August 3, 1923, is the birthdate of Anne Klein, the New York fashion designer who almost single-handedly revolutionized women's fashion, leaping beyond "cute" clothing and creating a new "casual elegant" look for women who wanted to appear sophisticated and stylish both at work and at play.
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Although her career was short, the design house that she founded and that bears her name is still flourishing more than 40 years after her death from cancer.
Anne Klein was born Hannah Golofski, in Brooklyn, New York. (She later said that she changed her name for “aesthetic reasons.”) Her father, Morris Golofski, owned a fleet of taxicabs; her mother was Esther Golofski.
Anne attended Brooklyn’s Girls’ Commercial High School, and shortly after graduating, got a job as a sketcher at the Varden Petite design studio. Eventually she came to design the company’s "Junior Miss" line of ready-to-wear for young women. During her time at Varden, she also studied for a year to the Traphagen School of Design, which provided designers with the formal technical skills the work required.
She had a mouth, too
In 1948, Golofski married Ben Klein, a businessman significantly older than herself, who had been working in the junior dress field for some time. Soon after their wedding, he called on her to redesign the fall line of a company he had recently purchased, called Junior Sophisticates. “It was the only collection I've ever seen that looked worse on living models than it did on hangers,” Anne Klein later told The New York Times.
Within three weeks, she had redone the clothes. The line became a big hit among consumers, and Anne Klein went on to become the chief designer for Junior Sophisticates.
Klein’s clothes were comfortable, and they were smart-looking. The consumer was encouraged to mix and match from the blouses, jackets, skirts and slacks, and if necessary, to buy items of different sizes. Klein explained that she hoped her customers would not “buy haphazardly, but rather with a theme of coordination.”
When Anne Klein and Ben Klein divorced, in 1958, she retired briefly from the business, only to return after her marriage to Matthew “Chip” Rubenstein, with whom she formed her own eponymous firm, in 1965.
Garbing the career woman
In the words of Robin Givhan, author of the book “The Battle for Versailles” (2015), “The new label was a full flowering of Klein’s ideas about the contemporary woman and her relationship to clothes – the desire for ease, accessibility, and sophistication. She didn’t create a line to boost a woman’s social standing or to help her land a husband. Instead she produced one of the earliest versions of chic career dressing, a luxurious mix-and-match sensibility that preceded the 1976 launch of the more down-market Liz Claiborne.”
Givhan’s book is about the benefit fashion show held at the royal palace at Versailles, France, in November 1973, which pitted five French practitioners of haute couture against five of their American peers. Klein was a controversial choice to show at Versailles. Her designs were practical, and, according to some of her critics, not imaginative enough for her to share the spotlight with her American colleagues Bill Blass, Halson, Oscar de la Renta and Stephen Burrows.
Less than four months later, on March 19, 1974, Klein would be dead, at the age of 50. She had been through a bout with breast cancer in the late 1960s, and hardnosed as she was, she was determined to leave her company in good hands so that, when she was gone, it would continue her work.
Meanwhile, she introduced a “bridge line,” Anne Klein II, which offered slightly more economical versions of her full-price designs, and she groomed her chief assistant designer, Donna Karan, to take over for her (who gave birth just eight days before Klein’s death, then found herself with six weeks to complete the designs for the company’s fall fashion line – but she pulled it off.)
In the years that followed Anne's death, the ownership of Anne Klein and Co. changed hands several times. It also had a number of different chief designers after Karan went off to start her own firm, in 1985. Today, Anne Klein is owned by the Jones Group, but it carries on the tradition of simple, smart and high quality.