Click on pictures for larger image.

Marketing the Rainbow

Case study: Calvin Klein (CK)

Branche: Fashion

Article last updated Jul 16, 2021

#proudinmycalvins 2020

This campaign featured young LGBT rising stars in a video series, celebrating individual freedom of expression and LGBT+ identity. Shot by Ryan McKinley, the campaign highlights the true meaning and value of individuality with nine LGBT+ protagonists from all across the world including writer/activist/ actor Chella Man, trans queer model/activist/actress Jari Jones, model/poet Reece King, actor & model Mina Gerges, artist Gia

Over the years, CK has also done some specific LGBT focused campaigns, like #proudinmycalvins. Starting in 2018, they also brought us special Pride collections, always in collaboration with an LGBT charity.


Calvin Klein Inc. is an American fashion house established in 1968. It specializes in leather, lifestyle accessories, home furnishings, perfumery, jewellery, watches and ready-to-wear. The company has substantial market share in retail and commercial lines as well haute couture garments. The company was founded by designer Calvin Klein and his childhood friend, Barry K. Schwartz. The company is headquartered in Midtown Manhattan, New York City.

In 2002, the company was sold to PVH (now also owner of Tommy Hilfiger, IZOD, Arrow, Warner's, Olga, True & Co., and Geoffrey Beene) for about $400 million in cash, $30 million in stock as well as licensing rights and royalties estimated at $300 million. Turnover of the brand is now 3.67 billion U.S. dollars worldwide.

His personal net worth is $700 Million.


#proudinmycalvins 2021

This campaign is a celebration of defining moments in the queer and trans journey. A continuation of the #proudinmycalvins movement, the campaign revisits the transformative events that shaped the lives of talent from different parts of the world at different moments in time. 

For this campaign the brand enlisted six photographers to capture eight stars: The nonbinary Barcelona-based artist Arca captured by Gorka Postigo, Artist, DJ and fashion designer Honey Dijon lensed by by Matt Lambert, actor and singer Isaac Cole Powell shot by Ryan McGinley, poet and activist Kai Isaiah Jamal captured by Campbell Addy, singer, songwriter and producer King Princess shot by Collier Schorr, actor Omar Ayuso lensed by Gorka Postigo, artist Raisa Flowers captured by Ryan McGinley, and artist Samuel de Saboia shot by Vivi Bacco. 

2019 Pride

For Pride Month 2019, CK released the special capsule. In the campaign were featured: Indya Moore (of Pose fame), Adrian Sotiris, Dutch model Rozanne Verduin, and Liam Daniels.

The collection is "a celebration of confidence, self-expression and inclusivity". A capsule of classics in a kaleidoscope of colours with everything from underwear (jocks and boxers) to hoodies, slides and pride printed denim.

They also made video of Pabllo Vittar getting ready for LA Pride. 

Schermafbeelding 2021-07-14 om 08.56.24
Schermafbeelding 2021-07-14 om 08.55.13
Schermafbeelding 2021-07-14 om 08.54.55
Schermafbeelding 2021-07-14 om 08.55.59
Schermafbeelding 2021-07-14 om 08.54.29
Schermafbeelding 2021-07-14 om 08.54.11
Schermafbeelding 2021-07-14 om 08.53.53

Pride 2021

The Pride capsule of this year may be the most extensive ever with dozens of articles: from slides to T's and from shorts to - of course - many kinds of underwear. Remarkable is that, in spite of CK's support for all members of the LGBT community, one of the choices on the catalogue page is "Men or Women". Other brands have unisex or gender-neutral lines. The models shown are quite diverse: plus-sized, androgynous, boys with make-up etc. 


For decades Calvin Klein has moved around in LGBT circles - both personally as well as via his brand. The campaings were groundbreaking, cheeky and non-conformist. CK hase done a great at supporting the community and giving a platform for a whole range of diverse persons from this group. 

Marketing the Rainbow

From the iconic billboards on Times Square, via a crotch-grabbing Marky Mark en child porn, to a photshopped Justin Bieber: the Calvin Klein brand (CK) is all about sexual marketing.

Calvin Klein has been an openly gay (or at least bisexual) fashion designer and his success and approach to marketing made him a - disputed - gay icon of sorts.

