Reviving a once iconic label

Sharon Lombardo plans to change things at Anne Klein with classic, sensual and polished pieces for the working woman

Anne Klein creative director Sharon Lombardo is planning a big relaunch of the Anne Klein Collection this summer.
Anne Klein creative director Sharon Lombardo is planning a big relaunch of the Anne Klein Collection this summer.PHOTO: WASHINGTON POST

NEW YORK • On her first day as creative director of Anne Klein two years ago, Sharon Lombardo arrived at the company's mid-town offices and was greeted by... no one.

There was no receptionist to escort her to a design studio because there was none.

Lombardo cried that spring day, considering the enormous task - and tantalising possibilities - that lay ahead: to revive one of America's once-great fashion brands.

In the 1960s and 1970s, Anne Klein set the standard for the professional, grown-up style.

The company did not just dress women for the workforce. It also epitomised their independence, confidence and multifaceted lives.

But since the death of its namesake founder in 1974, the company has churned through a half-dozen designers and multiple owners.

By 2015, it had devolved into a morass of bland shift dresses, unflattering cropped pants and shoes that were dowdy.

Lombardo was recruited to transform the look of the products, advertising, logo and attitude.

It is the kind of fashion turnaround common in Europe, where lifeless legacy brands - Gucci, Balenciaga, Lanvin - have been resuscitated with jaw-dropping success.

But many American brands, including Bill Blass, Halston and Geoffrey Beene, have struggled after the deaths of their founders.

For Anne Klein, the challenge is complicated by an ironic fact. Unlike other flagging brands, it never stopped making money.

So as the label changes, it must find a way to please the various companies that make and sell its watches, scarves, hosiery, jewellery and everything else.

Lombardo, 45, spotted only one sign of activity when she arrived at her new workplace - a handful of people scurrying down a hallway. They were the licensing folks.

As brands grow in popularity, they frequently sign licensing deals with outside manufacturers that design and produce everything from jewellery and fragrances to luggage, housewares and even paint.

The arrangement can be highly lucrative for fashion houses; the risk is they cede a significant amount of control.

Anne Klein had nine licensees in the United States alone, but no one was in charge of a central vision.

Lombardo, who began her career designing for West Coast surfing and skateboarding brands, started compiling a "mood board of who and what I thought Anne Klein could be", she said.

Designer Klein was born Hannah Golofski in Brooklyn in 1923. She spent the early part of her career creating petite-sized clothing. She founded her company in 1968 with a focus on separates, not suits - an innovation at the time. When she died of cancer, her company was a financial success.

Donna Karan, her assistant, took over along with Louis Dell'Olio, and, for a decade, they preserved its aesthetic. But in 1984, Karan set out on her own.

By the early 1990s, sales were falling. The company was sold and sold again, ultimately becoming a division of Nine West Holdings. Its backer, private equity firm Sycamore Partners, asked Ms Liz Fraser to become the new chief executive of Anne Klein - the business brain to Lombardo's creative one.

Ms Fraser was eager for a downto-earth change after 15 years at relentlessly cool Marc Jacobs.

Luxury brands, said Lombardo, had left a vacuum by failing to redefine what women wear to work.

To establish a new image, Ms Fraser hired the creative team of Laird + Partners. Trey Laird had launched his career at Donna Karan and translated Tom Ford's personal style - sunglasses, stubble, crisp white shirts - into a brand marked by sophisticated sex appeal.

In February, Anne Klein unveiled a more refined collection of shoes and handbags.

Lombardo's changes have so far been received most enthusiastically in South Korea, where the brand has maintained a glint of cachet. The new look has also been embraced in Doha, Qatar, where an Anne Klein store recently opened.

This month, Lombardo's ready-towear arrived. Officially called Anne Klein Collection, to distinguish it from the warmed-over frocks that still fill the racks at department stores, this is Lombardo's workingwoman philosophy at long last realised in satin and jersey.

She expects tops will retail from US$148 (S$205) to US$198. Loosefitting trousers, priced at around US$250, flow around the hips. And a navy cashmere overcoat, at US$498, unzips along the sides to offer easy access to pants' pockets.

The pieces, made in Poland, are classic but not dull. Sensual without being overtly sexy. Easy-to-wear, yet polished.

The overhaul of the collection will be at least a five-year project, requiring a patience that the fashion trade has not typically shown.

Its big relaunch, likely by early this summer, will not be at a department store but on its website - the best way, Ms Fraser said, to deliver the brand's vision to an audience of busy, professional women.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 01, 2017, with the headline 'Reviving a once iconic label'. Print Edition | Subscribe