Anne Klein Roars Again, Anonymously

Consumers may sense subtle changes at Anne Klein since it was acquired by Jones Apparel Group. The new parent has a pragmatic strategy.

NEW YORK — When fall shipments of Anne Klein New York sportswear began arriving in stores last month, there were no signs announcing a big change in artistic direction, nor the departure of the latest designer personality behind the label, nor even its change of ownership. If anything, customers who have been paying close attention to the recent history of the iconic American brand might have noticed an improvement in the quality of its fabrics and construction.

The differences in Anne Klein since it was acquired by Jones Apparel Group in a bankruptcy court auction as part of the Kasper A.S.L. package may have been subtle to the outside world. But to an industry that had become accustomed to watching the brand as a runway soap opera on par with the recent bruhahas of the Gucci Group, the changeover has been more dramatic — Jones has taken a far different strategy in promoting the line than its previous owners, pulling Anne Klein away from the runways of fashion week altogether, rather than introducing another future star to take the bow.

It might not be such a great approach from the standpoint of generating buzz, but it falls more closely in line with the Jones corporate culture, where the focus is on the product and customer rather than the cult of the designer. Anne Klein competes in the bridge world of Dana Buchman, Ellen Tracy and Eileen Fisher, after all. There is no Mr. Nine West nor a real Mrs. Jones behind the Jones New York label, Jones executives point out in reference to the company’s other holdings, and Anne Klein’s history with named designers hasn’t exactly been a home run in recent seasons.

“Rather than spending half a million dollars on a fashion show, taking these collections out to the stores and working with the customers is much more important to us,” said Mark Mendelson, group president, who oversees the Jones New York Collection, Nine West Apparel and Anne Klein sportswear businesses in bridge and better. “So many times, the fashion show ends up driving the product, as opposed to the consumer.”

At a preview last week of the Anne Klein New York sportswear collection, which is the top of the many-tiered Anne Klein pyramid, Jones offered a look into its vision for the brand, which revolves around making sophisticated, accessible clothes for the working woman. That’s the same ambition with which the late Anne Klein herself founded the business in the late Sixties, catering to women who were attaining more senior jobs and didn’t want to dress like men. Following the roster of designers who have fronted the brand over the years since Klein’s death in 1974, each bringing their own egos and ideas to the equation — Donna Karan, Louis Dell’Olio, Richard Tyler, Patrick Robinson, Ken Kaufman and Isaac Franco, Charles Nolan and, most recently, Michael Smaldone for the spring 2004 season — Jones briefly toyed with continuing that tradition by hiring Nineties nameplate Christian Francis Roth, but made the decision to work with a team of designers recruited from the Jones staff.

This story first appeared in the September 27, 2004 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

There are currently two design directors working with a staff of fabric designers and specialists who focus on knits and wovens, Mendelson said, but he would not disclose their identities.

“This company is about product,” he said. “We spend all of our energy focusing on the consumer.”

Klein might have admired that position, given her feisty reputation. Jones executives, including Eileen McMaster, vice president of corporate communications, who has been with Anne Klein since the Kaufman-Franco era four years ago, have researched the roots of the brand, culling from friends a large collection of vintage designs from the house that are displayed in the new Anne Klein showroom at 1411 Broadway, along with a charcoal sketch of Klein and a famous quote from her in the foyer: “Clothes aren’t going to change the world. The women who wear them will.”

The Anne Klein designers came up with a collection that combines a similar dose of civility with spunk, such as a pale camel lace peasant skirt and blouse; a brown, drape-front bikini shown with a loose-knit pullover and gray sharkskin shorts worn with a skinny cashmere tank. One dress, a black rayon jersey dress that ties at the bosom, was re-created from an original Anne Klein design dating from around 1969, which would have been when Karan was working with Klein on the collection.

“That was a time when women started to be relevant in the workforce and not relegated to being housewives,” Mendelson said.

Mendelson is known for sharp merchandising skills, which he has developed in previous roles as president of Tahari and a vice president at Laundry by Shelli Segal. He joined Jones in 2001 and has driven gains at its various brands by keeping a sharp eye on sales by door and responding quickly to consumer demands. Anne Klein New York is the highest-priced product offering from Jones with distribution in high-end retailers like Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, plus international distribution at stores like Holt Renfrew in Canada and Harvey Nichols and Harrods in the U.K. It has the potential to become a significant volume-driver for the company and has already had a positive impact on Jones’ licensing revenues. Kasper, including the Anne Klein product it directly produced, had sales of about $200 million when it was acquired for $232.5 million by Jones last year.

The Anne Klein New York label will be a relatively small drop in the bucket, but it’s a prestigious property for Jones and could become the face of another $1 billion brand with the AK Anne Klein collection in better, Anne Klein dresses and suits and other licensed products, plus the relaunched A|Line collection for Sears. Nordstrom picked up the Anne Klein New York collection for spring, and there will be further efforts to promote the line directly to consumers, without the distractions of the runway, Mendelson said.

For instance, Anne Klein will be the apparel sponsor of Fortune Magazine’s “Most Powerful Women in Business” summit next month, where the company will host a trunk show for a crowd consisting strictly of female presidents and chief executives, selling looks from the resort and spring collections in a partnership with Saks Fifth Avenue. Separately, Bloomingdale’s and Anne Klein recently initiated an incentive program called Roar Rewards (named after the Anne Klein lion mascot) that will reward frequent shoppers with spa services through Spa Finder.

“The number one priority is how to make this a beautiful line that is fashion-right and trend-right, but definitely not trendy,” Mendelson said. “We want to be the palette upon which she can put her own personality.”