Francisco Costa Discusses His Post-Calvin Klein, Start-up Life, Sustainability and Possibly Returning to Fashion

Two years after his Calvin Klein exit, Francisco Costa is all about building his sustainable beauty and lifestyle brand Costa Brazil, but he hasn’t ruled out a return to fashion.
Before joining Karina Givargisoff, the founder of the fashion philanthropic media brand Mission, in a Q&A Tuesday night at The Conservatory, Costa discussed his new non-corporate life. Fittingly, Mission’s second edition focuses on the environment and is available at The Conservatory as well as the Feed store in Brooklyn, 10 Corso Como in New York and Milan and other outposts.
The pair have a shared history in that Costa was heading to the Amazon in Brazil, when he first got an e-mail from Mission magazine. “As I read the whole e-mail, I felt so inspired that I immediately reached out to her. I had never met her, although we were both in the fashion industry. I told her what I was doing off the record,” he said.
Switching from designer fashion to launch a natural beauty business is not the big leap some might think it is. “People often ask me why I am reinventing myself. I don’t think this is a reinvention. It is an extension of what I’m about. Obviously, I have a very entrepreneurial spirit and I always have. Also, I am very creative and curious. To complement that aesthetic vision, I needed to go deep to find out what made a difference. I couldn’t put a brand out there with a beautiful vessel and very empty content,” Costa said.
With this slow luxury concept, Costa aims to build a brand that “is here to stay to make it beautiful and relevant all the way. We are not in a rush. We’ve been accustomed to very high-paced. In fashion, everything is so overnight. Fast fashion and all of that is very taxing on the environment. Needless to say, the fashion industry has a tremendous impact on the environment, which I’m not so proud of — being in the industry for so long and considering myself still part of it. Here, our credo is 'beauty should be inseparable from the health of the earth.' We are doing the best we can to work with it.”
To get the company off the ground, Costa was a one-man show — a seismic shift from working at the PVH-owned Calvin Klein. Conservation International has been integral in offering guidance in dealing and sourcing from the Brazilian communities, most of which are indigenous. “I was always a one-man show. Of course, to work in a corporate environment was very different. You’re often never heard and you can’t make your own decisions many times. Here, I feel very empowered. By empowered, I mean I am very happy. I am making the right decisions. Even the wrong decisions become right in the end. Because you learn something that is viable to your business — you learn from it.”
People say, ‘You’re completely insane. Why go into beauty? It’s the most difficult business.’ No, the most difficult business I know is fashion,” he said. “This is great. Now I have the space and the time to make decisions, and not vulgar decisions. That’s what I call fast decisions. They’re not founded in menial value. To be in a sustainable business, you have to respect the environment and everybody who works with you. There is something quite nice, revealing and humbling about this.”
The way he sees it, the launch is a reflection of previous initiatives. “About 15 years ago, I believe I was the first designer house to ban fur. Now people talk about banning fur. I did that 15 years ago at Calvin,” Costa said, adding that the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum honored him in 2009 for what is essentially a sustainable collection. “It was shipped flat without packaging and it could be stacked.”
There was another knitwear collection for Calvin Klein that utilized yarns from “all the little mom-and-pop knitters in Scotland,” as well as his final collection for Calvin Klein that featured an assortment of animal prints. “So, this thought was always there. I never really thought about it, because it came very naturally. This brand feels like the wrap-up of all these great things and the beginning of many more. I really want to get deep into conservation, preservation and building a sustainable business and, hopefully, being part of a big company as well."
Costa said he had “two very important job offers when he left Calvin,” but he was too exhausted at the time. He still receives calls from time to time, but needs to focus on Costa Brazil. “I’m definitely tempted. Are you kidding me? I will definitely be doing something for sure — no question. Again, it has to be really looked at. It’s not just doing fashion. As designers, the ones that understand the craft of designing, we are more sustainable. People like myself and Narciso Rodriguez — people who know how to design clothes have an advantage, although it seems like the opposite today. I’m definitely looking forward to something else, but reinvented. The system is not a good system and it is diluted."
In terms of current talent, Loewe’s creative director earned his praise. Costa said, “I think JW Anderson is doing the best job right now. I really enjoy what he does. The Row also fills a spot. That woman is still out there.”
And Givargisoff is high on Costa. “Costa Brazil is so stylish. The name is genius. This is him, his story, his journey, his mission. I am so happy for him,” she said.
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