Steven Mark Klein, whose prowess infused the worlds of fashion, hotels, restaurants, branding and culture, died at the age of 70.
Klein took his life on Oct. 25, according to his ex-wife Molissa Fenley, the dancer and choreographer. A memorial is being planned for next year, Klein’s cousin Andrea Strongwater said
An independent thinker, if ever there was one, Klein was a born-and-bred Brooklynite, who studied art theory at the School of Visual Arts. A lifelong freelancer, he was able to delve into a myriad of projects by offering his style sense and interests. A cultural theorist, archivist, brand builder and mentor, Klein’s influence can be seen in trendy hotels like Thompson and the Hollywood Roosevelt, buzzy restaurants, logos and advertising for such companies as Montblanc, Iridium and Swatch. He also cowrote three books that were fantasy explorations.
In a 2017 interview, Klein said he favored the simplicity of naming a brand with a five-letter word or designing brand logos without illustrations. “So much work now is rooted in nostalgia. The internet, especially Google, reinforces younger designers to look to the past to define the present,” he said at that time.
More of a behind-the-scenes force than an in-your-face self-promoter, Klein was an unassuming style arbiter. His indelible mark on fashion will be more evident when the International Library of Fashion Research bows in Oslo next year. A 2008 Rick Owens furniture catalogue, a 2009 book about Balenciaga’s spring 2009 men’s collection and a Helmut Lang fall 2002 postcard are among the items in his trove.
Mercer Street Hospitality Group’s founder John McDonald said he has never met anyone like Klein, who “had the archival, historical knowledge at the tip of his tongue about art, fashion and social culture even as it relates to restaurants and building brands. It all just wove together in his mind in a way that was a legitimate genius-like ability to spin a web. It could be any topic. It could be his take on Bernard Arnault or his take on Gucci, and somehow it would turn into looking back at [Andy] Warhol and [Jean-Michel] Basquiat. The next thing he’s talking about is Ian Schrager. It was all really just in a mad scientist way. I don’t think there is anyone like that. I certainly don’t know them.”
Having worked with Klein on practically everything that he has done, McDonald said Klein was often one of the first people he would call to run an idea by. Lure Fishbar and Bowery Meat Company are among the brand identities that Klein helped McDonald build. “Aside from the logo stuff, he also was someone who had remarkable judgement and perspective that wasn’t clouded by groups. He was the antithesis of group thought.”
That freewheeling mindset was something Klein first tapped into in the 1990s while working for the Pritzker prize-winning architect Aldo Rossi, who would go into an empty meeting room alone, close the door, take his shoes off, and without any technology or reference books emerge hours later with 20 or 30 drawings. “He showed me I can still live my life as a dreamer,” Klein once said.
“People often have confidence but it’s not backed up with competence. His confidence was so strong because it was legitimately backed up by this just outlandishly large mind of information. Architects, architecture, you could say, ‘What about Rem Koolhaas?’ He would tell me, ‘Well, 30 years ago before Rem did this, someone else did that.’ His massive ability to give context was really quite unique,” McDonald said.
Klein spent decades collecting fashion ephemera; show invitations, advertising, look books and more provided the seed donation for the International Library of Fashion Research founder Elise by Olsen. Klein shared her appreciation for fashion printed matter and its insights into fashion publishing’s past, present and future.
Olsen was unavailable to comment Friday.
The son of a cab driver and a homemaker, Klein grew up in Brooklyn; his grandfather was a tailor. Early on, Klein worked at The Strand, a downtown bookstore in New York City that was known for its floor-to-ceiling stacks of books, before eventually running his own gallery and embarking on a lifetime of brand building.
Interested in the fine arts, Klein started collecting fashion ephemera as an extension of that. Through the years, he amassed thousands of items and memorabilia. As for where his ideas came from, Klein’s cousin Strongwater, who is an artist, said: “There’s just no way to answer that. You just live. You walk around, you do what you do, and you have ideas all the time. He was just a very creative person.
Strongwater continued: “He used to talk about everything all the time. He was very happy to have the fashion material going to the museum in Oslo. He was just very happy that he was able to help so many young people. That was a big deal to him. He was a mentor to a whole lot of people.”
To that end, Klein once said his life motto was: “Don’t wait for a breakthrough, create one.”
Fenley encountered Klein in 1979 at the Mudd Club after he asked her to dance. The couple were later married for six years and Klein served as her manager. As for what set Klein apart, his ex-wife said, “He was interested in helping people to find their way along. He could see sparks of creativity and talent. He was really interested in promoting that and also in building some kind of culture.”
Klein’s introduction to fashion was more expected. “I remember him talking about how his mother would dress he and his brother Neil up, and they would ride the subway into town to go to Macy’s and how great that was,” she said.
Klein is survived by his brother.