In the 1970s, Calvin Klein’s prominence as a designer was unquestionably on the rise.
By 1978, Klein was due to launch a fragrance, and his denim collection was also set to land in stores. These releases were due on February 3, 1978, the same fateful day the daughter of Calvin, Marci Klein, was kidnapped in New York City.
On the day, 11-year-old Marci Klein met her babysitter, Paule Ransay Lewis, on Marci’s way home from school, noted by a Times Daily report from Febuary 5, 1978. According to ‘Obsession: The Life and Times of Calvin Klein,’ which used FBI reports to reconstruct the event, Ransay Lewis tricked Marci Klein with a story that her father Calvin was in poor health, and that she was to take Marci to Mount Sinai Hospital to visit Calvin. En route, Marci was taken instead to Lewis’ apartment in Manhattan.
It was here where Marci was held captive by Paule and her teenage half-brother, Dominique Ransay, for nine hours. Paule detained Marci in part by insisting there were two bigger men waiting in a separate room, blocking her exit. The half-siblings then called Calvin Klein, demanding $100,000 in $20 bills by the same afternoon. Calvin wasted no time in notifying the police, and given the designer’s public status, the FBI were also involved. The relatively small ransom (Klein’s eponymous brand took in revenues of $17 million in 1975) was an important clue for the police, indicating the kidnappers certainly weren’t professionals.
The FBI turned to Calvin Klein’s longtime business partner Barry Schwartz to drop the money, first spraying it with an invisible chemical that would reveal the kidnappers’ fingerprints if the bills were used. After the money was dropped, Calvin himself went with a massive FBI squad to perform a sting operation at the location where his daughter was being held. Vanity Fair tells Marci’s account:
“All of a sudden I hear him screaming my name. I hear him banging, banging, banging on all these doors.” Klein was in the hallway of the building where Marci had been left, but the kidnappers had given him the wrong apartment number. “I ran out and I saw him and I jumped into his arms. I’ve never felt so safe in my life.”
The New York Daily News caught wind of the operation while monitoring the open radio frequencies of the FBI, and once they discovered the details, they dispatched a photojournalist to capture the story as it happened.
The ordeal quickly circulated through worldwide news publications, appearing not only in the New York Daily News, but also The New York Times (appearing on the front page for three straight days), Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, United Press International and mostly every TV network in the United States. Calvin would later call this day the worst of his life. A press conference was held, during which Klein expressed his displeasure with photographs taken by The New York Daily News, stating that taking pictures of a live situation acted to endanger his daughter’s life. A trial took place, during which Paule Ransay claimed that she and Klein were lovers, and the two arranged the kidnapping together. In the end, the alleged perpetrators plead guilty, and were sentenced to more than eight years in prison, according to a November 1 United Press International report.
Following the incident, sales of Calvin Klein skyrocketed. Klein’s denim range experienced instant success, selling out in all stockists, while renowned New York retailer Saks Fifth Avenue ordered a restock of 30,000 units clearing the previous stock in six days. Calvin Klein Jeans became the second-best selling designer jeans, only behind Gloria Vanderbilt.
Of course it’s difficult to qualify how press from the ordeal could have contributed to Calvin Klein’s sales at the time, but having his name in headlines around the country helped instill him as a household name.