Can a faded fashion house reclaim its 1970s glory? Inside the effort to save Anne Klein. – Washington Post

On the first day of her new job as the creative director of Anne Klein two years ago, Sharon Lombardo arrived at the company’s midtown offices and was greeted by . . . no one.

There was no receptionist to escort her to a design studio because there was no studio. There wasn’t even an Anne Klein sign confirming that she was in the right place. Where were the office supplies, she wondered? Heck, where was the bathroom?

Lombardo cried that spring day, considering the enormous task — and tantalizing possibilities — that lay ahead: to revive one of America’s once-great fashion brands.

In the 1960s and 70s, Anne Klein set the standard for professional, grown-up style. The company didn’t just dress women for the workforce. It epitomized their independence, confidence and multifaceted lives. But since the death of its namesake founder in 1974, the company had churned through a half-dozen designers and multiple owners. By 2015, it had devolved into a morass of bland shift dresses, unflattering cropped pants, and shoes that were gawd-awful dowdy.

Lombardo was recruited by the company’s latest owner to transform the look of the clothes and the shoes, the advertising, the logo, the attitude. Everything.

It’s the kind of fashion turnaround common in Europe, where lifeless legacy brands — Gucci, Balenciaga, Lanvin — have been resuscitated with jaw-dropping success. But many American brands, including Bill Blass, Halston and Geoffrey Beene, have struggled to reclaim cachet after the deaths of their founders.

For Anne Klein, the goal is modest — not to transform into a prestige brand selling $4,000 dresses but simply to thrive as a purveyor of sophisticated sportswear.

That challenge is complicated by an ironic fact: Unlike other flagging brands, Anne Klein never stopped making money. The clothes and accessories may be frumpy, but they still sell. So as Anne Klein changes, it must find a way to please the various companies that make and sell its watches, scarves, hosiery, jewelry and everything thing else. For them, gambling on a fashion revolution puts a sure thing at risk.

Tall and lean with long red hair that she twirls like a strand of worry beads, Lombardo, 45, spotted only one sign of activity when she arrived at her new workplace — a handful of people scurrying down a distant hallway. They were the licensing folks.

As brands grow in popularity, they frequently sign licensing deals with outside manufacturers that design and produce everything from jewelry, fragrances and coats to luggage, housewares or even paint. Some brands, especially celebrity ones, are nothing but a collection of licensees. The arrangement can be highly lucrative for fashion houses; the risk is that they also cede a significant amount of control.

It works only if all those products make sense as a whole. And at Anne Klein, with nine different licensees in the United States alone, the people who designed the scarves had nothing to do with the ones who created the watches. The watches had nothing to do with ready-to-wear. No one was in charge of a central vision. Anne Klein was just a bunch of stuff.

Yet the shoes alone, Lombardo says, were roughly a $2 million business. And the brand was widely available in department stores. Anne Klein could have survived on name recognition and serviceable products. And certainly, many of its licensees were content to do so, with an attitude of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” Lombardo said. But the brand’s history suggested that it could be much more.

Lombardo, who began her career designing for West Coast surfing and skateboarding brands, dove into the archives. She started compiling a “mood board of who and what I thought Anne Klein could be,” she said. “I had a period of about three weeks of walking around by myself. I didn’t have anyone to talk to. I didn’t have anyone to show anything to. There was no deadline because we didn’t have a president yet.”

The designer Anne Klein was born Hannah Golofski, in Brooklyn in 1923. She spent the early part of her career creating petite-size clothing, elevating the category from girly frocks with Peter Pan collars into sophisticated sportswear. She founded her company in 1968 with a focus on separates, not suits — an innovation at the time — and it became a go-to label for a suede maxi-skirt, a poorboy sweater, a hip-hugger belt. Klein also popularized vanity sizing — a four was cut large enough to fit a woman who was a six. When she died of cancer, her company was a financial success.

Donna Karan, who had been Klein’s assistant, took over along with Louis Dell’Olio, and for a decade, they preserved the company’s aesthetic voice. But in 1984, Karan set out on her own. By the early 1990s, the company’s sales were falling. A series of designers — Richard Tyler, Patrick Robinson, Charles Nolan and Isabel Toledo — attempted to jolt it back to life. The company was sold and sold again, ultimately becoming a division of Nine West Holdings. Its backer, the private equity firm Sycamore Partners, asked Liz Fraser to become the new chief executive of Anne Klein — the business brain to Lombardo’s creative one.

Fraser was eager for a down-to-earth change after 15 years at relentlessly cool Marc Jacobs. But she had doubts about a brand no one talked about anymore. Then she heard Patricia Arquette’s passionate women-deserve-equal-pay speech at the 2015 Academy Awards. Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton was on the cusp of entering the presidential race. Fraser began to sense a moment in which women and their relationship to power would dominate the public dialogue. She accepted the job.

“I really want to do something about real clothes,” she said. “I heard for years from friends, ‘I can’t find anything to wear.’ They wanted more style and less fashion.”

Fraser believed Anne Klein could provide the clothes of their quotidian dreams. More fashion-driven than the no-brainer black dresses from M.M. Lafleur. Less expensive than Victoria Beckham, Céline or Akris. More sophisticated than Ann Taylor. Luxury brands, said Lombardo, had left a vacuum by failing to redefine what women wear to work. “They are selling a vision of sailing a yacht with a fake tan. No one is addressing a woman working hard and trying to get s— done.”

Rebuilding Anne Klein would not just be about streamlined silhouettes, sleeker heels and a more sophisticated color palette. Anne Klein also needed magic. It needed to get people to feel something upon hearing the name.

Fraser started by romancing her own staff. One of her earliest corporate decisions was to swap out the generic soap in the bathrooms for Dyptique’s $38 bottles of amber-hued, lavender-scented handwash. She also ordered fresh flowers for the showroom. It was a subtle injection of luxury into a nondescript office, which she hoped would inspire the design.

