Services have not yet been decided for Stein, who was 83. She died of lung cancer at her apartment on Rue de Varenne, according to Jill Kargman, a longtime friend whose father, Arie Kopelman, ran Chanel in the U.S. for 25-plus years during Stein’s tenure.
Stein started her career in the magazine world, where she developed an exacting eye and impromptu spirit at Harper’s Bazaar, Glamour and Vogue. She also steered Vera Wang into a career in fashion. Despite being part of the pinnacle of the fashion industry, Stein largely worked behind-the-scenes and received limited publicity. After W magazine ran a profile of her, Stein was “so delighted that she at least got a dollop of recognition, after decades upon decades of working in studios without her name on it. She did have her own label subsequently. But when you are in these whirlwind, hot couture houses or designer of the moment, it’s a team thing. But it’s Calvin Klein’s name on the door,” said Kargman.
Born on Long Island, Stein was “one of those people who pulled up the bridge behind her,” Kargman said. After attending the all-girls Smith College, Stein started out in fashion after being plucked by Diana Vreeland to be the millinery editor at Bazaar, according to Kargman. Emphasizing how Stein’s instinctive style and ability to adapt set her apart and rocketed her career, Kargman recalled one of the many stories Stein had told her.
”There’s a really iconic photo of Rene Russo before she was an actress. They were on some remote island back when Condé Nast had those kinds of budgets. The hairdresser was on heroin and he was so high he couldn’t even hold a brush. They were sitting there on this major expensive shoot. She [Stein] was like, ‘OK, eff this.’ She walked to the ocean, got all this water on her hands and splashed it on Rene’s hair and slicked it back in a rubber band. Then she plucked a lily and tucked it behind her ear. It is one of her most iconic things,” Kargman said.
Stein also styled Beverly Johnson’s August 1974 Vogue cover that was shot by Francesco Scavullo. The milestone made Johnson the first African American woman to land the American cover of the magazine.
Johnson described Stein as “one of the most revered fashion editors at Vogue.” Referring to her historical American Vogue cover, Johnson said, “Frances was a perfectionist. As I looked down at her, she tied and untied the rust-colored scarf with a jewel pin on me maybe close to 50 times, until she felt it was just right. When the shoot was going brilliantly along, she was talkative and full of focused energy. As she dodged in to turn a collar down, she whispered to me, ‘You’re doing great, just beautiful!’”
Johnson, the creator of “The Beverly Johnson Rule,” which calls on corporations to commit to interview at least two Black professionals for every job opening, said of Stein, “She was an artist. She leaves a great legacy of work.”
Wang said Wednesday, “If my mother Florence was my inspiration for a career in fashion, my mentor and cheerleader was Frances Patiky Stein, then fashion director of American Vogue. I was selling collection and dressing the windows on Madison Avenue at Yves Saint Laurent Rive Gauche as a summer job, during college. Frances in all her insane style, precise vocabulary and affection for me became my client…yes client and then recruiter.”
The designer recalled Stein telling her, “’Vera when you get done with college (Sarah Lawrence) give me a call.’ So I did and I interviewed with Muriel Hobson and the great Mary Campbell. That is how my dream of being in fashion morphed into reality.”
Wang described Stein as “talented beyond words, tempestuous and passionate, and powerful in her presence…a force to be reckoned with but a genius.” While working as an assistant at Vogue, Stein gave Wang her first chance to supervise a fashion shoot, “albeit for Vogue Fashion Guide…a how-to [publication] and Barbara Bersell’s Vogue Shop Hound.”
Wang said, “If I have survived fashion and still am impassioned these 50 years later, it is so much in part to Frances and her belief in me. I am so excited by fashion yet saddened by this generational changing of the guard.”
Klein was not immediately available for comment.
Stein’s signature mystique involved wearing sunglasses indoors, piling on layers and wearing chunky jewelry.
“She made her own style and lived outside of the trends. She was just innately chic. Every time I went anywhere with her I was like, ‘I need to break down every single detail on your person because it’s just so cool.’ She would be like, ‘Oh, I found it in a hut on a random island of Greece I’d never heard of,’” Kargman said. “She was so well-traveled.” (For the past decade or so, Stein summered on the Greek island of Paros, where she owned a home.)
In the mid-’60s, Stein worked as a fashion editor at Glamour, where she caught the eye of then art director Niki Denhof. By 1968, Stein switched tracks and became one of the partners that joined Halston in launching Halston Ltd. Joel Schumacher (in his pre-Hollywood, post-Youth Kick designer days) and former Macy’s executive Joanne Creveling were the others. Halston said at that time, “We like to call ourselves a ‘Think Tank’ and each one of us represents a very specific point of view. Take Frances. She looks at clothes with an editor’s point of view.’”
