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NEW YORK — Kalman Ruttenstein, Bloomingdale’s senior vice president of fashion direction, a savvy trendspotter and merchandiser who was passionate about mentoring young designers, died of complications from cancer Thursday at The Mount Sinai Medical Center here. He was 69.
Ruttenstein, known as Kal, was the guardian of Bloomingdale’s fashion image for almost three decades and was pivotal in building the chain’s reputation.
Among the designers to whom he was closest and whose careers he nurtured were Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Isaac Mizrahi, Zac Posen, Sean “Diddy” Combs and Marc Jacobs.
“Kal has been my friend on a personal and business level for the past 14 years,” said Michael Gould, chairman and chief executive officer of Bloomingdale’s. “He’s been my mentor at Bloomingdale’s and he has been an integral part of what has made Bloomingdale’s different from all other stores. What’s made Bloomingdale’s different has been its people, and Kal symbolizes that as much, if not more than, anyone else. He will be missed dearly, but his legacy will only grow greater with each passing day.”
Ruttenstein, possibly the country’s best-known fashion director, brought excitement and a sense of theater to the selling floor by organizing special events, shops and window displays inspired by Hollywood and Broadway productions such as “Hairspray” and “Moulin Rouge.” Last October, Bloomingdale’s put up a “Rent” shop weeks in advance of the release of the movie and had the cast in the store for the ribbon cutting, attracting a crowd of hundreds. Ruttenstein befriended some of the actors, saying he had seen the musical 33 times. The shops featured unusual outfits mixing expensive and inexpensive items.
In 2001, he developed a shop based on “Mamma Mia!,” another Broadway musical, though it was more the music and the spirit of the show, rather than the costumes, that inspired him to get designers to create what he termed a Seventies casual-wedding look with tuxedo separates and off-the-shoulder gowns, as well as a sexy assortment of dressy peasant tops, hip-hugging bell-bottom jeans, strapless dresses, miniskirts and bright Moroccan-style shirts.
Ruttenstein distinguished himself by working directly with designers and manufacturers such as Posen, Betsey Johnson, Theory, Elie Tahari, Juicy Couture and Necessary Objects to create exclusive fashions for Bloomingdale’s shops and windows, and was greeted like royalty at major fashion shows.
“Traveling in Europe with him was great,” recalled Marvin Traub, former chairman and ceo of Bloomingdale’s. “I remember when we were in Milan once, he told me, ‘Marvin, I know these Italian designers. They don’t even have a showroom so you have to come up to their apartment.’ That was Dolce & Gabbana. Kal was great at identifying young talent.”
Sometimes, after being inspired by a runway look, he would get manufacturers such as A.B.S. to quickly replicate the style at a lower price point and with cheaper fabric and have the merchandise featured in the windows before the real designer clothes arrived at other New York stores. While that established Bloomingdale’s as first out with the latest looks, it caused friction with certain designers who complained about the practice.
“Kal was uniquely able to filter all the ideas off the runways down to the four or five most important trends, and therefore enable the store to take a stand and have impact on the selling floors,” said Terry Lundgren, chairman and ceo of Federated Department Stores, the parent of Bloomingdale’s and Macy’s. “Through his recaps and reviews to the merchants organization, he could show you the way. He had such respect in our company. He had a tremendous following, in the worlds of fashion and entertainment.”
A large, lumbering man, Ruttenstein always kept his sharp fashion wit and high profile. He was opinionated, droll and occasionally cranky, and would play to the fashion crowds by appearing in a tracksuit and bright, silvery track shoes, holding a battery-powered fan as he awaited the start of a fashion show.
His modest office, tucked away off the third-floor elevators of the Bloomingdale’s 59th Street flagship, belied his reputation. He more than compensated for the austerity by adorning his desk and shelves with photos of himself with celebrities and major designers such as Diane von Furstenberg, and bringing in models for fashion shoots featuring his latest promotion.
Outside the store he kept his visibility high, but more so by appearing at an edgy nightspot such as Freeman’s, which is hidden in an alleyway on New York’s Lower East Side, or a hot restaurant such as Balthazar in SoHo or Spice Market in the West Village, where he would hold court. Pasta at Da Silvano was much more his style, rather than an industry black-tie event.
Ruttenstein was honored many times for his achievements. In 2002, he received the Eleanor Lambert Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America for a unique contribution to the world of fashion, and France named him a Chevalier of the Legion d’Honneur.
In 1997, Ruttenstein suffered a severe stroke. Despite his reduced mobility, he was back on the job three months later, walking slowly with a cane and traveling to Europe to take his front-row seat at the Paris and Milan collections as well as the designer shows in New York.
