Francisco Costa has waited _ patiently _ to make his big splash.
He jumped in as creative director for womenswear at Calvin Klein with both feet when he was handpicked by Klein almost a decade ago, but he's been a behind-the-scenes player, slowly, steadily building up his portfolio and profile while staying true to the house's DNA of minimalist, modern design.
He has scored some big awards, including twice being named best women's designer by the Council of Fashion Designers of America and winning a national design award from the Smithsonian's Cooper-Hewitt Museum. He's also had some memorable red-carpet moments _ Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Lawrence wore his designs at last year's Oscars and Emily Blunt was dressed in Calvin Klein at the Met Gala last week _ just to name a few. Still, he doesn't make a lot of noise, and he doesn't generate the gossipy whisper campaigns that the fashion crowd often eats up.
When Costa took over, there wasn't the industry intrigue that surrounded the recent appointments of Raf Simmons at Christian Dior or Hedi Slimane at Yves Saint Laurent, although in the world of American fashion, Calvin Klein is one of the best-known pioneering names. Beyond some mixed reviews early on, there hasn't been the succession struggle that has occurred at other venerable U.S. houses such as Bill Blass or Halston.
His runway is now appointment viewing during the crowded schedule of New York Fashion Week, attracting a front row of A-listers such as Rooney Mara and Katie Holmes in recent seasons, and the clothes almost always leave a lasting impression. But a household name, he is not.
Costa has no complaints.
"The company has given me a lot of freedom from Day 1, and I have always been able to express myself. It's all gone superfast," he says. "I don't think about it as almost 10 years, I feel like I'm just starting."
Among insiders, Costa has reached the point where he no longer needs that comma and clause after his name that explains he took over for Klein when the designer sold the business. This week, he will be introduced to a much larger audience as a limited edition of dresses under the Francisco Costa for Calvin Klein label lands at Macy's stores as the centerpiece of a big retail campaign focusing on the sites, styles and colors of Brazil.
Costa, 48, was born and raised in Brazil, and it's not all the wild party atmosphere of Rio de Janeiro's Carnival, he says. He grew up in Guarani, in the state of Menais Gerais, with a backdrop of lush rainforests.
"We all stereotype Brazil as a republic of banana and pineapple prints," Costa says, "but I think of it as simple and sophisticated."
That image certainly squares better with the look he has fostered at Calvin Klein, where he plays much more with construction and angles than frilly details or anything too trendy. He leans toward sultry styles.
There's something very sexy about women who are happy and proud to show off their bodies and don't need to employ any cliches, he says.
Jennifer Lawrence's gown for the Oscars was a tomato-red, scoop-neck tank dress without a ruffle or bead on it. "She really rocked that jersey dress," the designer says with a smile. "But it's not really about the dress at all, it's about the confidence, strength and sensuality that she wore with it."
He adds: "I like it chic, understated. I like to leave a lot of room for a woman, room for her to explore who she wants to be."
For the Macy's dresses, all of which will be priced $135-$180, hundreds of dollars less than Calvin Klein Collection pieces, he was inspired by photographs of the Brazilian Sculpture Museum in Sao Paulo at sunset. "There was a lot of cement and roughness, but also finesse and luxury."
He often draws from others' images, sometimes photos, sometimes movies _ he loves movies! _ or maybe the architecture of a building, although never to the point of being obvious or literal. "I don't take tear sheets from a magazine or specific movie pictures. I'm much more likely to notice and remember how something was shot or how it was made," he explains.
Martine Reardon, chief marketing officer of Macy's, says she knew Costa was right to spearhead the project. "Francisco Costa is a visionary talent known for elegant and minimalist designs that are coveted around the world. His Brazilian heritage made him a natural choice for this special collaboration."
One of the designer's favorite looks for Macy's is a wrap dress that oozes the ease of a towel delicately wrapped around the body and pinned at the bust.
Yet nothing in his designs is taken for granted, not even something that seems simple. He considers the placement of a button, how low the armhole hangs, the exact color.
He does this at home, too: "I just painted my house in the country. I tried 18 kinds of white until I found that just-the-right shade."
(He went with Pratt & Lambert Silver Lining.)
Neutrals almost always dominate the palette he uses in his collections but there are subtle differences in a particular season's version of taupe or gray or black. He also likes the heat he'll get from strategic use of a pop of yellow or pink.
"I love working with Francisco," says Lara Stone, the spokesmodel of the Calvin Klein Collection. "He's a perfectionist and knows exactly how to make a woman look her best. I always feel strong, sexy and confident in his designs."
Working with top models and movie stars, and even working the red carpet himself has posed some of his greatest challenges in his Calvin Klein tenure. His training is in a craft not the media, after all. Costa attended fashion college courses in Rio, at the Fashion Institute of Technology when he moved to New York in 1985, and then worked for Oscar de la Renta.
The business side has come pretty naturally, too, Costa says, especially as he learns more about the changing luxury marketplace and the similarities and differences of customers who live all over the world. He loves to visit stores _ and numbers don't scare him.
He's not sure he'll ever feel comfortable about the celebrity aspect of the business.
"I'm product-oriented. I know every seam, every detail. But I've also become a bit of a spokesman to the public, and I never thought that would be part of it, and I never thought about it before I had to do it," Costa says. "But I also understand that more exposure means more dresses and more press. I just want the most talented, beautiful girls wearing the clothes and communicating how good she feels _ in your language _ to all the other women."
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