always saw in Calvin Klein’s campaigns.

BLANKS: What did you originally see as subversive?

ZUCCHELLI: It was the timing. Basically, he did in ’83 what you see on every corner today, but then it wasnew. A man in his underwear. A teenage girl [Brooke Shields], who’d been in Pretty Baby [1978] two years earlier, saying that nothing comes between her and her Calvins. Or, at a moment when the prototype of the ideal woman for other designers was Linda Evangelista, having a teenager photographed naked by her boyfriend. That woman, Kate Moss, is still here today, and that image is still controversial. But what’s controversial now?

BLANKS: Well, children are more controversial than ever. You couldn’t get away with Pretty Baby now.

ZUCCHELLI: Yeah, you couldn’t, but it’s also a very different world. You don’t do things for shock value anymore, because that’s not even the language of today. At least, that’s not what interests me. If I do it, it’s because I want to see things in another way, not necessarily because I want to shock anybody.

BLANKS: The essence of Calvin Klein has always struck me as a paradoxical combination of purity and perversity.

ZUCCHELLI: I totally agree with that. It’s a great way to see it. I always like to make sense of things that, in theory, would not make any sense together. It’s true that the core of Calvin Klein has been . . . I don’t want to say conservative, but real clothes that are worn by everybody. But what I’m seeing now is that the most extreme pieces, like the fluorescent suits from spring or the mirror suits from fall, are the ones that sell first. It means this brand is now perceived as one where men can buy fashion pieces. It’s a very different situation from even 10 years ago.

BLANKS: It also means men themselves are changing.

ZUCCHELLI: The rules of the game in general are going to change for everything, not just menswear. People want to have fun with clothes. We sold out of the mirror suits in New York, and the black suits were still there. It tells me that men are looking for something that makes them feel good, makes them have fun, and makes them stand out. And it’s all different sorts of men.

Even if things look very precise and very organized, chaos is always there. But I like the moment of chaos to be at the beginning; I cannot deal with the chaos at the end.Italo Zucchelli

BLANKS: Do you think you’ve changed the definition of what Calvin Klein is?

ZUCCHELLI: I respect the core message because it’s timeless—and why throw it away? But I’ve made it richer. I mean, there are many things Calvin would have never done—he would have never put men in leggings in a show; he would have never done a fluorescent suit—but these are things that are right for the moment. For example, a fluorescent suit is graphic, and Calvin Klein is about being graphic. And Calvin Klein is always modern at its core, so I inject my own research and my own innovation, and I make it my own. But I never deny that core, because that would be stupid.

BLANKS: How is what you’re doing quintessentially American?

ZUCCHELLI: I think because I’m not American—even though I am on the verge of getting my American passport next week—I have a fantasy of what is American. Big spaces, Marlon Brando, James Dean, easy living.

BLANKS: It’s interesting that the spirit people would identify most in your work is something futuristic.

ZUCCHELLI: I’m not inspired by space in that kind of futuristic sense, but I’ve never liked retro. Of course, we always get references from the past, but that doesn’t mean that the clothes have to look like the past. We need to look forward, which is why I’m fascinated by new materials, technologies, techniques, and unusual ways to use colors or textures. It’s very applicable to Calvin Klein because Calvin Klein has always been about modern-ness.

BLANKS: So what does it feel like to become an American citizen?

ZUCCHELLI: [laughs] Well, I had a green card for five years, and this is my home now, and I thought it would be good for me to apply. I’ll be able to vote now, which is important.

BLANKS: Has living in America made you more idealistic?

ZUCCHELLI: No, but it has made me more practical. And, at the same time, exactly the opposite, because I’m very open to different ways of being and seeing that are completely not practical.

BLANKS: What really impresses me is how organized and disciplined you are. A lot of people in your position talk about how their jobs eat their lives, but I’ve never gotten that impression from you.

ZUCCHELLI: Definitely. I learned how to be organized in my years working with Jil Sander. I saw what it means to work every weekend and every night, and I realized it doesn’t work for me. It’s not necessary. If you know what you want, you can achieve it without going crazy. I have a very small team by choice, because I don’t believe in teams of 55,000 people. When I come up with an idea for the collection, it’s usually very precise, and I would say that every time, you’re going to see that idea on the catwalk. It will go through ups and downs, but it’s not going to be changed in the last month, that’s for sure.

BLANKS: Given the compatibility between Calvin and Italo, if you were to do your own collection, how different would it be?

ZUCCHELLI: It probably would be similar, quite honestly, because I don’t feel that I’m really
forcing anything here. I really believe in clothes that are new, that are innovative—but that everybody wants to wear. Maybe I would fantasize a little bit less about American-ness.

BLANKS: But with all that precision, you wouldn’t ever feel like letting a little chaos in?

ZUCCHELLI: Yes. For sure. Even if things look very precise and very organized, chaos is always there. But I like the moment of chaos to be at the beginning. I cannot deal with the chaos at the end. [laughs]

BLANKS: Is there anything in your personality that you really have to keep a tight grip on? Do you ever let yourself go?

ZUCCHELLI: Of course. [laughs] I am Italian, after all. In the office, I actually act quite demented the whole day. Like Monty Python. That’s my favorite kind of humor. My assistants sometimes ask me to leave.

Tim Blanks is a veteran fashion journalist and contributing editor at