Anne-ticipation

TIMES FASHION WRITER

Every September, the fall issues of major American fashion magazines land at newsstands. As fat as big-city phone directories, their glossy pages are chockablock with photographs of smiling, lanky girls; pouty, lanky girls; vacuous and inscrutable lanky girls, all dressed in the precisely styled thing that proclaims, "This is 1998, and I know exactly what to wear."

Amid a sea of cashmere, shiny watches and ruby lipstick, a stark picture of a woman, her black-jacketed back to the camera as she stares out a window, commands attention. Her broad shoulders announce that she is a person of authority. She holds a pair of glasses in her right hand; strands of her expensively tinted hair frame a discreet pearl earring. But more striking than her wardrobe or grooming is the impression that she has something serious on her mind. This is a woman of substance. Two words stretch across the bottom of the page, just beneath her trim behind: ANNE KLEIN.

The next page and a whopping 30 advertising pages that follow feature real women, not professional models, wearing Anne Klein clothes and accessories. The Significant Woman, as the new management at the recently tarnished company have named their $7-million campaign, celebrates women of achievement.

There are no business school models for such a comeback push. No other clothing company was once the undisputed leader in its category, saw its competitors gobble away at its position, lost a series of designers and yet survived with incredibly high name recognition and enough capital and determination to try to reclaim its status. Searching for a comparison, Laura Wenke, Anne Klein vice president of marketing and communications, talked about the computer industry.

"I see some parallels between our situation and Macintosh," she said. "They were innovators with tremendous strength in their field, but then they were overrun by IBM. But maybe that isn't a good example, because they haven't come back. We expect to."

The new ads Wenke designed to jockey for attention in those bloated magazines are part of an extensive strategy that included hiring new designers, changing the name on the label and giving birth to new company divisions while mercy-killing others.

Celebrity photographer Annie Leibovitz was hired to shoot tableaux of women ranging in age from 27 to 70. A size 14 politician posed next to a size 2 ballerina. A professional basketball player, high-tech entrepreneur, novelist and medical researcher--30 diverse women in all--faced the camera wearing deliberately nonchalant combinations of leather, wool, corduroy and velvet. But their most important job was to project the philosophy of the campaign: that intelligence, imagination and conviction give a woman substance, and that no matter what a woman wears or does, without substance, there is no real style.

The architects of the turnaround call their effort "reimaging," an apt term in an industry in which a product is rarely trusted to be inherently desirable so marketing bears the responsibility for seducing the consumer.

Their labors constitute the latest chapter in the roller-coaster history of Anne Klein. That story is nothing less than a chronicle of the last 30 years of the business of American fashion.

Dramatic Breakdown

The tale of Anne Klein contains no dearth of drama, so it is only fitting that the act currently in play was introduced in advertisements composed of brief scenes.

"INTERIOR-DAY-ANNE KLEIN STUDIO-7:02 A.M."

"I had the dream again last night."

"Wow. What did she say this time?"

"Patio pajamas."

"Genius. And you're sure it wasn't Polly Mellen?"

"I'm sure."

"Spooky. But fabulous. Anything else?"

"Yeah. Never forget whose name is on the label."

"Let's get back to work."

The characters in this playlet, one of a series that ran in apparel trade publications last winter, are Ken Kaufman and Isaac Franco, a team of designers recruited by Anne Klein in January 1997. Polly Mellen is probably New York's oldest living fashion editor, a woman given to sweeping pronouncements such as "patio pajamas," uttered as if they were the answer to "What is the meaning of life?" The mysterious "she" is Anne Klein of course, who died in 1974, but whose name is, indeed, still on the label.

Everyone at Anne Klein calls Kaufman, 34, and Franco, 33, "the Boys." A team since Kaufman hired Franco for his first job out of Parson's School of Design, they have worked for Bob Mackie and Valentino. Before coming to Anne Klein, they brought Emanuel / Emanuel Ungaro--an American manufacturer whose only connection to the Parisian designer is the use of his name--from annual sales of $2 million to $110 million in five years, the equivalent of a race car soaring from zero to 60 in a nanosecond.

Their mission at Anne Klein is to return the label to its former glory. And what a glory it was.

Anne Klein founded the company with her second husband and two business partners in 1968. Already a successful designer for the Junior Sophisticates label, she brought her namesake company into a world in which American designers weren't yet known to the public and in which a wide river of traditional business practices separated dress manufacturers from those who made skirts, jackets or blouses.

Klein's revolutionary idea was to sell women a complete wardrobe.

Stores weren't used to buying coordinated pieces from one company and displaying them in a single department. Klein saw the practicality of offering women a range of sportswear and showed both the stores and their customers how four or five well-designed garments could be combined into a number of outfits, then mixed with new items every season.

Shoppers were more adaptable than the stores knew, and they understood how to create an individual look by choosing from the variety of styles Klein presented.

