Bloomingdale's Kal Ruttenstein died last week 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, who was born in Buffalo, 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.
Ruttenstein was born on June 9, 1936. He graduated from Nichols School in 1954 and went on to receive an English degree at Princeton University and an M.B.A. from Columbia University, according to published reports. His parents were Maxwell and Rose Ruttenstein.
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.
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."
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.