In the ’70s, Stein returned to the editorial side of fashion, joining Vogue at the age of 29. In August 1976, she exited the Condé Nast magazine as senior editor and took a month off before joining Calvin Klein as director of the design studio. In that post, Stein took over some of the responsibilities handled by Klein and his team, including coordinating the collections for all licenses.
Stein later relocated to Paris, where she had her own accessories line at one point. Her breakout role, though, was as Chanel’s head jewelry designer, a post she held for many years. A Chanel spokesman said Tuesday that Stein was “indeed responsible for the accessories of Chanel from the beginning of the ’80s until the beginning of the 2000s. Maison Chanel salutes her memory and joins in the grief of her family and loved ones.”
Stein’s designs — classic Chanel ballet flats, gold chain bags and everything you think of that is Chanel — were “major bottom-line successes,” which made Karl Lagerfeld so jealous that he started his own accessories studio within Chanel, according to Kargman. “Originally, when my dad started there in ‘84, she said, ‘Yeah, I do the hats, bags, gloves, scarves, sunglasses.’ It was so cool. I would go through everything at the studio and see what she made, how she did it and look at mood boards.”
Kargman said she and Stein often spoke about the rivalry with Lagerfeld over the accessories. Stein’s designs were immediately recognizable compared to Lagerfeld’s, Kargman said. The popularity of her designs led to knockoffs, which prompted Lagerfeld to quip, “’Every woman can buy them in the supermarket now. They sell them at the Monoprix,'” she said.
Occasionally, a design’s provenance would befuddle Kargman. After inquiring about a Space Age boot, Stein looked at Kargman with a “death stare and said, ‘I do not design hooves.’”
Defining as her run at Chanel was for her career, Stein and Lagerfeld locked horns at times. In an October 1985 interview with WWD, the designer aired resentment that Stein designed ready-to-wear separates in the Chanel accessories collection that was sold apart from his own ready-to-wear for the house. Lagerfeld also sounded off about her manners. “One of the things that I can’t tolerate about Chanel is the way it tolerates her rudeness. She screams at the people, who work with her and I think that is the lowest thing in life,” he said at the time.
Stein wasn’t afraid to delve into the untraditional at Chanel, as evidenced in a magnifying glass on an 84-inch chain and a jeweled lariat. Rhinestone broaches and earrings were meant for day or night. Stein added another dimension to her designs in how they were styled such as laying a jeweled drop necklace over a soft tie and tucking in the aforementioned ultra-long necklace into a breast pocket or a waist one.
After erroneous press reports in 1988 said that Stein was no longer working for Chanel, Kopelman stepped forward to clear things up. Stein was still working as Chanel’s artistic director/accessories and designing the women’s accessories lines, he said. “The accessories shown in the prêt-à-porter and couture defiles in Paris are created by the Studio Chanel in Paris,” Kopelman said. He further noted that the accessories shown in the Paris fashion shows were apart from the work done by Stein.
Former model and “Halstonette” Chris Royer said, “Frances Stein was a multitalented artist who was so forward-thinking in her design for women. When she worked with Halston, Vogue, Calvin Klein, Chanel and more, you could always see Frances’ chic and timeless design influences.”
The ever-chic Stein was on the scene after-hours for starrier galas, whether they be a designer-fueled finale dinner to cap off the Paris shows or a not-to-miss night on the New York social calendar. In October 1976, Stein joined Klein at a black-tie dinner at the White House during the Carter administration in honor of famed choreographer Martha Graham. She was on the arm of the designer again the following year for the star-studded opening of “Vanity Fair” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute, where the other members of the well-dressed set included Carolina Herrera, Mary McFadden, Marina Schiano and Giorgio Sant’Angelo, Bill Blass and Diana Vreeland.
Like her former employers Halston and Klein, Stein appreciated the beauty in minimalist designs. Bergdorf Goodman’s former president Dawn Mello was one of Stein’s supporters, telling WWD in 1989, “She is a proven talent, having developed an extraordinary concept for Chanel accessories and shoes. Her concept for her own line is based on classic simplicity, targeted toward a woman who appreciates a refinement and quality rarely found in simplicity.”
In a 2013 article with Vogue Australia, Wang recalled selling clothes to Stein at the Yves Saint Laurent store on Madison Avenue in New York. Wang said Stein told her, “Some day when you are done with college, call me and I’ll get you a job at Vogue.” And she did.
As for how Stein would define success, Kargman said despite having a long illustrious career, there was “not a wistfulness but [a knowingness] that I was part of that Halston juggernaut collection and I was the one doing the drawings for the Calvin Klein collection that put him on the map. She was proud to be part of all of these things. But there is no way she didn’t feel sad that she was toiling away. There was such a party culture at that time. It’s not like she wasn’t part of it. She had her crazy days, too. There definitely was a lot of air time about the hard work at the drafting table when the people whose names were on the door were out partying at Studio 54,” Kargman said.
Stein’s marriage with her husband, Ronald, ended in divorce. She is survived by a sister Marilyn Vogler and a brother Mark Patiky.