Remembering Kal

The late Kal Ruttenstein, the beloved, well respected, highly visible and legendary fashion figure who had been Senior Vice President, Fashion Direction, for Bloomingdales the past 28 years of his life, was lovingly remembered at an upbeat, often poignant, and entertaining memorial service held Wednesday at a jam packed Carnegie Hall. Everything about the proceedings, (which were made possible by Bloomingdales’ Chairman and CEO, Michael Gould) was quite fitting and served as a memorable tribute – a class act all the way from beginning to end.

Printed programs were handed out to all who came (entitled, ‘Bloomingdale’s Remembers Kalman “Kal” Ruttenstein’), featuring a cover shot taken on July 11, 2002 after he received his Legion of Honor Award in Paris, and one taken of Kal by Patrick McMullan during this past fashion week on the back. Called for 11 a.m., the proceedings didn’t start fashionably late, but elegantly and thoughtfully on time and lasted almost one and a half hours during which some of the fashion world’s biggest fashion names took the podium to reminisce, often holding back tears. This was broken up by entertaining interludes of beautiful music and song (again- highly fitting since Kal was known for his love of music and specifically, the musical theatre).

On stage, a pair of Kal’s signature silver running shoes, were propped up on their own little stool (which served as a reminder of the man) and against the back wall there was a continuing montage of pictures of Kal, dating from early childhood all the way up to the end (he passed away on December 8th). A prelude of Dvorak’s Scherzo from Terzetto, Op. 74, performed by two violins and a viola was followed by the speakers. Michael Gould noted that Kal’s “destiny was to be a teacher and a mentor” and he remembered Kal’s “passion for fashion which was contagious” as well as the “things Kal taught us” (“to never stop looking”, “to reach for the stars”, and that “to be a great merchant, you must be able to see the unseen.”)

Ralph Lauren, clad in an elegant dark suit and tie, admitted that he would never start a show if Kal was not there and remembered that Kal was “quite simply, in love with fashion” . He also spoke of his trademark athletic wear (colorful, oversized parka and clashing running shoes) which became his uniform, especially during Fashion Week, and which were symbols of this “whimsical and happy man.” It’s “an image that always remains in my mind.”

Suzy Menkes had the audience literally in stitches as she remembered how Kal loved food and eating out and relished taking her to whatever the hot new restaurant was. (“He really wanted to be the restaurant reporter for the International Herald Tribune”, she jokingly told the audience). She also recalled that she had done “a lot of laughing with Kal” and that even though she had a typically British sense of humor, he ‘got it’. She also observed that he was “interested in anything that was new and that would excite him”, that “his passion for fashion was grounded in the reality of commerce” and that “he is the end of an era. We won’t see his likes again.” She ended by holding back tears in her observance, “I love fashion, I loved Kal, and I will miss him so much.” This was followed by Rent’s Daphne Ruben-Vega celebration of Kal’s life in song.

Charles Chapin, Kal’s Princeton schoolmate (Class of ’58- they met in French class) remembered that he was “a loud opera diva”, that he jokingly referred to his stroke as “his skateboarding accident”, and that even though he was a fashion legend, he was above all “a treasured friend.”

Donna Karan choked back tears when noting that “we never thought he would ever really go and he’s always with us” and she admitted “his was the first opinion I wanted after a show.” She recalled how she first met Kal in the 70’s when designing for Anne Klein (teasing that she was about “16 or 17” which had the audience laughing) and he was the fashion director for Bonwit Teller. “He was the first at everything” and she fondly remembered that he introduced her to the Queen. She also stated “Kal wearing my clothes was the coolest thing ever” and ended with the observation that he was such a “good knockoff artist”, he was able to “deliver the clothes we did BEFORE we delivered them”.

Marvin Traub, the former Chairman and CEO of Bloomingdales who hired Kal as Fashion Director in the 70’s, reminisced about his 15 year partnership and 30 year friendship with Kal (whom he referred to as “larger than life”) and remembered him for his 5 key roles: 1- Kal the Inspirer, 2- Kal the Creator, 3- Kal the Visionary, 4- Kal the Fashion Conscience for Bloomingdales, and 5- Kal the Fashion Junkie (he enjoyed the best of everything- the best restaurants, the best trends, the best fashion, etc.) He ended saying, “I’ll never be able to attend a fashion show without thinking of Kal Ruttenstein”.

Chantal Rousseau, President of Bloomingdales Europe, remembered that Kal was a true celebrity, a larger than life figure people expected to see at the shows (“Paris will miss him”); Sibyl Piccone, his assistant for 35 years who answered his phone, spoke of his humanity and his thoughtful nature. Even though he could be “very demanding and a perfectionist” he quickly thanked her for a job well done. This was followed by another musical tribute from Daphne Ruben-Vega singing, “Without You.”

Marc Jacobs remembered Kal as “one of my greatest lifelong supporters and friends who was amongst the first to come and see my collections.” And he fondly recalled how he would always say, “we have to do windows”, even after the infamous Grunge collection. (By the way, Kal was one of the few who ‘got’ the Grunge collection). Marc had the audience howling when he spoke of the time Kal was in the hospital and had a “transgender nurse” that he thought looked like Linda Evangelista and told Marc he should use him in his next fashion show. “For me it will never feel the same during fashion week without him at the shows”.

Kenny Karlstein, Kal’s best friend for 33 years called Kal a “romantic old soul” and “a quintessential old world gentleman”, but at the same time, “he celebrated what was new and young.” It ended with 11 clean cut young men (the Princeton Footnotes), clad in their Ivy League navy blue blazers, chino trousers, crisp white shirts, and red and blue striped ties and penny loafers, singing two musical tributes, a Capella. And it all had me wishing I had gotten to know Kal Ruttenstein better.

-Marilyn Kirschner

Marilyn Kirschner

I am a long time fashion editor with 40+ years of experience. As senior market of Harper's Bazaar for 21 years I met and worked with every major fashion designer in the world and covered all of the collections in Paris, London, Milan and New York. I was responsible for overall content, finding and pulling in the best clothes out there, and for formulating ideas and stories.

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