Klein has long been known for his attention-getting advertisements. He first made a name for himself by designing clean, uncomplicated sportswear. But he kept his name before the public by creating sometimes shocking and always news making advertising campaigns. After all, if you are promoting underwear you have the right, if not the obligation to show near naked models…


The first order was obtained purely, and ironically, by accident when a coat buyer from Bonwit Teller got off on the wrong floor of a hotel and wandered into Klein's workroom. She placed an order for USD 50,000, which was a huge amount at that time. By 1997 sales of Calvin Klein Jeans approached half a billion dollars.

The beginning

It’s been over 30 years since a bold and beautiful 1983 Times Square ad featuring Olympic athlete Tom Hintnaus posing in his Calvin Kleins… which revolutionized the advertising industry, if not the Klein signature. For the first time, men were allowed to be as sexy - and sexually overt - as women in print adverts, thanks to what was then considered a risque visual from photographer Bruce Weber. He became most widely known for his CK campaigns but also worked for Ralph Lauren, Abercrombie & Fitch, and Gianni Versace.

Advertising was a key to Klein's success. He stoked the media with controversy that kept his name in the news. He was the first to design women's underwear that looked like men's jockey shorts. His television ads for jeans starred child-star Brooke Shields, who exclaimed: "Nothing comes between me and my Calvins."

Fun fact 1: 30 years later, the actress claimed that, after two children and three decades, the jeans still fit her.

Fun fact 2: in 2008 the ads were ‘copied’ by present-day star Kim Kardashian for Radar magazine. In Brooke’s case there was talk about exploiting a teen. Kardashian biggest claim to fame was a leaked sex tape. We have come a long way.

Kiddie porn

CK developed a reputation for pushing the envelope of acceptability in his campaigns. Ads of the mid-1990s featured underage teenagers (not professional models) in sexually provocative poses that were particularly risque, and were characterized by many as socially irresponsible. Dubbed "kiddie porn" by the press, the campaign was singled out by Forbes magazine as the worst marketing campaign of 1995. He even attracted government attention: the FBI and Justice Department investigated the company for possible violations of child pornography laws. The ads were universally denounced, but in the end, the Justice Department ruled that they were not pornography. And, yes, Klein pulled the ads, but not before the accompanying publicity had made the Calvin Klein brand name a part of everyday conversation.

The success of crotch grabbing

In 1992 CK ran the print ad of Marky Mark in his body-hugging underwear in Out magazine. It's the ad you could also see on poster boards on New York streets or in any of the glossy national magazines. The image became nothing less than legendary, boosting the career of Mark Wahlberg, and leading to endless memes, even decades later. Below you see Dan Osborne and Nick Jonas.

CK guitar
CK wig
Calvin Klein
CK guys

The outsert

CK again attracted a great deal of attention when he and Bruce Weber created a new medium, the 115-page "outsert", a campaign incorporating rock and roll, grunge, and waif models as well as the homo-erotic and cynical-chic images of drug use. The outsert was distributed in a few major cities and featuring a fictionalized hard-body rock band and their sexily clad girlfriends, which ran in the October 1991 Vanity Fair. There were some boy-meets-boy and girl-meets-girl shots that were sexually suggestive.

Just like Klein would deny his campaigns to be child porn (underage teenagers in sexually provocative poses) or condoning drug addiction (decimated teens appeared to be part of an idealized drug culture), he denied his male underwear images to be “gay oriented”.

Not so innovative

If you thought your hipster kids were innovative by wearing half of their Björn Borg boxers sticking out of their jeans, think again. One of the first underwear brands to print their name clearly on the waistband of the briefs was Calvin Klein in the early 80s. Subsequently, they also wanted it to show, and stimulated this by photo shoots, showing how it was done. It was quickly adopted by the American gays, making CK one of the first brands to break through via the gay community. This trend was taken up by the straight consumer years later, for instance with Joe Boxer (mainly by the black community) and only 25 years later with Björn Borg.

CK announced a two-year partnership with The Trevor Project. In addition they support ILGA World, committed funds to the Transgender Legal Defense & Education Fund and continues to support the National Pulse Memorial & Museum.

