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MR. RIGHT? : A Sunny Hills grad is the latest designer to head up Anne Klein. Is this finally . . .


LOS ANGELES — Twenty minutes before show time, Patrick Robinson, looking like a young Bonaparte, surveys the scene: 10 models in semi-disarray. Will he interfere? Throw his weight around? Become The Designer?

Not Robinson. He is nervous and shy when it comes to making personal appearances. But the only giveaway is his constant fiddling with four thin gold rings on his right hand. Neatly clad in a black Armani suit, T-shirt, sockless crocodile loafers and small, gold-rimmed glasses, he watches from the center of the room, waiting for something.

A chatty model, slouched in a chair, strikes up a conversation, and Robinson swings into action. Working the room in a soft, confident, amused voice, he dishes about landlords, furniture, life in Europe, makeup and dimples, of which, he demonstrates, he has one and questions its disappearance from his official photograph.

Now they are all in this ordeal together: The new designer for Anne Klein will talk the talk, and the Los Angeles models will walk the walk, introducing a slice of his fall collection to 150 veteran store buyers in the ballroom of the Four Seasons hotel in Los Angeles.

At "28 going on 50," by his own reckoning, Robinson has his dream job and a difficult road ahead. He is giving himself four years, he says, "to find out more about myself through my design, to see how it unfolds, how it unwinds and the reaction from the customer. I want to have a broader audience that's both national and international. I want to have a set image for Anne Klein, an image very much fixed into people's minds when they think of Anne Klein by Patrick Robinson."

The $175-million company has lately had an identity crisis. Begun as Anne Klein Studio in 1965, the company's original concept was luxurious day and evening wear with the sensibility of classic sportswear. The tradition was carried on by Donna Karan and Louis Dell'Olio after Klein's death in 1974. After Karan left in 1985 to start her own company, Dell'Olio remained. His position seemed secure until, in 1993, he was ousted, blamed for staid designs and sagging sales.

In a surprise move, the company's owners, Takihyo Inc., hired a Hollywood fashion hero--Richard Tyler--who lasted all of 19 months. His super-sexy, super-young designs, coupled with Steven Meisel's controversial advertising campaign, were generally considered too over-the-edge for the Klein customer.

But the official party line, as reported by Women's Wear Daily, was that Tyler did "outfits, rather than sportswear, and there weren't parts that mixed and matched and built a wardrobe."

Enter Robinson, a man committed to components, looking for a new challenge. He had spent four years in Milan, Italy, "stretching every category" in Le Collezioni, Giorgio Armani's secondary line. "The most important part for almost anyone was that the sales quadrupled. For me, it was the change of the attitude of the clothing. But I reached a point where everything that I could give the collection was there."

And he wanted to come home. "This is the best country on Earth," he says passionately. "Everything works. I'm the only person, I think, walking around New York grinning."

He took 2 1/2 months to create a collection that ordinarily takes six. So meticulous "it drives people crazy," he asked for an office alongside his tailors and pattern makers. He delved into the archives, discovering, among other things, that Anne Klein had a great sense of humor.

He has humor of his own, evidenced by a white evening dress with an unexpected beaded bow above the buttocks. And a passion for precision tailoring. He starts by anchoring "everything--jackets, dresses, blouses--from the shoulder. For me, that's the frame of the face. And then I work down."

He based his collection, he says, "on everything that's happening today--just looking around the world I live in. I didn't open a magazine, I didn't open a book. I just started sketching. It was an outpouring of me."

After his 153-piece outpouring was shown in New York in April (it's filtering into stores now), the first people to congratulate him, he says with pride, "were my pattern makers and seamstresses, my head tailor. These are people who had worked with Anne Klein, and they told me it was a true Anne Klein collection, which made me very happy."

Buyers at the Four Seasons presentation seemed to sense a revival of the old days. They lined up for Robinson's autograph, raving about the "very valid" pearlized-velvet separates, gold-pin-stripe pantsuits, side-slit skirts (some call them his signature) and intricate, bias-cut gowns.

But not everyone has been so kind. Women's Wear Daily grumbled that the collection was "very, very, very commercial." Another critic griped that the "conservative chocolate-colored jackets were the sort of thing you'd find at Talbots, but at Anne Klein prices."

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