Remembering Kal

·4 min read

At Bloomingdale’s, the legacy of Kalman Ruttenstein, the store’s former senior vice president of fashion direction, lives on.

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Known as Kal to everyone, he was considered by many for a long time to be the nation’s most influential fashion director. Through his 28 years at Bloomingdale’s, he was the guardian of the store’s fashion image and reputation. Ruttenstein discovered many designers in America and overseas, and collaborated with them on exclusives and products integral to Bloomingdale’s exotic promotions. He befriended and nurtured the careers of Ralph Lauren, Donna Karan, Isaac Mizrahi, Zac Posen, Sean “Diddy” Combs and Marc Jacobs, among others.

Ruttenstein was a front-row fixture at fashion shows from New York to Paris, and a showman himself, organizing fashion shoots, guiding buyers, translating the latest looks coming out of Hollywood and Broadway or spotted on the runways and streets of fashion capitals, into private label merchandise for windows and selling floors. He would get manufacturers to quickly replicate the style at lower prices and with cheaper fabric and have the merchandise featured in the windows before the real designer clothes arrived at other New York stores.

He had 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. He developed a shop based on “Mamma Mia!,” the 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 ’70s 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. “Saturday Night Fever,” “Out of Africa” and “Hairspray” also inspired merchandise programs orchestrated by Ruttenstein.

“He had this endurance,” said Kevin Harter, Bloomingdale’s vice president of integrated marketing and the fashion direction. “He would not miss a fashion show, but he was also the first to tell me that it was more than what you see on the runway that counts. It’s also what you see in the restaurants and on the streets.

“Every waking moment he thought about fashion, trends and Bloomingdale’s,” Harter added. “He was always going to the theater. He saw ‘Rent’ 33 times, and was very curious about the next hot movie, and would make it come alive in the retail world. He really tapped into retail as theater.”

Both formidable and fun, Ruttenstein could smuggle a ticketless friend into a fashion show by saying, “Just follow me.” He had his own style, wearing tracksuits and shiny silver running shoes, and seated at shows, holding a battery-powered fan.

“Working with Kal could be challenging, but it was an experience of a lifetime,” said Sibyl Piccone, Ruttenstein’s assistant for 35 years. “Kal used to say, ‘pinch yourself, it’s real.'”

Though earlier in his career Ruttenstein worked at Lord & Taylor, Bonwit Teller (as president) and Saks Fifth Avenue, “Bloomingdale’s was really the fulfillment of his dream. It was amazing for him because he was invited to express his creativity there,” Piccone said. “He fed off the energy and excitement that Marvin Traub created with country promotions. They got Kal’s juices going.”

In Paris and New York, “Kal was such an observer of people, and had no qualms walking up to young girls, telling them, ‘I love your HotPants, your sweater,'” Piccone said. “He would build ideas off the streets, or from going out to restaurants, or knowing the music people were listening to. He tied into theater and movies with shops and merchandise and windows. He really connected and brought all of it back to work.”

Even after he suffered a severe stroke, Ruttenstein never let up and maintained his pride and determination to do what he always did. “He had a real love for the business,” Piccone said.

“I worked for him for seven years up until his death, and was always in awe,” Harter said. “He always had the energy even when his health was down. Such a character. I adored the man. I totally learned a lot from him.”

Ruttenstein passed away in December 2005 at age 69.

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