Bloomingdale's Kal Ruttenstein died yesterday in a New York City hospital, at 69, from lymphoma. An enormous amount of optimism and enthusiasm for the fashion industry passed away with him.
For more than a quarter of a century Ruttenstein had been the senior vice president for fashion direction at Bloomingdale's. Put more simply, he was the store's fashion director. He spent his days and nights hunting for talented designers no one had ever heard of and fads that no consultant had forecast. He would pronounce an item trendy, and with the merchandising might of Bloomingdale's, his high-profile position could transform a prediction into fact. His customer wasn't the rarefied socialite or the constant bargain hunter. He spoke to the shopper in the middle, the one who occasionally indulges in designer goods but who also pinches pennies. And as a result, the message that he delivered reached from the runway to Target.
He was the last of his kind.
Ruttenstein was a round-faced man with a solid presence and a voice that could alternately be filled with inquisitive wonder and stern fearlessness. He was a soothsayer with a wry sense of humor. He loved designers and was enamored with their creativity, but he was also a businessman -- he had an MBA from Columbia and was once president of Bonwit Teller -- and he knew that the bread and butter of the store did not lie in $8,000 evening gowns. He knew the money was in boleros, pashminas, trendy handbags: accessible, fashionable merchandise.
In a 2002 interview, Ruttenstein told The Washington Post, "We can sell more of a good item -- not necessarily a fancy dress; that's what Saks does -- but peasant blouses did really well."
He was always searching for a good deal for his store and his customers. "Part of my job is to protect the designer from knockoffs," Ruttenstein said then. "But you can't do anything about 'inspired by.' "
The job of a fashion director is to be a visionary, and Ruttenstein embraced the challenge, reveling in the idea of himself as starmaker. On a daily basis, he squinted into the future so that he could declare, with a great flourish of confidence and certainty, precisely what women and men would be wearing in a year's time. Occasionally he was wrong, as when he told Gloria Vanderbilt no one would wear jeans with her name on the back pocket. More often, he was right.
Sometimes his predictions were based on something that he had seen on the runway or in a showroom. He could be obsessively exuberant about a new designer he had discovered. When he saw Zac Posen's first full runway collection, he took the young man under his wing, put his clothes in the highly coveted store windows and championed the designer to anyone who would listen in New York and in Europe. Years before that, he had been equally passionate about Isaac Mizrahi.
Sometimes Ruttenstein was inspired by Broadway or Hollywood. He saw the musical "Rent" 33 times and installed "Rent"-inspired boutiques in Bloomingdale's. He orchestrated grand retail theater around the opening of "Hairspray," inviting the show's cast to unveil store windows that evoked the production and to perform "Good Morning, Baltimore." He had the store stock up on corsets after he saw a screening of "Moulin Rouge."
Ruttenstein was known to haunt the newest restaurants, where he would install himself at a regular table before the place had been open a week. It wasn't about the food, says Michael Gould, Bloomingdale's chairman and CEO. "He couldn't tell one good risotto from another good risotto," Gould says. "It was the scene. It was the newness of the restaurant."
He met two Argentine designers -- Gaba Esquivel and Thomas Vasseur -- in a downtown restaurant and was so excited about their work he started calling around the city to garner press for them.
Ruttenstein had an insatiable appetite for new ideas. Ride with him in a car and he would be listening to hip-hop. Look at his feet and he'd be wearing the most esoteric model of sneakers. He claimed to have more than 100 pairs and called himself a "sneakerhead." Yet he never came across as some old guy trying to reclaim his youth. He was as comfortable in a Sean John sweat suit and silver sneakers as he was in a custom-made tuxedo by Tom Ford. He transcended generations because of his curiosity, because he actually understood and empathized with what a 20-year-old guy might find enticing about an oversize velour track jacket with an enormous logo.
Ruttenstein traveled to Europe some half-dozen times a year for the designer collections; he liked to FedEx his luggage ahead. He always sat in the front row. Over the years, he transformed himself into a fashion character -- the rotund gentleman who moved slowly and regally through the crowd, with a small, battery-powered fan in his hand.
He generated publicity for the store with his enthusiasm for the industry, his eccentricity and his sheer ubiquity. He was constantly peering into dank warehouses, pulling himself up rickety staircases and into dark lofts, searching for the next new thing.
He had a serious stroke in January 1997. It slowed him down significantly, but it did not stop him. He coyly referred to it as his "snowboarding accident." After the stroke, he returned to the fashion roadshow with a slower gait, a candy-striped cane and an aide-de-camp to assist him. It wasn't unusual to be sitting in a fashion show that was, perhaps, half over and look up to see Ruttenstein arriving. He would move in an undaunted shuffle. Crowds would part; chairs would be pulled from back rooms. Ruttenstein would be accommodated.
He continued to safeguard Bloomingdale's fashion image, championing new designers as well as the old guard, whatever was fresh and good. He once said he would never rally around something solely for image if he knew it had no chance of selling.
Gould chuckled at that remark yesterday, saying, "Kal thought everything would sell!"
Ruttenstein's resume was filled with positions in stores such as Lord & Taylor and Saks Fifth Avenue. But it was at Bloomingdale's, with its wide reach, that Ruttenstein gained his reputation as one of the last merchants who not only thought he could make a star out of a designer -- or an assistant or a colleague -- but believed it was part of his job.