December 18, 2002: Class Notes


1991-2001 & Graduate School

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Class Notes Profile:

What’s in and what’s out
Bloomingdale’s Kal Ruttenstein ’58 ferrets out fashion future

Bloomingdale’s longtime fashion director, Kal Ruttenstein ’58, contemplates ribbons and bows, bohemia and glamour. He’s a retailer with significant clout in the industry because of the store’s many branches, its history, and its New York presence with a devotion to marquee labels and hot new brands. His job for the past 25 years: to safeguard Bloomingdale’s fashion image.

During frequent trips to Europe, he searches for new talent and takes in the runway antics of established designers. Along the catwalk, Ruttenstein always occupies a front-row seat, watching the runway with the rapt attention of a schoolboy cramming for a final. And later, he presents his seasonal predictions to Bloomingdale’s battalion of ready-to-wear and accessories buyers. Ultimately, Ruttenstein determines what the store will sell.

This has been a year of accolades for Ruttenstein. In June, he received the Eleanor Lambert Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America, which acknowledges a unique contribution to fashion. And on July 11, he was awarded the Legion of Honor in Paris.
Ruttenstein often comes across as afflicted by the industry’s most dangerous folly; that is, an unquestioned belief in the importance of the giddy puffery of fashion. He plays to a fashion audience with his super-sized Sean John T-shirts, baggy track pants of every variety, and hooded parkas big enough to swaddle much of the population of Alaska.

Intelligent and savvy, Ruttenstein has managed to survive for decades in a competitive business. “I know what it’s like to think about the bottom line,” he says. “I never buy things we don’t have a chance of selling.”

Ruttenstein has divined fashion’s future from stage productions, most notably Rent, which he saw 33 times. Recently he set up boutiques inspired by the new musical Hairspray in several Bloomingdale’s locations. He has not snubbed Hollywood, either — he was among the first to exploit the corsetry of Moulin Rouge.

“Thank God for Kal,” says designer Anna Sui. “He’s somebody who loves fashion and who’s genuinely excited. That’s so rare.”
Ruttenstein, whose family owned an apparel store in Buffalo, has an impressive résumé, with stints at Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue, and Bonwit Teller specialty stores. Although he earned a bachelor’s degree in English from Princeton and an M.B.A. from Columbia, he refrains from advertising them because, as he often says facetiously, “It’s not good for a fashion director to seem too smart.”

By Robin Givhan ’86

Robin Givhan is the fashion editor of the Washington Post. This story is adapted from one that originally appeared in the Post.

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