For many seasons now, fashion has been dominated by Europe's experimental designers, and the creators of American sportswear—a style once known for its casual, practical chic—have been producing dull imitations of offbeat looks from Paris and Milan. But at the fashion shows in New York last week, strong collections from Calvin Klein, Donna Karan, Ralph Lauren, and Michael Kors—sportswear's big guns—heralded the return of great sportswear: They produced simple, stylish clothes for women with complex, modern lives, the sorts of looks that have long been the bedrock of American fashion.
But one piece—a hooded brown leather coat from Anne Klein—indicated just how interesting this sportswear revival might prove to be. The incredible coat, cut from a huge swath of basic leather with the dramatic economy of a windsurfing sail, suggested that purely conceived sportswear could not just match but outpace the directional designs of Europe.
In any other year, it would have been startling to find such innovation at Anne Klein, considering the label has not been mentioned among the other big American names in some time. (In fact, the label hasn't even held a runway show in more than a decade.) But Isabel Toledo, a designer of such oddly esoteric force that most major retailers have shunned her collections, was recently appointed the creative director of Anne Klein. Toledo's first collection for the label suggests that she might push sportswear beyond the polished but expected looks of Lauren and Kors.
Anne Klein, who died in 1974, holds a special place in the history of American style. The label is still around and successful—the company does a whopping $550 million in annual sales—but it currently offers dull takes on clothes and bags long out of style. "What is Anne Klein, anyway?" a young fashion editor asked before Toledo's debut. "I know my mother used to wear it. Isn't it like Dana Buchman?" She was referring to the banal, midpriced clothes found in middle-aged women's closets across the country.
But Klein's style was the opposite of the matronly, suburban look her name now conjures. Her clothes—blazers with a man's strong shoulder but shaped for a woman's curves, boyish shirts cut in cashmere, stadium coats no less luxurious for their utility, supple jersey dresses—were the epitome of the thinking woman's wardrobe and provided a grown-up, homegrown alternative to the hot pants of British designer Mary Quant. Toledo has the potential to match both Klein's early innovations in sportswear and Klein's ability to make Europe's finest seem gimmicky and just too much.
Klein (originally Hannah Golofski) was born in Brooklyn, where she studied fashion illustration at a girls' trade school. While she is often credited with "inventing" sportswear, Klein's actual contribution to American style was, in fact, to refine and modernize a look that already existed.
After the Second World War, Seventh Avenue designers Vera Maxwell—who cut humble but fine fabrics like tweed and flannel into simple shapes based on menswear for a new female workforce—and Tina Lesser—who made playsuits, smocks, and sarong skirts for their leisure time—had already turned away from the grand influences of Paris that dominated New York's clothing manufacturers. Claire McCardle, also sometimes called the mother of sportswear, was mainly an innovator in dresses. Her famous "popovers" of 1942 were essentially smart, wrap-around housedresses and might be called the first American designer sensation.
Klein both elevated and broadened what these designers had already done while designing for Junior Sophisticates, a company that made youthful, well-priced clothes in the late 1940s. Most of the company's rivals specialized in prom gowns and party dresses, but Klein believed that the young American woman didn't just want ruffles and bows. Klein made daywear that owed more to the clean lines of American high-society designer Norman Norell than to the French froth of Christian Dior. Junior Sophisticates fast became the market leader, selling to 800 stores throughout the country.
Klein, an opinionated firecracker at 5-feet-3, designed clothes that were as unfussy and direct as she was. In 1951, she showed a loose chemise dress; French designers did not show dresses with an undefined waist until 1957. That same year, she offered cocktail dresses that combined plain, sweaterlike tops with full satin skirts, a far cry from the bosomy, beaded evening clothes that were then fashionable.
But the reason we remember Klein today—and the reason that so many have high hopes for Toledo's reinvention of the brand—is because of her greatest innovation: She was the first designer to offer separate but interchangeable staples (the white shirt, well-cut trousers, tailored jackets, simple skirts, and a variety of sweaters) in a single, coordinated collection, the mix-and-match essentials that still inform how most women get dressed each day. And, always mindful that ease and economy were an essential part of the new American look, Klein designed her clothes so that pieces from one season would relate to pieces from the next.