Horses are as diverse as people according to photographer and horse enthusiast, Kelly Klein, whose lifelong love affair with the large, four-legged creatures is documented in her book, Horse.
Text Frederik Bjerregaard Photography Tom Chambers , Inez van Lamsweerde and Vinodh Matadin, Arthur Elgort, Norman Parkinson, Fabio Chizzolay and Loomis Dean / The Horse Rider’s Journal No. 1
“It was around Christmas that my father brought a pony home for me. I believe he bought it at a market for about 25 dollars. I was four but clearly remember its spotted, scruffy coat. It was by no means a beautiful horse, but I adored it more than I had ever adored anything else,” explains Kelly Klein.
“It was a question of complete and uncondi-tional love – a love that has persisted since then.”
Horses – from smaller ponies to large, thoroughbreds – have been Kelly Klein’s true lifelong companions and a stabilising force in a sometimes turbulent life in New York; a life in which she has been particularly well known for her long-lasting marriage to one of the most notable and successful designers of our time, Calvin Klein.
Kelly and Calvin Klein were a part of the New York jetset and regular faces on the pages of international magazines since they met in the mid 80s to their divorce five years ago. Nevertheless, there has never been any doubt that Kelly is more than Mrs Calvin Klein. Long before she met the successful designer, she lived a life on first-name terms with artists and business moguls. Her marriage to Calvin Klein, however, transformed her into a famous socialite, and people still turn their heads when she walks through SoHo or travels around the US visiting the most esteemed riding arenas.
Although Kelly Klein has turned 50 and has lived a more secluded life in recent years, she is still a complex acquaintance who – besides her cat-like features and athletic frame – also radiates an almost frightening strength; a strength that comes from having made some radical choices in her life. Most recently before her 50th birthday, when she decided to start afresh and cut all ties to the kind of life she had had since the late 70s. Following her divorce from Calvin Klein in 2006 she stopped working as a designer for the house she had helped to develop over more than two decades, in order to focus on working as a freelance photographer. She then bought the farm, Five Tails, in Bridgehampton outside New York, where her competition horses had been stabled for years. It was time for her horses to receive more attention.
The most important indicator of Kelly Klein’s new life came in 2007 when she announced that she was expecting a son.
“I had wanted to have a child for a long time, but I kept putting it off. I wanted to have a career, I wanted to travel, I wanted to ride. The desire suddenly became stronger. I now had time to focus.”
Without a husband and having reached a mature age, however, her wish carried inherent complications; so in the end Kelly Klein had her first child with the help of a surrogate mother.
Kelly Klein’s days now consist of photo shoots, gala parties, charity dinners and show jumping competitions throughout the US – and her daily life with her son, Lukas. She endeavours to spend time with her horses every day, and they remain a source of eternal fascination:
“My love of horses is an indescribable feeling. I will never quite understand what it is that drives young girls to get up at five o’clock in the morning to spend a little time with their horses before school. What is it that makes us throw ourselves into neck-breaking manoeuvres in a show jumping arena? It is like an uncontrollable drive. My love of horses has been the only constant factor in my life. I love everything about them: their smell, temperament, their large, friendly eyes, their warm breath, their muscles – everything.”
Kelly Klein was born in the industrial city of Detroit in 1957. The family quickly moved eastward to the more idyllic and fashionable Westport in Connecticut, north of New York, where Kelly’s mother, Gloria List, opened a gallery while her father, Tully Rector, worked as a director for a large TV company but otherwise spent most of his free time with his horses. Kelly was christened Rector and this was also the surname New York’s creative scene got to know her by when she moved to the city as a teenager in order to study at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Her career in the fashion world took off when she was hired to join the design department at Ralph Lauren. When not at work Kelly Rector was a regular guest at Steve Rubbell’s legendary Manhattan club, Studio 54, the guest list for which often included personalities like Andy Warhol, Bianca Jagger, Barry Diller, Brooke Shields and Diane von Furstenberg. This was also where she got to know Calvin Klein.