"Anne Klein is always thought of as the ultimate classicist," Franco said, "someone who did a black and white houndstooth blazer and put it with a red turtleneck and a black skirt. But we went back to the archives and looked at her early sketches. Some of them were wild. She was doing ethnic looks--sarong skirts before anyone, fringed leathers and big plaids cut on the bias. It wasn't all dumb-dumb blazers."

In March 1974, Anne Klein died of breast cancer at 52. Her talented assistant, an effusive 26-year-old design school dropout from Long Island named Donna Karan, was suddenly the understudy shoved into the footlight's glare. Karan enlisted her friend Louis Dell 'Olio to help her, and together they presided over boom years for the company.

Just their luck that unprecedented numbers of women were leaving home to go to work. The new business class didn't have the sort of professional-looking clothes that they suddenly needed. Frank Mori, president of Takiyho, Anne Klein's parent company, has been with Anne Klein since 1975.

"We happened to be offering American sportswear, which was the backbone of any woman's wardrobe," he said. "And it just happened to be a time when a lot of women were becoming an important part of the work force. But we didn't sit down and say, 'Let's make career clothes.' "

Or more specifically, clothes for very successful careerists. Women in management and secretaries with trust funds or sugar daddies were probably the only ones who could have afforded the Anne Klein Collection by Karan and Dell 'Olio. It was the equivalent, in cost and sophistication, of the top of Ralph Lauren's or Calvin Klein's lines. If the price tags didn't define it as rarefied, its location in stores did.

Department stores, which in that era were more numerous and varied than they are now, (remember Bullock's Wilshire, I. Magnin, Bonwit Teller?) sheltered designer clothes in areas where the dressing rooms were roomier, the carpet was plusher and even salespeople were sleeker. The next category down the pecking order was called 'better clothing,' but the only thing it was better than was the bottom of the heap.

"If you couldn't afford designer clothes, all you got was gray flannel suits," Mori remembers. "You weren't offered any kind of style at a lower price. We looked at the price and style differential between designer and better clothes and thought, there's a gap."

To bridge the gap, Anne Klein launched Anne Klein II in 1981, the first of what came to be known as bridge collections. Ellen Tracy, CK, DKNY, Ralph, Tahari and Emanuel / Emanuel Ungaro dominate the bridge market today, but in the early '80s, Anne Klein II had the field to itself.

It's no wonder that women welcomed it. For the first time, they had access to reasonably priced clothes with quality and panache approaching that of designer's lines.

"What we were doing with Anne Klein II was so radical that the stores didn't know where to put it," Dell 'Olio remembers. "They loved it, but it was so different from anything else out there that there was nothing to compare it to. Before Anne Klein II, at those prices women were buying dyed-to-match polyester."

Boutique Beginnings

Anne Klein II's uniqueness forced stores to build separate boutiques for it on their floors. That wave of construction followed tradition, because years earlier, when Anne Klein's sportswear concept challenged the way designer clothes had been sold, Saks Fifth Avenue built the first designer in-store boutique to house it, and it became the prototype for all those that followed.

Soon women just out of their college grubbies knew that if they invested in an Anne Klein II jacket and skirt to wear to a job interview, they couldn't blame not getting the gig on their outfit.

"The apparel industry is built on insecurity, meaning that most people don't want to take a chance that they'll wear something that someone else will look at and disapprove of," Mori said. "Anne Klein was always about the lady who trusted us, who knew that if she chose what we put in the store, she wouldn't go wrong."

It would be an oversimplification to say that from 1975 to 1991 Anne Klein had uninterrupted earnings and sales growth based on the fact that women knew the clothes would never make them look silly. But ask any woman to share fond memories of her reliable Anne Klein II interview suit, and it's likely that point will be made.

Even after other bridge lines sought a share of Anne Klein II's gold mine, and even after Karan left to design a line under her own name in 1986, sales continued to soar, reaching a peak of $170 million in 1989. And then came the fall.

"From 1989 to 1993 the whole clothing industry was going through some very hard times," said Dell 'Olio, who continued designing Anne Klein Collection and supervising Anne Klein II after Karan's departure.

During the go-go '80s, a growing population of nouveau riche depended on expensive designers to announce their arrival. Familiarity bred some contempt for secondary collections that had once been lifesavers for women beginning their careers. Bridge clothes became somewhat like Cadillacs--well made, certainly not cheap, but just not cool.

Corky Newman, an industry veteran who was CEO of California Mart and worked for Calvin Klein and Cole of California, said, "There was a lot of turmoil in the retail community, so it wasn't just Anne Klein having problems. There was a new category, called contemporary, that was a little less expensive and more fashion forward. The contemporary companies were smaller, and without the massive overheads of the big bridge companies, they could react to trends more quickly. I think the only thing you could blame Anne Klein for was firing Louis Dell 'Olio. He was a terrific designer who knew his customer and designed perfectly for her."