Earlier, Calvin Klein Australia announced a three-year partnership with BlaQ Aboriginal Corporation, an organization that supports the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander LGBTQIA+ community.

Gay ads

Adweek commented, in their feature “16 of the Gayest Ads in History From Ivory soap to Marky Mark”: “When Calvin Klein’s then-advertising vp Neil Kraft asked David Geffen to borrow Mark “Marky Mark” Wahlberg for an underwear shoot in 1992, he created one of the most iconic ads of the late 20th century - one that gay men immediately adopted as their own, even though Kraft wasn’t deliberately targeting them. The muscle-boy-in-his-drawers genre remains with us to this day, along with the question that still has no answer: Are these ads “gay” or not?” 

"He won't admit publicly that it's homoerotic, but we can all see that it is," says David Mulryan, director of business development for Mulryan/Nash, a New York-based advertising agency that specializes in the gay market. 

2020 Pride

For the pandemic year, CK decided to celebrate Pride not just for the month of June but for a whole year. The campaign launched on May 14.

Woods, actor Tommy Dorfman, model/activist Ama Elsesser, photographer MaryV and the brand’s very first drag queen/singer protagonist, Pabllo VittarVittar is one of the most prominent figures within the Brazilian LGBTQ+ community, known for being the first grammy nominated drag queen for her single “Sua Cara” in 2018, among other accomplishments. 

18 pride e
18 pride b
18 pride c
18 pride a
18 pride d

2018 Pride

For the '18 Pride season, Calvin Klein presented classic women’s and men’s T-shirts and tank tops from Calvin Klein Jeans, with a rainbow-treated logo, as well as an array of men’s cotton underwear in individual rainbow brights, and women’s bralettes and underwear that highlight rainbow-stripe patterns. Prices ranged from $6 to $35. The rainbow set of underwear is $59.50. A portion of proceeds went to the Human Rights Campaign Foundation.

The sale also included an ongoing personal financial incentive for Klein based on future sales of the brand. He continued as an advisor to the new company from 2003 on and has since been more withdrawn from the business.

Calvin Klein established a monogram: the "ck" emblem. 

A 2018 research from Brand Innovators and Grindr's INTO magazine ranked CK as the third most LGBT-friendly brand (after Absolut and Apple). To further the company’s commitment to the LGBT+ community, Calvin Klein (along with parent compamy PVH and 'sister' Tommy Hilfiger) signed on to the Standards of Conduct of the United Nations’ Free & Equal campaign pledging support to create positive change in the sphere of LGBTI human rights.

Kitty Louvit, Davis Bates, Tyler Mazaheri, Audryana Cruz
Kitty Louvit, Davis Bates, Tyler Mazaheri, Audryana Cruz
Bryce Smith
Bryce Smith
Andrea Russett
Andrea Russett
Everett Williams
Everett Williams
Denzel Dion
Denzel Dion
Melanie Martillo
Melanie Martillo
Derek Chadwick
Derek Chadwick

#proudinmycalvins 2019

The Pride 2019 #proudinmycalvins campaign featured a number of diverse models, no celebrities apart from actor Derek Chadwick. Here they are wearing the capsule collection, featuring ultra-vivid underwear and bright tank tops. Lensed by Hunter Abrams via BFA.  

In support of LGBTQ+ equality, CK made a donation to Human Rights Campaign™.

20 Pride d
20 Pride a
20 Pride b
20 Pride 1
20 Pride e

On top of the social media exposure, the campaign was run with major ads and billboards in prime locations such as SoHo in NYC. They amplified these voices through their global platform, along with donating to & fundraising for the onePULSE Foundation

2019 Eternity fragrance

For their Eternity fragrance CK hired the gay power couple Blue Hamilton & Matt Dallas, who appeared in a commercial with their kid. “Blue and I spent years searching for the right property to create our own little private world… The first time we set foot on our mountain I knew we had found it, it instantly felt like home. Looking at my husband and seeing the same feeling in his face is a moment I will hold for all eternity.” - Matt Dallas on building his universe with Blue and ETERNITY Eau de Parfum.