She had in fact been for a job interview at his design house but was turned down. Following a night at Studio 54, however, the tone shifted. The next morning, the designer offered the 24-year-old beauty a job as his personal assistant. The only requirement was that she should start the following day. She did. Kelly quickly became known as ‘the skin model’ in the fashion house because every time Calvin Klein needed to test fabrics, he used her wrist to see if his ideas would stick. The relationship between the designer and his young assistant quickly moved from being work-related to something more intimate. But according to the rumours of the time, Calvin Klein only pulled himself together to move things forward with Kelly Klein after Hollywood actor Warren Beatty flew her to Los Angeles for a date.
Once Calvin and Kelly Klein became a couple, their professional and private lives merged into one, allowing new creative ideas and business initiatives to develop. It was Kelly’s idea, among others, to make men’s underwear for women.
“There is something sexy about wearing your lover’s underwear,” she explained about the concept at the time. The underwear became a huge success and Calvin Klein turned over 70 million dollars in 1984 on the sale of underwear alone.
Kelly Rector and Calvin Klein were married at the city hall in Rome in 1986. Today, she rarely talks about her relationship with her ex-husband whom she formally divorced in 2006, though they remain good friends.
Today, Kelly Klein takes photographs for various American magazines and publishes photography books, the fourth of which, Horse, is perhaps the most successful. The book presents her passion for horses through beautiful images taken by some of the world’s leading photographers, such as her neighbour in Bridgehampton, Steven Klein; Bruce Weber; Patrick Demarchelier; and Helmut Newton, to name but a few. Kelly regards these photographers as both colleagues and personal friends.
“I do a lot of research and try to work with the best photographers, regardless of whether I’m producing a book on fashion, sport or architecture. In order to produce Horse, I have been to museums and delved into archives and private collections. I think I have been through 5000 images. I first cut it down to 700, then 500, and so on. It has taken two years.”
If you look through the photographs, they are not only extraordinarily good portraits of horses, but they also clearly represent the individual photographer’s distinctive style. Kelly Klein believes that horses and people have a lot in common.
“I knew that all of the photographers would choose their favourite image. Bruce Weber sent a photo of a cowboy. Patrick Demarchelier sent one of a naked woman on a horse. The story of this book is told through pictures that I love and that illustrate what a magnificent animal a horse is.”
And it certainly does not disappoint. It is difficult not to be fascinated by the muscular animal when it is portrayed in the most beautiful way, page after page, in Horse.
Kelly still rides at competition level and horses have often been a stabilising force in her at times demanding and unsettled life.
“Life goes up and down but horses stay the same. When I train I am completely focused on riding and if, on a particular day, I feel stressed or uninspired then I go riding. It helps to clear my thoughts and focus my mind,” she explains.
Kelly’s creativity is constantly evolving, as evidenced by her career shift following her time with Calvin Klein. Her life once centred on fashion but her passion for photography in particular had always been bubbling under the surface. Her book Pools gave her the opportunity to mix with established names in the industry; on a personal level, however, photography was something she had only pursued sporadically. All the same, it still came naturally to her.
“Photography is an expansion of my background in fashion. I’ve designed clothes for 15 years so, for me, photography is an extension of that. I started taking pictures and working as a photographer as soon as I left Calvin Klein,” she says.
Her hallmark as a designer and photographer is her sense of aesthetics.
“You either have it or you don’t. Some people can look through a lens and see something special; others can’t. You can take courses on the technical aspects of photography, but talent is innate. The same applies to taste. You either have good taste or you don’t. It obviously helps if you have been brought up around architecture, design and art, but I don’t think it’s something you can learn.”
In Kelly Klein’s case it is not only about talent but also about passion – an essential quality, according to Kelly: “I think passion provides strength. The ability to accomplish something in life comes from within, from what you are thinking.”
With unparalleled energy and unrivalled determination she has lived – and continues to live – her life to the fullest. As to the question of when enough is enough, she still needs a few moments to think it over:
“I ’ve always dreamt of becoming an alpine skier, just as I have long wanted to be a film director, and as a child I wanted to be an architect. The only problem has been time. There are only 24 hours in a day. In the past, I’ve focused on designing, photography and riding. And right now I am focusing on being a mum. The rest will just have to wait. But I still have my dreams.” •
ALL IMAGES (C) HORSE BY KELLY KLEIN, RIZZOLI NEW YORK, 2008