- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 11, 2006

Fashion folk are supposed to have short attention spans. They’re supposed to hop from one trend to the next and keep touting the next big thing.

At the same time, the designers, retailers, stylists and editors who make up the American fashion community also have a deep devotion to their godfathers (and mothers). The crowd keeps clapping as Ralph Lauren kisses each member of his family during his runway bow, and hundreds of time-pressed people make the trip to see Donna Karan’s catwalk show even when she holds it in an inconvenient spot.

None of this should have been good news for Francisco Costa, the lucky or unlucky — depending on whom you ask — guy who took over creative duties at Calvin Klein when the house’s namesake designer left almost three years ago.

Yet Mr. Costa persevered.

The industry patiently stood by as Mr. Costa got off to an underwhelming start with his early collections. The reward was a spring 2006 presentation that was one of the best of the season.

“I just felt like his last collection had real currency to it,” says Cindi Leive, editor in chief of Glamour. “It was predictive of everything that followed — all the big trends were there: floaty, away-from-your-body shapes; beautiful bell shapes; sheer fabrics; beautiful details; and 857 varieties of white.”

W magazine’s Bridget Foley put it on her top 10 list alongside Balenciaga, Prada and Marc Jacobs, and Mr. Costa’s white dresses — which skillfully blended Calvin Klein’s signature minimalism with softer lines — were called “dreamy,” “exemplar” and “ethereal” by other reviewers.

“The most recent collection was a great blend of what I like and what the house represents. The clean, easy palette is Calvin Klein. The shapes, the shirts, the use of cotton — all Calvin Klein. The lightness and the white, that was me,” Mr. Costa says.

Sitting in his small, spare square of an office “decorated” with piles of photography books, Mr. Costa retraces his unusual journey from the mountains in Brazil to the headquarters of one of the most celebrated and well-known fashion brands, owned by corporate behemoth Phillips Van Heusen.

“The environment I grew up in was very simple. It was very beautiful, but because of the climate, everyone was always in a white shirt. I never saw my sister in color,” he says.

He learned about using color in fashion from Oscar de la Renta, for whom Mr. Costa served as an assistant for seven years after moving to New York to study at Hunter College and then the Fashion Institute of Technology. “My dad thought I was crazy to come to New York to do fashion,” he recalls.

“I didn’t love New York City at first. I thought it was dirty and ugly, but now home wouldn’t be anywhere else. I’ve been here longer than Brazil. New Yorkers are so welcoming. If you work, you get it back.”

Mr. Costa also has a weekend house in Bellport, N.Y., on Long Island, where he’s an avid gardener during the summer.

The 40-year-old, who speaks Portuguese, Italian and “a little English,” lived in Paris for a while, working for Tom Ford at Gucci for four years. “I understand French, but it’s not my forte,” he says with a laugh.

Mr. Costa then worked alongside Mr. Klein for 13 months, and it was Mr. Klein who encouraged Mr. Costa to go for the big job after Mr. Klein announced his departure.

“I imagine when he was interviewing me, he was searching for someone he’d feel comfortable with to take over someday,” Mr. Costa says. “It was amazing what happened to me.”

Though he hasn’t attended the most recent runway shows, Mr. Klein still occasionally sends Mr. Costa a book or recommends an art exhibit.

Mr. Costa “completely makes sense for Calvin Klein. You absolutely knew that this last show was a Calvin show,” Miss Leive says. “It was cool and lean, had soft fabrics, nothing stiff and nothing difficult. It was not aggressive, not hard and not overly sexy. That’s the Calvin Klein way of dressing. Despite the sexy ads and reputation, the clothes are actually more beautiful and polished and sensual than anything else.”

Ever since he started sketching his first solo collection, Mr. Costa has immersed himself in lessons about architecture and nature — things important to both Calvin Klein the brand and Calvin Klein the man. He also recently started exploring furniture design.

“What I don’t know is what excites me. I’m learning about 18th-century furniture, 1930s furniture, furniture now,” he explains. The upcoming fall collection also takes a cue from the ski lodge. It’s another thing in which Mr. Costa is hardly an expert.

“I’ve done 15 kilometers (slightly more than nine miles) of cross-country skiing — once. It all seemed uphill; I kept wondering when we’d go downhill.”

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