We look at the legacy of the world’s first openly marketed unisex fragrance
Popular culture might be high on the nineties now as a ubiquitous trend, but one of its era-defining beauty products born 25 years ago has stayed at the top of its game: CK One, Calvin Klein’s iconic unisex fragrance. While on paper it reads like an olfactory overdose (citrus-based with top notes of pineapple, mandarin orange, bergamot, cardamom, lemon and papaya), its blend has strongly courted mass appeal since its inception: not just because of its scent alone, but also because of its all gender allure. CK One was one of the first beauty products openly marketed as unisex: for a young, gender fluid customer as well as for those who identify as male or female. Quite simply, it was—and still is—for everyone, and its messaging reflected that democratisation: “One for all.”
Today, CK One’s packaging remains intentionally pared down, including its clean, minimal sans serif font used for the logo and the various versions of the fragrance since its initial launch. CK One’s bottle and box do not deviate from form: its frosted silhouette capped with a silver twist-off top both lack any male/female nuances. The same could be said about its essence: CK One doesn’t venture too fruity nor sweet, and it doesn’t exude overpowering masculine wood ingredients. Instead, its mix encapsulates an equal combination of floral and musk, and its creators, Alberto Morillas and Henry Fremons, striking the right balance of notes.
“When CK One originally launched in 1994, it helped redefine the boundaries of the modern fragrance because it blurred societal, gender boundaries and offered a freedom from convention and the status quo, a breaking of rules,” said Simona Cattaneo, Chief Marketing Officer, Coty Luxury, the beauty company that owns Calvin Klein fragrances, in a statement last year.
But the beauty masterminds at Calvin Klein didn’t let the fragrance just speak for itself. It needed an impactful visual campaign that would go straight to the hearts of a youthful Gen X in the 90s, its original target audience. And since Calvin Klein as a brand is no stranger to sparking controversy— think the 1980s jeans commercials with a teenage Brooke Shields purring “nothing gets between me and my Calvins” or the Mark Wahlberg and Kate Moss topless underwear images in 1992—the CK One print and television ads attracted enormous attention and seduced everyone. At its peak over 20 years ago, 20 bottles were sold per minute (now it’s 15 according to Cattaneo), and even if Gen X didn’t buy the fragrance, it certainly “bought” the messaging. CK One attempted to get “Eau de whatever” in a bottle, and at least from a monetary and creative standpoint, it worked.
Sharing his concept for the CK One campaign, shot by Steven Meisel, Calvin Klein said it was rooted in the New York arts community. “The initial vision was inspired by 1969 photography by Dick [Richard] Avedon, Andy Warhol and members of the Factory,” he says. “I wanted to capture a liberal and rebellious attitude, featuring unique people, for our anti-perfume. I knew Steven could do that.”
With the grunge trend still in full swing, Meisel infused hints of grunge into the photography with models posing with messy tresses and dressed in distressed jeans, basic tank tops and bras—or just topless. Kate Moss was front and centre, a statement in itself as Moss was the antithesis to the prolific, ultra-femme 90s supermodels like Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista. Alongside Moss was a diverse group of models including an androgynous, towering Stella Tennant and openly queer Jenny Shimizu who once dated Angelina Jolie and had been romantically linked to Madonna. Though the fashion and beauty industries have made noteworthy strides over the last 25 years with trans models like Andreja Pejić, Teddy Quinlivan and Hunter Schafer, Shimizu was a trailblazer and one of the first to bring a discussion of gender fluidity and queerness to the fore. Referencing her career, Shimizu has said, “I’m Japanese, 5’7″, a dyke, tattooed, have little hair, and I don’t wear feminine clothes. No one like me had paved the way.”
Twenty-five years on and no other gender fluid fragrance has arrested the industry in such fashion. Not Le Labo’ Santal 33 and Bergamote 22, nor Byredo’s Elevator Music, Escentric Molecules Molecule 01/Escentric 01, D.S. & Durga Vio-Volta, all Jo Malone colognes, Comme des Garçons Black Pepper, Eris’ Mx, Abel’s range of unisex fragrances. All great fragrances, but none as groundbreaking as CK One. Though how can they be? CK One represented an explosive moment in history, when Kate Moss was on the cusp of redefining what it meant to be a model, when grunge and counter culture was at its coolest, and when gender fluidity was finally emerging from the shadows. Wearing CK One was a small subversive statement one could make without having to crossover and spray a traditional men’s fragrance on a woman and vice versa. It anticipated that individual who blurred gender when those discussions weren’t so open as they are today. “I was always trying to appeal to a wide variety of people: gay, straight, young, old,” Calvin Klein told Marc Jacobs in an interview back in 2011.
CK One is still iconic, but will it remain so in the future? According to Cattaneo, today it’s all about digital and experience-based marketing. “CK One holds a market leader position, notably in Spain, Italy, Germany and China,” he says. “We are connecting with today’s millennials and Gen Z audiences through authentic digital and physical moments. Whether it’s leveraging influencers who live the DNA of CK One, or through synergies with fashion (for example, gifting at Coachella), or by innovation with plans to bring another first-to-market in fragrance in 2020.”
In the last 25 years, there have been numerous off-shoots of CK One: CK One Electric, CK One Gold, CK One Graffiti, CK One Summer, CK One Scene, and CK Be, to name a few. Some of these iterations included campaign photography that tried to mimic the look, feel, and level of fame as the original, but really, were any of them that memorable? As it goes with sex, you never forget the first one.