Demonstrating humor in the face of his physical challenges, Ruttenstein would describe his condition as “my snowboarding accident.” During this year’s collections and at recent events in the store, Ruttenstein appeared to be laboring more, but maintained his enthusiasm and determination to be part of the scene.
Gould said Ruttenstein’s contribution extended beyond the merchandise. “Kal’s greatest strength wasn’t in picking the merchandise. In my mind, it was mentoring people and the ability to visualize what could be and implement what was to be. He’s just irreplaceable.”
In April 2003, The Phoenix House, the drug and alcohol treatment center, staged a fund-raiser at which Ruttenstein was honored. Six hundred designers, manufacturers and retailers, competitors and colleagues packed the Grand Ballroom at The Plaza. “The greatest thing about Kal is that he’s always curious,” Michael Kors said at the event. “To be hip, and to stay in fashion, you’ve got to be always curious.”
At the same party, Barneys New York creative director Simon Doonan said, “He transcends the competitive rage of New York. We all love Kal.”
Although he lived on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Ruttenstein’s evening routine generally took him downtown, away from establishment venues. “I always get a table with a lot of traffic at whatever are the hot restaurants of the moment,” Ruttenstein once said in an interview. “Restaurants are the discotheques of the first decade of the new century, and I have to be out there to see what everyone is wearing.”
Ruttenstein grew up in Buffalo, N.Y., where his family owned three women’s ready-to-wear shops. He said his interest in fashion flowered during his undergraduate studies at Princeton University, where he was a creative writing major. Princeton introduced him to a preppy collegiate look that he loved at that time: madras shirts, khaki shorts and three-piece tweed suits from Brooks Brothers, though later, his tastes were more daring.
Ruttenstein earned an MBA from Columbia Business School, which he always joked about. “Don’t tell anyone about my MBA. It’s bad for my image,” he would say.
Ruttenstein got what he considered another education when he started working at Lord & Taylor around 1960 as a buyer of women’s suits and dresses. At the time, L&T was selling authorized copies of designer couture, and Ruttenstein seized the moment by bringing back Yves Saint Laurent suit replicas and garnering a lot of attention from competitors. It was at L&T where Ruttenstein established his buying skills and reputation, and caught the eye of Traub, then a top merchant at Bloomingdale’s.
Traub tried to recruit Ruttenstein from L&T but Ruttenstein moved on to Saks Fifth Avenue, where he was a vice president of merchandising. After Saks, Ruttenstein served for two years as president of Bonwit Teller before Traub finally lured him to Bloomingdale’s in 1977. That was when Bloomingdale’s staged lavish fall promotions that each fall would feature the fashions, food and culture of a certain region or country, such as France, Italy or China. Aside from the rich array of product, Bloomingdale’s would hold black-tie parties at its flagship here, drawing celebrities and dignitaries, as well as young designers or suppliers that Ruttenstein would uncover on his trips abroad.
At Bloomingdale’s on 59th Street, “we had an interesting system. When Kal found a talented young designer, he would invite them to lunch in the Bloomingdale’s boardroom,” Traub said citing Christian Francis Roth, Tahari and Jacobs as examples. “Typically, they didn’t have any money, so Kal hired a model and, along with our ready-to-wear [general merchandise manager] and buyers, we would work together on how to build a business with them at Bloomingdale’s.”
While always searching for the next fashion discovery, Ruttenstein also was realistic about knowing what his customers would buy. “We have to rely on the customers to tell us what they want,” he said. “We offer them things, and they’re our editors.”
He was also among the few true fashion directors left in the country, a position that has been eliminated at many stores because of cost cutting and consolidation and greater reliance on planners and financial executives. But no one considered Ruttenstein a dinosaur. Bloomingdale’s always relied on his expertise and leadership.
His fashion coverage at the store included men’s, women’s and children’s apparel and accessories, and he also would work on the ad campaigns. While he would downplay his actual authority in the store, Ruttenstein often managed to get his way by cajoling buyers and designers.
More often than not, he said in an interview, the buyers “do the things we suggest because they respect us and like us, or we gently twist their arms.”
Asked how he managed to consistently identify the “next big thing,” Ruttenstein once said: “My parents owned three women’s ready-to-wear shops in Buffalo, so maybe it was in my blood, or I just have a sense of what sells.”
The funeral will be private. Bloomingdale’s is planning a memorial service in January. Details will be announced at a later date.
— With contributions from Jessica Pallay and Jean Palmieri