Anne Klein Ltd. opened in 1968 and was an immediate success. She won two Coty awards (a prominent industry honor that is now defunct) and was entered into the Coty Hall of Fame in 1971. When she died at 51 from cancer, her assistant, an young unknown named Donna Karan, succeeded her, eventually designing with Louis Dell'Olio. That team built the formidable array of diffusion products that are still the foundations of the label's success. But the label went downhill after Karan left to open her own house. By the time the Jones Apparel Group—a $5 billion conglomerate that also owns decidedly nonfashion brands like Easy Spirit shoes—purchased the company in 2003, the Anne Klein name was known mainly for the umbrellas and luggage bearing the once-famous lion's head logo.
The fashion wasteland that is today's Anne Klein is both good and bad news for Toledo. While she has a blank slate from which to work, she must also restore the brand's stylish luster without losing its profitable, suburban, and rather afashionable customers.
Toledo is a surprising choice for that formidable challenge. The Cuban-born designer has long been a favorite of the indie fashion magazines Paper and Visionaire. Both celebrated the quiet force of Toledo's work, which often had a whisper of kinky seduction grounded in fine technique. Her jersey dresses twisted like serpents around the body. Silk skirts were hitched up at the hips with tiny metal loops; slashes in jersey dresses revealed the less obvious, and therefore more erotic, zones of the clavicle or rib cage.
But Toledo's cerebral, moody style was at odds with the often breezy look of mainstream magazines like Vogue that hold great sway over the shoppers at department stores like Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus—women who may prove essential to the Anne Klein's rebirth. Toledo, whose collection debuted in New York in 1985, had no American accounts for her first three years of business and depended instead on private clients and the risk-taking small boutiques of Europe and Japan. While she found some commercial success alongside other avant-garde designers at Barneys New York, her business never reached a critical mass with other retailers and was plagued with financial instability.
What makes Toledo's appointment surprising is that her complex work seems in opposition to Anne Klein's practical style. Klein said she never studied a European collection; Toledo is inspired by legendary Parisian couturiers Alix Grés and Madeleine Vionnet. Klein designed clothes for the working girl; Toledo's were never intended for the office. Klein prided herself on being a commercial powerhouse; Toledo once opened a shop hidden on the fifth floor of a Chelsea loft.
These glaring contrasts make for exciting fashion news. Will the designer behind the experimental "jellyfish blouse" and "kangaroo dress" flourish in a house known for a snappy, girl-on-the-go look that recalls Mary Tyler Moore?
But Toledo is in fact an inspired choice—and not as far from Klein's vision as she might seem. In both designers' work, form and function take precedence over ornamentation. Neither displays any interest in nostalgia. The designs of each manage to anticipate a style that is just past the contemporary, modern but never futuristic.
Toledo's debut may not have been a smash—where was Klein's take-charge spirit in the dull green twin set and even duller ivory suit? What was up with the Dana Buchman-esque red sweater under the plaid jacket?—but she was right to acknowledge Klein's hallmarks. Comfy sweaters shown with leather pants and a flaring black satin trench coat offered strong echoes of Klein's luxurious but sporty style.
In any event, designers working with the legacy of other designers are rarely immediate successes; Karl Lagerfeld's eventual triumph at Chanel was not evident in his early collections; the same can be said of John Galliano at Dior. Toledo has yet to reconcile her own sense of invention with the now worn-out innovations of the house she must revive.
Still, the best of the collection showed tremendous promise. That leather coat, for example, had both Toledo's kink and Klein's timelessness. Two yoked jersey dresses—one red, one ivory—were among the most beautiful clothes shown all week. Simple, sexy, and strong, they recalled Anne Klein in Toledo's eloquent voice and pointed toward a new era of high design in good old American sportswear.