What's behind that eerily wholesome ad campaign?

Calvin Klein: Sneaky Clean

Is it the end of Calvin Klein‘s image as we know it? Famous for titillating ad campaigns, the designer rolled out a series of ads last month that are making fans wonder if Klein has been Stepford-ized.

According to Klein spokesman Robert Triefus, the ads reflect ”a new romantic, more upbeat feel for [Calvin’s] clothes.” In the spots, photographed by Steven Meisel, blue-skied mountain vistas replace the grubby basements that have been the setting of recent Klein campaigns. And Kate Moss, often so malnourished looking and morose in Klein’s showcases, strikes the healthy pose of a Camp Fire girl.

But many believe that such heavy-on-the-calcium wholesomeness is a peculiar departure for the man who made Brooke Shields a Lolita and Marky Mark a homoerotic poster boy. So, what does it all mean, Calvin? Theories abound; take your pick:

THEORY 1 Payback. Some believe the ads are Klein’s acerbic answer to the criticism he’s weathered for popularizing a dissipated, world-weary ’90s look. Less than three years ago, Klein was forced to kill a series of ads featuring young models in situations reminiscent of a porno casting call. Last spring he got slammed again when President Clinton mentioned Klein as one of the designers promoting ”heroin chic.” Sure, the new advertising looks sunny on the surface, but there’s ”something wrong,” says Lynda Pearson, co-founder of San Francisco’s Amazon Advertising agency, who points out that the models appear lifeless. ”They aren’t touching. They’re not really alive. There’s this amazing cynicism. Calvin’s saying ‘This isn’t to be believed.”’ On closer inspection, the scenery seems as fake as the ”nature” behind an animal display in a natural history museum.

THEORY 2 Take that, Tommy and Ralph. One of the ads features an American flag bundled atop a knapsack. Why would Klein call on Old Glory? Insiders believe he’s having a bit of fun at the expense of the freshly scrubbed flag-wavers in the Tommy Hilfiger and Ralph Lauren ads. Klein spokesman Triefus will only say: ”We’re certainly not about Americana. So let’s put it that way.”

THEORY 3 Recovery Chic. One novel idea is that these glowing models are just heroin chic-ers getting clean in some woodsy youth rehab clinic. Notes Richard Pandiscio, head of his own New York-based advertising and design agency: ”They seem to be on the road to recovery for whatever ails them.”

Which theory rings true? Doesn’t matter. The point is that Klein has once again succeeded in getting people talking. And he may have pulled off this latest trick surreptitiously. ”It’s very subtle,” says actor-director Vincent Gallo, who appeared in Klein’s CK Be perfume commercials. ”The people who would protest against campaigns will never be able to comprehend the subversion.” In fact, Klein’s latest rebellious stance may be so subtle that no one knows for sure if it’s really there.