Behind the Seams of Calvin Klein's Viral 'I Speak My Truth' Campaign

Shawn Mendes
Mario Sorrenti for CALVIN KLEIN

Shawn Mendes x Calvin Klein #MYCALVINS

This past February inside a cavernous Los Angeles soundstage, Brockhampton's Kevin Abstract was waltzing through a studio full of 3,000 poppy flowers as Nina Simone echoed throughout the space. "It was a beautiful moment," says director Jonas Lindstroem. "A lot of what we shot had a theatrical quality on set. You almost felt like you were in a play or opera."

Lindstroem was capturing Abstract as part of Calvin Klein's viral global brand campaign dubbed I Speak My Truth in #MyCalvins, which featured Abstract alongside a host of the buzziest young names in culture, from a shirtless Shawn Mendes to Billie Eilish on a tower of clouds, as well as A$AP Rocky, Troye Sivan and Kendall Jenner. Launched via a meticulous, multi-layered rollout of 21 spots -- which included personal narratives from each person -- and one epic ad featuring the entire cast, the massive campaign also boasted images shot by the photographer Mario Sorrenti.

"This campaign is such an important moment for the brand," says Cedric Murac, Calvin Klein's executive vice president of global creative. "The talent is so diverse. Because of that, the campaign resonates with so many different audiences. It is moving to see its content all over the Internet, but also to see the conversation it has evoked. To me that is the most important."

Calvin attracted an A-list roster of musicians for this campaign, but that's nothing new for the brand; It's a tradition dating back to Mark Wahlberg's now-iconic 1992 turn as a Calvin model (back when he was best known as rapper Marky Mark) and extending to 2017, when a tattooed Justin Bieber donned the famous underwear. "The cast for this campaign was chosen for their talents and the ability to be honest with themselves," says Murac. "They made this campaign what it is, some by being front and center with their personal narratives that haven't been given much of a platform in traditional media, and others who are already well-known but revealed a very personal, raw side that they've never shown."

Lindstroem is no stranger to high profile gigs (he directed campaigns for Hermes and Beyonce's Ivy Park, as well as Kendrick Lamar's video for "Element," after all), and he dove into brainstorming with Calvin around late December of last year. "First of all, it was exciting because Calvin Klein is a brand like no other," he explains of the company's storied history. "My perspective as a director is to continuously reshape and bring it all into our current time. What does gender and sexuality mean now and how does it translate to the brand? I was excited to push it all further." With the gargantuan task of crafting 22 scripts, Lindstroem says he and the team collaborated on at least double that amount, which provided a creative playground for the director. "We'd go back and forth fine tuning, trying to give the whole project all of these different layers while still unifying it with a visual approach. They came with a clear idea of what they wanted, but how to give it life and shape it all was a really open process. It was quite a joy to develop these films together."

After over a month of preparation, the campaign was captured over five short days in mid-February. "We shot two films per celebrity, which is four films a day jumping from scenario to scenario and idea to idea," says Lindstroem. "We tried to use our time to really craft each idea individually because that was important to me." Lindstroem points to the rapper Chika Oranika as a highlight. "I think she's one of the most inspiring people I've ever met," says Lindstroem of Oranika's spots, including one where she delivers a poem and another when she's sprawled out on a couch. Adds Murac: "Chika wrote the lyrics for her video and as we were filming she made me cry. Hearing her story and seeing her share it in that way was very emotional and it made me realize that every one of this incredible cast connects in their own way."

An overarching goal was to shoot as much as they could without faking any of the imagery. That included bringing those aforementioned few thousand poppies into the studio for Abstract, as well as casting a crowd of 300 people for Troye Sivan to float over while Berlin techno blared. "It's really tricky to single one moment out," says Lindstroem. "Seeing Kevin for the first time in the flowers was an epic moment, but also how Bella Hadid was so effortless on that horse. All of these things really had scale and I think you can see that and feel that. They're not just standing in front of a green screen."

Part of the equation was Sorrenti, the Italian photographer and longtime Calvin collaborator who was the eye behind its instantly viral shots of the shirtless Mendes and the actor Noah Centineo. "Developing imagery for Calvin Klein has always come easily for me," says Sorrenti of the task. "Even though it was such a huge production we were able to create a really intimate environment where everyone felt comfortable and inspired."

With reams of content under their belt, a three-month post-production process commenced with the team combing through all of the footage they produced shot by shot. "We had all of this content sitting under our fingertips, so it took a long time to show it to the world," says Lindstroem. One key decision during the editing process was placing Billie Eilish's thumping "Bad Guy" as the soundtrack for the centerpiece ad that features the cast of the campaign, a choice made well before the single vaulted up the charts. (It's currently No. 4 on the Hot 100.) "Billie's album still hadn't been released," says Murac of choosing the future hit. "When we were finishing the edit for this campaign, her team kindly offered us a preview to a couple tracks. As soon as we heard 'Bad Guy' we knew it was the one; the energy instantly felt right."

When the campaign initially dropped, it was anchored by Sorrenti's smoldering pictures of a shirtless Mendes which the pop star promptly posted to his Instagram to the tune of nearly seven million likes to date. The rest of the campaign merited a similar amount of attention, with the Internet marveling at the centerpiece spot featuring the entire cast. "When we were rolling out and saw the reactions to each individual piece, it's clear they all related to a different kind of audience and mean something different to everyone," muses Lindstroem of the campaign's inherent viralness. "That's the strong point of it; you can see yourself in it in one way or another. I think that's a reason why it developed this kind of scale with the audience."