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A Passion for Fashion - Remembering Kalman "Kal" Ruttenstein

Originally Posted: February 01, 2006

Tommy Hilfiger and Fern Mallis. Photo by Jimi Celeste/PMc
courtesy of John Wegorzewski.

Walking into Carnegie Hall the fashion cognoscenti got an immediate chuckle. The venerable stage was empty except for a pair of silver Nike sneakers belonging to legendary style guru the late Kalman "Kal" Ruttenstein, senior vice president of fashion direction at Bloomingdale's.

Though deemed worldwide as an arbiter of fashion and possessing the most discerning eye for new talent, Kal was equally famed for his unique personal style. Once termed the best dressed student at Princeton, an epitome of Brooks Brothers tweeds, he was more likely to turn up at a Donna Karan or Bill Blass show in tee-shirt, cargo pants and wildly colored sneakers, where with a wink or a nod to a nervous designer he would signal what America's best dressed would be wearing next season.

Testament to his influence on American fashion the crowd of over 1,200 industry movers and shakers included such as Karan, Ralph Lauren, Marc Jacobs, Marvin Traub, Betsey Johnson, Vera Wang, Tommy Hilfiger, Zac Posen, Diane Von Furstenberg, Arie and Coco Kopelman, Audrey Smaltz, Dawn Mello and Ari Hoffman.

Opening the Bloomingdale's sponsored tribute was the store's CEO, Michael Gould who noted, "Kal's destiny was to be a teacher, mentor, a tutor and oh how he succeeded," noting such talents be had championed as Donna Karan, Perry Ellis, Marc Jacobs, Elie Tahari and Zac Posen.

Betsey Johnson and Chantal Bacon. Photo by Jimi Celeste/PMc
courtesy of John Wegorzewski.

In reminiscing about his colleague and friend, Ralph Lauren said, "He was inspiring. He never lost his enthusiasm. When ready to start a show, if Kal wasn't yet in his seat, my response was always, without hesitation, we're not starting till Kal gets here."

Besides his extraordinary "passion for fashion" as Giorgio Armani stated, his other loves Broadway and fine dining were major topics in the eulogist's remarks. International Herald Tribune's Suzy Menkes, who had many a dinner with Kal, joked, "He had an unfulfilled ambition - he really wanted to be a restaurant reporter for the International Herald Tribune. His passion for Broadway which led to so many over the top store promotions from Phantom of the Opera to Rent, was acknowledged with a special song "Without You" from the Broadway musical Rent performed by its star Daphne Rubin Vega. When she finished the tear inducing ballad, she lovingly embraced Kal's silver sneakers.

Marc Jacobs, whom Kal stood by even when fashion critics panned his famous "Grunge collection" for Perry Ellis, giving him the prestigious front windows and promoting him heavily called Ruttenstein "the Energizer Bunny - he just didn't stop."

Touching tributes by his assistant of 35 years Sibyl Piccone and closest friend Kenny Karlstein brought out stories of his faithfulness to friends and concerns for the young designers whose career he shepherded.

Donna Karan and Helmut Lang. Photo by Jimi Celeste/PMc
courtesy of John Wegorzewski.

Donna Karan, a close friend since her early days at Anne Klein said she has two claims to fame, "one was dressing Bill Clinton but more important dressing Kal. Kal wearing my clothes was the coolest thing!"

In a nod to his Ivy league roots, the Princeton Footnotes, a sweet-sounding, all-male choral group decked out in blue blazers, khakis and the school's orange and black ties performed "It's so hard to say Goodbye to Yesterday" and his alma maters school song "Old Nassau."

Though the ceremony ran over 2 ½ hours, the assembled crowd seemed reluctant to depart and jammed the lobby and sidewalk in front of the hall. Not willing yet to let go, they continued to swap Kal stories. Some of the best came from journalists such as Robin Givhan of the Washington Post, the Wall Street Journal's Teri Agins and one time Vogue editor and first African American model on Seventh Avenue Audrey Smaltz.

Also lingering were Judy Licht and Jerry Della Femina, Stephanie George, Sean "Diddy" Combs, John Wegorzewski, Edward Callaghan, Fern Mallis, Adam Lippes, Marc Bouwer, Robert Duffy, Lisa Silhanek, Michael Kors and recording for posterity this celebration of a life well lived, Patrick McMullan.

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