Louis Dell'Olio is so self-assured that he can watch his own fashion show as if he were really enjoying it, shrug when told some clothes are unwearable and scoff at the thought that he should start a fashion label of his own.
"I don't feel anonymous," says the designer behind Anne Klein & Co., New York. "If people don't know who I am by now, they'll never know."
Clearly in his stride since former design partner Donna Karan left to start her own line almost three years ago, Dell'Olio calmly made rounds with customers last week at Neiman-Marcus, Beverly Hills, which presented his resort line.
"I've become much more secure with myself," Dell'Olio said afterward. "When there's a team, you have the opportunity to slack off. The other person will step in. On your own, you have to be on, 100% of the time."
He says he's obsessive about work--constantly off to Italy. But somehow all his flurry results in clothes that are sleek, serene and every bit the classic Anne Klein image.
"Classic doesn't mean old. It means well bred," said the slightly stocky Dell'Olio, who increasingly resembles French designer Karl Lagerfeld.
"What's happening in fashion today is very faddish," he added, mentioning the rococo influence of Christian Lacroix. "Only Lacroix should do Lacroix--and very few women should wear it," Dell'Olio said. "Let's face it: Lacroix got raves, but he could just as easily have gotten panned. He went out on a limb."
Not on a limb, Dell'Olio delivers simply tailored dresses and knit separates in a slinky, nautical mood. Most everything is shown in navy, ivory or gold, from soft trousers with knit halters to skinny short skirts.
Many pieces are embroidered with chain-link soutache. He calls the look "very American," but another comparison comes to mind. "People may say, 'that's so Chanel.' But that's not where I'm coming from," he said.
At the extreme, Dell'Olio's white leather strapless minidresses would make most women look overly endowed and underdressed.
"I don't design clothes that everyone has to look right in," Dell'Olio noted. "When people say: 'I don't feel right in your clothes,' there's a reason. These women don't understand proportion or newness. They always want what they already have. I don't really care about those women. They can shop somewhere else."
Aware that a designer "can't be everything to everybody," Dell'Olio nonetheless oversees a wide-reaching fashion empire that includes the designer and lower-priced Anne Klein II lines, shoes, jewelry, accessories, furs and, soon, a swimsuit collection--challenges that seem to compensate for the fact that he heads a company built on another's name.
"It's like building blocks for me," he said of the constant expansion. "It makes me stronger in the business sense."
Dell'Olio joined former Parsons School of Design classmate Karan at Anne Klein 13 years ago, soon after the death of founder Anne Klein. The famed partnership kept the fashion house in world prominence, and although now solo, Dell'Olio says he cannot imagine how Anne Klein would have evolved differently had Karan stayed.