NEW YORK — The war against Iraq claimed its first fashion victim on Wednesday, as Anne Klein designer Charles Nolan responded to the tense state of world affairs with a political statement of his own: "I quit."
Nolan was the seventh designer to take on the helm of the Anne Klein brand since the sportswear legend’s death in 1974, doing what retailers called an admirable job of pumping some life back into the brand — one of the best known in America — during his two years there. That recognition made his resignation all the more unusual, considering he wasn’t fired, doesn’t have another big job in the wings and doesn’t have immediate plans to launch his own label.
Instead, Nolan wants to get into politics.
"The world is a big mess and I’d like Howard Dean to be president," said Nolan, who plans to dedicate his post-fashion career to the presidential campaign of the Vermont governor, a Democratic candidate for the 2004 election.
"I’m going to take some time off, garden and work on Howard’s campaign," he said. "It’s time. I’m tired. It’s been fun and I’ve had a blast. I love making clothes, but we have somehow got to make some changes in the world. You can’t watch the news and think things are not going the wrong way. I am totally supportive of our soldiers, but I think we should have avoided this war and I feel that this administration did nothing to avoid it."
Although Nolan’s departure came as somewhat of a surprise, the company was quick to name a replacement, promoting Michael Smaldone to vice president and chief design officer. Smaldone joined Anne Klein, a division of Kasper ASL, six months ago as a vice president to direct the AK Anne Klein better-priced collections. He had previously been creative director at Elie Tahari and before that had designed for Banana Republic.
"I’ve been around this business long enough to be comfortable with the fact that creative people have different needs and desires that they want to fulfill," said John D. Idol, chairman and chief executive officer of Kasper, which is currently being shopped to prospective buyers that include a team of the company’s management. "I’m very happy for Charles, personally, because he’s one of the best people I’ve had the opportunity to work with and you can see we’re very proud of everything Charles did to contribute to our success. We’re also very encouraged with Michael Smaldone because he’s done a great job of repositioning AK. We think he will very easily step into this role."The Anne Klein brand had a wholesale net sales increase of 13.2 percent in 2002, Idol said, attributing the gains largely to Nolan’s input.
Nolan’s clean and functional designs had a lot to do with improving the perception of the brand, including the well-timed placement of a fireman’s jacket in a post-9/11 collection that underscored Anne Klein’s American heritage. He also was largely involved in selling the collection with a heavy tour of personal appearances and a lot of direct contact with customers. That was a skill he learned working with Linda Allard at Ellen Tracy for 11 years and even earlier as the designer of Blassport under Bill Blass.
The schedule took a toll on his personal life, however, as Nolan hasn’t taken a vacation for much of that time, leading him to the decision to step down from the company on a high note, much like many longtime ceo’s who have resigned from demanding positions on Wall Street or from media companies in recent months.
As for his political ambitions, Nolan said he’ll be starting out slowly, campaigning for Dean from his homes in Manhattan and on Fire Island, which he shares with his partner, Andrew Tobias, a financial writer and the treasurer of the national Democratic National Committee.
"I’ve always raised lots of money for the party and I still do," Nolan said. "I worked very hard on the Gore campaign and I dressed Tipper for her appearances. I really just felt that it’s time for something different. Sometimes, you’ve got to take a risk."