Steven Mark Klein, Fashion Archivist and Gadfly, Dies at 70


Elise By Olsen had made a name for herself at 15 as one of the world’s youngest magazine editors, having already produced runs of two print periodicals about culture and fashion from her bedroom in Oslo, Norway. One day in 2015 she received a challenging email: “Who are you?”

She answered, and then came a torrent of emails peppered with links to gallery and store websites, news articles about the fashion industry and warnings about its pitfalls.

Her correspondent turned out to be Steven Mark Klein, a 64-year-old, New York-based hospitality brand consultant and fashion gadfly. For some years, he had run a blog called Not Vogue, which he used as a platform to take the fashion industry to task for being an exploiter of youth and a cynical expression of late-stage capitalism.

At first, Ms. Olsen thought he was a troll. He called himself a freelance outlaw.

Mr. Klein set out to mentor Ms. Olsen, and soon she welcomed his tutelage. Her parents were bemused but supportive. She quit high school and started another magazine called Wallet, which was inspired by Mr. Klein’s insights.

She learned that he lived alone on the Lower East Side of Manhattan with an enormous and, it turned out, important collection of fashion ephemera, including fashion magazines, fashion show fliers, catalogs, postcards and look books from designers like Stella McCartney, Louis Vuitton and A.P.C. — decades worth of printed matter that he had saved and meticulously archived.

It was his legacy, and he wanted Ms. Olsen to have it.

Mr. Klein took his own life on Oct. 25, his cousin Andrea Strongwater said. He was 70 and had been in ill health for some time.

His bond with Ms. Olsen ensured that his life’s work will live on. His archive is now a museum collection: the International Library of Fashion Research in Oslo, curated by Ms. Olsen and funded by private donors and corporate sponsors. Housed in a historic building owned by the National Museum of Art, Architecture and Design and next door to the Nobel Peace Center, the library will open to the public early next year, though the collection is now available online. It is a showcase for Mr. Klein’s enormous gift — two tons of printed matter that had filled a shipping container after it was packed up in June 2020.

“I don’t think you really need a Yoda,” Mr. Klein wrote Ms. Olsen in September this year, noting her affectionate term for him. “The student has surpassed the mentor.”

Mr. Klein was an unlikely fashion arbiter. His uniform was jeans, sneakers and a T-shirt, though he did have an extremely expensive Patek Philippe watch. And he did not work in the fashion business.

Professionally, he created logos and slogans for hotels and restaurants. But he belonged to no agency. Instead, as an independent consultant, he was a walking encyclopedia — and booster — of pop culture from the 1970s, when he worked at the venerable Strand bookstore in Lower Manhattan, ran his own gallery, very briefly, in his Fourth Avenue apartment and served as an occasional assistant to the composer Philip Glass.

Hoteliers paid him for that knowledge. They included Larry, Michael and Jason Pomeranc, the three brothers who founded the luxury Thompson Hotels brand.

“He would come in, on no set schedule, and he spoke in a kind of monologue,” Jason Pomeranc said, “but there were pearls in there, references to a certain 1950s typeface or industrial architecture or a German haberdashery that seemingly had no connection, but it all came together.” Mr. Pomeranc and his family now run another hospitality company called Sixty Collective, which Mr. Klein helped name.

“He helped with our logos and our branding architecture, but what we came to value over the years is that he was a sounding board for us,” Mr. Pomeranc said. “And even though he was a man who lived very much in the past, he had a very good predictive nose for the future.”

Steven Mark Klein was born on Dec. 16, 1950, to Sam and Hilda (Strongwater) Klein in the Crown Heights neighborhood of Brooklyn. His mother was a homemaker, his father a cabdriver. He grew up on Ocean Parkway in the Brighton Beach section. In 1974 he earned a B.F.A. from the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan.

One night in 1979 at the Mudd Club, the Tribeca hot spot frequented by the artist Keith Haring, the fashion designer Betsey Johnson, the Talking Heads and other downtown notables, Mr. Klein met Molissa Fenley, a dancer and choreographer, and courted her by asking her to dance, a rare gesture in the club.

They married that year, and he began to market and manage her performances. On a trip to Paris, where Ms. Fenley was working for a time in 1982, they were invited to a show of the designer Rei Kawakubo’s line for Comme des Garcons, an infamous event at which Ms. Kawakubo presented sweaters pocked with holes, as if chewed by moths or slashed with scissors.

Mr. Klein persuaded Ms. Kawakubo to make costumes for Ms. Fenley’s company for a performance called “Hemispheres,” part of the Next Wave series at the Brooklyn Academy of Music the following year. He asked the artist Francesco Clemente to make art work as well, packets of drawings passed out to the audience. Anna Kisselgoff of The New York Times wrote admiringly of the work’s “awesome strangeness.”

“It was marvelous, and it was all Steven’s idea,” Ms. Fenley said, adding that it was the beginning of Mr. Klein’s fascination with the printed matter that might accompany a fashion show. “He worked tirelessly on promoting me and my work. And he started me on the practice of gathering ephemera from my career to create an archive.”

Their marriage ended in divorce in 1986. Mr. Klein is survived by his brother, Neil.

For many years Mr. Klein lived in a borrowed apartment in Seward Park, the former union housing cooperative built at midcentury that spreads out below Delancey Street on the Lower East Side. He moved to Carroll Gardens in Brooklyn about a year ago.

He worked on a borrowed Apple computer that dated to 2001, drank only Coca-Cola and liked to hold meetings in The Donut Pub on West 14th Street — or at a McDonald’s. He seemed to know everyone: scions of Italian luxury brands, underground clothing designers, big ticket artists.

Lisa Mahar, an artist and designer who created a line of toys for very young children called Myland, was a client. Myland was a whole universe, designed to spur creativity and help children learn — stackable houses and anthropomorphic cars and tiny characters. Mr. Klein was captivated by this child-centered world.

He chose the name, adamant that it be one word, and delivered long discourses on the creative power of children.

“He was eternally optimistic about the potential of young people and had great respect for their ideas,” Ms. Mahar said. “He rebelled against anything that might interfere with their ability to think for themselves.”

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