Dell 'Olio was fired in 1993, partially because Mori thought a new face was needed to compete in a business increasingly driven by outsized personas. Celebrities had made an indelible impact on American culture, and boundaries separating the famous from the obscure blurred. A star's hairdresser, an articulate caterer or society flower arranger could turn up in People magazine's pages as easily as a movie star. Designers, once unknown hired hands, had become superstars whose sales benefited from their carefully marketed images. Ralph Lauren implicitly promised that the self-assurance and status of the privileged class could be put on like a polo shirt. Calvin Klein sold youthful sexuality. Donna Karan's message to powerful, independent women was that being businesslike, well-dressed and sexy weren't mutually exclusive.

"We've been very inconsistent in what we've been saying to people," Mori said. "The designer as personality really overwhelmed the industry, and we weren't about names or stargazing. We were always about real clothes for real women."

But the real woman who might have rescued Anne Klein during its most troubled years was gone.

"No matter what you might say to me, I couldn't give you Anne Klein," Mori said.

Bathing Suit Scene

The flat, drab industrial village of South El Monte is home to a number of California garment manufacturers, including Sirena, a swimwear giant licensed to produce bathing suits with the Anne Klein label. On a sunny day this summer, the Boys, clad in black and carrying identical black Prada backpacks, arrive at the Sirena factory.

Their visit is far more than a courtesy call from headquarters. For hours, the New Yorkers scrutinize and tweak bathing suits scheduled to reach stores in November as two tall, tanned, size 10 fit models show them the collection. Kaufman, who has the timing and wit of a stand-up comic, considers a suit with sheer, gauzy inserts at the sides and says, "Now I know why they did cocaine in the '80s. They couldn't deal with the mesh."

As Franco crosses and uncrosses the skinny black straps that hold up another suit, Kaufman paints on a model's black Lycra-covered flank with white-out, providing a pattern for the next version of a design that doesn't quite work.

"The crotch is too wide. If it were thinner, it wouldn't bunch up," he says.

As intent as the Boys are on strap placement and crotch comfort, they are also subliminally aware of the meeting's silent agenda, which is how to design a swimsuit that expresses a designer point of view.

"We can't be schizophrenic here," Kaufman says. "We have to be focused."

Sirena is one of 13 Anne Klein licensees. (Among the others are makers of shoes, belts, coats and handbags.) The licensed businesses represent $300 million in sales a year, and the royalties they bring Anne Klein for use of the highly recognizable name are substantial.

Surprisingly, the licensees have flourished, even through Anne Klein's most tumultuous times. After Dell 'Olio's exit in 1993, Los Angeles-based designer Richard Tyler took over for two years. A master tailor with a large celebrity following, Tyler seemed the perfect choice.

"No one ever understood or articulated the Anne Klein look better than Richard," Mori said. "But when he got in the design room, he could only do Richard, which was younger, sexier and more exaggerated than Anne Klein."

Tyler was fired, to be replaced by Patrick Robinson, a young American who had worked for Giorgio Armani and also, it was thought, understood classic sportswear. The fashion press judged Robinson boring and out of step. Mori responded first by firing him, then by closing down the Anne Klein Collection. The bridge collection and its casual offshoot, A-line Anne Klein, which had always been the more profitable core of the company, survived. Since the death of the Collection meant there was no Anne Klein I, the II was dropped from the secondary line's name.

Post-mortems are easy to come by. By the early '90s, an increasing number of companies were permitting employees to come to work in casual clothes, so women weren't wearing the professional wardrobes they'd spent years acquiring, and they certainly didn't need to buy new business suits. Also, just when the ranks of department stores were thinning, the door to Anne Klein's design studio had become a revolving one.

As Mori sees it, "We were sitting without a personality, and our channel of distribution narrowed. We had had only three designers in 22 years, and then, all of a sudden, we were shuffling new faces in and out every 16 months."

As long as the clothes still looked good, it wouldn't seem to matter who held the sketching pen. But it must be remembered that the success of companies like Anne Klein, and its licensees, rests heavily on image. Who's designing and what are they about? Is it sex, power, money?

In 1998, it could be about a nonthreatening, heightened reality. The Boys' mandate is to reestablish the Anne Klein image, to make sure that every bathing suit, each wallet and evening dress and knee sock, is consistent with their vision of what the Anne Klein customer wants. And that brings us right back to the 30 Significant Women and their reality message.

The impression they give is that they don't really care about clothes a great deal. What they wear is smart, simple, serviceable, but it isn't distracting. In fact, so sure are these women of their identities that they'll choose to be slightly out of style, if they feel like it. Like Broadway actress Bebe Neuwirth, flaunting her dancer's legs in a skirt that's a good four inches shorter than the kneecap length women who want to look fashion-savvy will wear this season.

If clothes don't matter that much, what does? Accomplishment, personal fulfillment, peace of mind. And if those values have a boomer ring to them, so much the better. Because women on the far side of 40 are one of the groups least served by the fashion industry today. Maybe Anne Klein, once again, is on to something.

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