“The New York Billboard”: How Calvin Klein Turned a Billboard Into an Icon
Nothing in a physical billboard screams innovation. But over the past five years, Calvin Klein has made the billboard a platform to broadcast premieres: the first gay couple, the first black trans woman to Jones, and as the first plus-size woman (rapper Chika, featured in a campaign that purposefully echoed Kate Moss’ iconic CK photos).
The brand sees the billboard as a way to make a larger statement, which can result in more of these underwear being sold. “It’s really important to understand who our customer is and to understand culturally what’s going on,” says Peters, the Calvin Klein executive. There really is no better way for Calvin Klein to fit into this conversation than on the billboard. It’s a 75-by-55-foot canvas for the brand to “show their support for the things that matter to our customer,” says Peters.
The scale of the billboard means it lands like a comet, causing tremors in the modeling industry. Jones reports that she not only received more offers from models, but also saw an increase in the number of black trans models in major fashion campaigns. This was undoubtedly inspired in part by brands finally seeing the beauty (and profitability) of diversity as a result of the Black Lives Matter movement, but Jones sees his campaign as positive proof that inclusiveness has. not to cut in the bottom line. “I feel like it has had such a ripple effect, not just for my own career, but for a lot of black trans women who have tried to tap into this industry,” Jones said. “I want people to see that we can do it and that it is also a good business decision. “
But over the years, the billboard has also been at the center of controversy. In 2009, members of the American Family Association all found themselves stranded by a campaign featuring a potential foursome. In 2016, a setup describing model Klara Kristin as a “flirtatious” and rapper Fetty Wap as a “money maker” led to accusations of sexism. For Kristin, the answer meant mission accomplished. “What I remember most is the media hysteria where I found myself in the middle of a debate about sexism, which I never expected at all,” Kristin says now. “Seeing a debate on Fox News about a photo of me was quite strange. I guess the campaign has done its job. Peters understands how deliberately provocative previous campaigns can seem, but thinks a little differently about the role of the billboard. The sheer scale of the billboard means it can “challenge the status quo,” says Peters, “and I feel like any time you do that as a brand it can be called provocation”.
Provocateur, Limit Repeller, Star Maker, Mammoth Web– no matter what you call the billboard, the sum of its parts is what makes it one of New York’s most enduring landmarks. “Of course the most famous thing about SoHo is Houston Street, and I think the most important landmark on Houston Street is the Calvin Klein billboard,” says Ronnie Fieg, founder of Kith . “It serves as a beacon for people to let them know that they have officially entered SoHo. As a native of New York, this billboard has been stuck in my life for as long as I can remember. Whether you’ve been here or not, you’ve seen it in a movie, show, or magazine. This meaning still rings true for me. Fieg’s flagship store is just down the street; Kith collaborated with Calvin Klein on a collection and campaign that hit the billboard last September.
The success of the billboard is a testament to the power of endurance in a city where constant change is the norm. The SoHo luminaire has been around long enough to become nostalgic and, more concretely, a landmark for navigating the neighborhood. “When people ask for our location, we usually give our address and if customers are still confused, we often say, ‘This building with the Calvin Klein ads,’ says Helen Chiu, an executive at Win Restaurant Supply, the company that occupies the building directly below the billboard. “It’s nice to be associated with the Calvin Klein billboard.”
A place like New York doesn’t really lack landmarks. Still, Calvin Klein has managed to carve out a place for himself in the city, a tourist attraction in the heart of downtown New York. “This is our Times Square,” says designer Heron Preston. “I moved here in 2004, skating on Houston Street, avoiding traffic. He really just has this location and he has this street presence. This Calvin Klein billboard is the New York billboard.
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