She and Lombardo also ordered up a new font for the Anne Klein label, the original having “gotten so wispy it was like it was disappearing,” Fraser said.

And Lombardo settled on a new bit of signature hardware for handbags and shoes, a logo that suggests both the letter “A” and a kind of bridge — symbolizing a connection between past and future.

But to establish a new Anne Klein image with consumers, Fraser hired the creative team of Laird + Partners. Trey Laird had launched his career at Donna Karan and gone on to help transform Lane Bryant, a mass-market retailer of plus-size clothes, into a spokesbrand for female empowerment. And he had translated Tom Ford’s personal style — sunglasses, stubble, crisp white shirts — into a brand distinguished by a sophisticated sex appeal.

“You think about Calvin [Klein]. I’m at Lord & Taylor and I buy a floral shift dress. Even if people can’t explain it, it has a modern sexiness,” Laird said. “The same is true with Ralph [Lauren]. It stands for something. You can like it or not, but you know it’s Ralph.”

His agency created an Anne Klein bible, capturing an idea of a certain kind of woman — her temperament, her tastes, her aspirations — via stock photographs of extremely good-looking working mothers rushing through a morning routine. Laird and his partner, Hans Dorsinville, mocked up shopping bags even though Anne Klein had no stores. They sketched renderings of imaginary stores even though they had no fresh product.

They also obsessed over how to use Klein’s traditional mascot, a lion (she was a Leo) on a new series of buttons. Should the lion be more romantic, more abstract? They went with abstract. And they debated where, exactly, to position the label in the back of a dress.

“In the center seemed too ordinary,” Dorsinville said. Klein “was a woman who lived on the edge.” So now the label sits off-center.

They bounced ideas off industry insiders and asked the opinion of those far beyond the Hudson River. Yet they didn’t turn to focus groups. Fashion still revolves around the belief that a designer is able to see things that others cannot; it involves giving people something they can’t articulate. And it often means trying to persuade consumers to buy something that, it turns out, they might not actually want.

The watches were the first sign of change. Not long before Klein’s death, the company signed a licensing agreement with the New York-based E. Gluck, a 61-year-old family-owned watch manufacturer. Even as the flagship Anne Klein brand floundered, its watch business churned along.

“We were guided more by the marketplace . . . and less by an overarching vision of the brand,” says Erica Piik, E. Gluck’s director of marketing. “We have an in­cred­ibly loyal Anne Klein watch customer. People would send in watches for repair, and it’s a 20-year-old watch.”

The new watches are spare and mod. Caggie Bradford, Anne Klein’s vice president of licensing, wanted the bracelet styles to feel like the “inside of a stalk of celery” — fashion-speak for smooth, ergonomic and inviting. The watchmaker bought in. “To hear the manifesto, if you will, it’s very empowering of women,” Piik says.

In February of this year, Anne Klein unveiled a more refined collection of shoes and handbags — constructed from leather, not PVC, with more discreet embellishments and more modern proportions. Embossed ankle boots and pine-green suede pumps have wood-grain block heels, and lug-sole oxfords feature chunky two-inch heels. Black bucket bags are trimmed in dove gray and pale pink. And the jewelry — cuff bracelets in gold and black, spike necklaces in faux horn — are bold and indeterminately tribal.

Lombardo’s changes have so far been received most enthusiastically in South Korea, where the brand has maintained a glint of cachet. The new look has also been embraced in Doha, Qatar, where a free-standing Anne Klein store recently opened.

In the United States, Anne Klein is constrained by its previous success. Since a pair of the old Anne Klein shoes would sell for less than $100, doubling that price risks losing current customers, without guaranteeing the gain of new ones — even if the new shoes are twice as appealing.

“We thought, in our enthusiasm and ignorance, people would just say, ‘Yeah, come on, let’s go,’ ” said Johanna Almstead, vice president of global communications. “We have to earn their trust. It’s so much more complicated than we thought.”

This month, Lombardo’s ready-to-wear arrived. Officially called “Anne Klein Collection” to distinguish it from the warmed-over frocks that still fill the racks at department stores, this is Lombardo’s working-woman philosophy at long last realized in satin and jersey. It only took two years.

She was inspired by the company’s archives, but also by Morocco. The palette is warm; the colors, muddy. Satin shirts button asymmetrically, the weight of the fabric substantial enough to hide bra lines. Slightly flared skirts have side pockets and just enough stretch to offer a bit of smoothing support. Ribbed-knit sweaters come in shades of mustard and cantaloupe; Lombardo expects tops will retail from $148 to $198. Loosefitting trousers, priced at around $250, flow around the hips. And a navy cashmere overcoat, for $498, unzips along the sides to offer easy access to pants pockets.

The pieces, manufactured in Poland, are classic but not dull. Sensual without being overtly sexy. Easy-to-wear yet polished.

As Lombardo finessed this collection, she employed a fit model who was a size 8 — not the typical 2 or 4 — and also happened to be 45 years old. “If I can make things look good on an eight, I’m closer to making things that are relevant to real women,” Lombardo said. She considered some women’s obsessive dislike of their arms and offers blessed alternatives to the ubiquitous sheath dress.

The overhaul of Anne Klein Collection will be at least a five-year project, requiring a patience that Seventh Avenue has not typically shown. Its big relaunch, likely by early this summer, will not be at a department store but on its own website — the best way, Fraser says, to deliver the brand’s complete vision to an audience of busy, professional women.

And those are the consumers — not hipsters, influencers or socials — who will ultimately judge whether Anne Klein addresses modern needs in a way that other brands have not. Whether it is a brand with a point-of-view, magic and a mission — or just a bunch of stuff.

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