In the video for #MYCALVINS we see Kendall Jenner, SZA, Hunter Schafer, Lay Zhang, Justin Bieber, gay rapper superstar Lil Nas X and Maluma (of Madonna and gay porn fame) "celebrating unapologetic confidence and self-love", filmed by Bardia Zeinali. Also check out Behind The Scenes with Lil Nas X.

2019 Bella Hadid & Lil Miquela 

Social media users accused Calvin Klein of queer-baiting with the advert that showed Bella Hadid (2016 "Model of the Year") kissing CGI influencer Lil Miquela (a "19-year-old avatar") for its campaign “I Speak My Truth in #MyCalvins”. The campaign aimed to capture the essence of individuality and expression of the artists and models involved with a series of stylised videos. The pair share an unexpected kiss and stare at each other until the light dims again.

The video met with mixed reaction online, with many people accusing the brand of queer-bating - a term used to describe purposely teasing the possibility of being queer in an effort to appeal to audiences. Queer-baiting can be harmful because queer representation is not widely portrayed in the media. Calvin Klein apologized to the LGBT community, after the backlash.

Personally, I think CK has earned the right to use almost every form of LGBT representation, after decades of support and commitment. 

CK1 raw
CK lesbian raw
CK rAW a
CK raw b
CK lesbian raw 2

2015 The first same-sex couples

From a topless 17-year-old Kate Moss straddling Marky Mark, to that Justin Bieber ad, Calvin Klein is no stranger to provocative campaigns. But it took the brand until 2015 to feature their first same-sex couple(s) in a campaign - inspired by none other than sexting... "Raw texts, real stories".

The gay image starring male models Reid Rohling and Ethan James Green even featured on the brand's prominent billboard on Houston Street in New York. 

There also was a lesbian version, a threesome, as well as a straight one and one that is ambiguous as the the sexuality of the models.

2013 Super Bowl

Huffpost: "The Calvin Klein Super Bowl commercial for 2013 can be summed up simply: eye-candy. Languorous, sexy and a little gratuitous, the ad stars chiseled male model Matthew Terry and was immediately embraced by many drooling netizens on Twitter." Terry had won VMAN's annual male model search competition and quickly became a CK favorite. BTW: he is straight.

There also was a lesbian version, a threesome, as well as a straight one and one that is ambiguous as the the sexuality of the models.

Calvin Klein Jeans has a long history of combining sexual energy with cultural relevance,” Melisa Goldie, chief marketing officer at Calvin Klein Inc. told Women's Wear Daily. "Our past campaigns have been more image-driven and this one was about starting a conversation through provocation."

CK fun
CK Ken Bek 2
CK overcome
CK 4x
CK milk
CK matthewterryout
CK bum
CK Ben Tek
CK chill
CK2 boys

2015 ck2 fragrance

For the ck2 unisex fragrance CK launched a campaign in 2015 that featured both male and female couples.

From Russia, with hate. The company was accused of violating the Russian ‘Gay Propaganda’ law. Pink News reported: “The advertisement – which features two same-sex couples – has been reported to authorities in the country for allegedly containing “elements of propaganda of homosexuality and paedophilia”. The ad features a same-sex male couple riding on a motorcycle shirtless, while a lesbian couple bare their breasts on a highway. However, while both straight couples in the advert kiss in the video, the same-sex couples do not.”

About sexual marketing and Calvin, the person

Quotations from Calvin Klein about the sexual marketing, advertising and sales of the Calvin Klein brand:

  • “I'm not a drug addict. My wild period wasn't about drugs; it was about sexual freedom.”
  • “I'm a sexual person, and that's reflected in my clothes and my advertisements.”
  • “I'm not selling sex. I'm selling underwear and jeans, and I'm not trying to do it with pornography.”
  • “My men's-underwear print ads are very popular!”
  • “People read things into my commercials that don't even exist.”
  • “It's fun seeing my label on someone's behind - I like that.”
  • “The only way to advertise is by not focusing on the product.”
  • “The best thing is to look natural, but it takes makeup to look natural.”

  • “There are a lot of gay people in fashion, but it's not as if every gay person is a great creator.” 

Thus spoke Calvin Klein.

Also read my blog about Justin Bieber, launched as CK model.