In The Magazine

American Beauty

Friday, January 8, 2016
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The latest chapter in the extraordinary life of Kelly Klein

photographed by Georgia Nerheim
styled by Emily Barnes
hair and makeup by Alexa Rodulfo
fashion assistance by Kacey Bennett

Kelly Klein has had quite a life,” Bob Colacello writes in the afterword of Klein’s new book of photography. Quite true, and in recent years she has entered a totally new chapter, filled with the hard daily work of mothering an energetic young boy, her career as a photographer and collectible photo book editor, and a beautiful breezy home in Palm Beach.

Her latest book, published in October by Rizzoli, is a departure for her. Simply called Photographs by Kelly Klein, it is different from each of the six she curated and edited before it in that it exclusively features her own photographs. Page after page of the
oversized tome juxtaposes some of Klein’s striking fashion shots with eye-catching still lifes and landscapes, as well as haunting glimpses from her many amazing travels. Sprinkled in the middle of these dazzling compositions are more personal Instagram stories and informal party pics from Kelly’s storied life—populated with the likes of Malcolm Forbes, Henry Kissinger, Kate Moss, Diane von Furstenberg, Barry Diller, Fran Lebowitz, Bruce Weber and more, all presented matter-of-factly, without much comment or text, save the occasional short Sharpie description in Klein’s handwriting. It is an almost purely visual testament to both her incredible life and her keen visual sensibility, and is a book that no one else on the planet could have possibly created. “Beauty abounds,” Colacello sums up in his closing note on the book, “as does a sense of discreet intimacy.”

It is more difficult to sum up Kelly Klein than her latest tome, but Colacello has pinpointed some essentials. She is an intensely private and discreet person, and clearly her aesthetic informs every aspect of her life—her sun-drenched, clutter-free Central Park West apartment; her beautiful but restrained Palm Beach house—which she had built from scratch for her son, Lukas, now 8, and her to flourish in the winter months—and her always elegant, often understated sense of style. “I’m a very visual person,” Klein says, relaxing on her couch clad in black jeans and a smartly tailored button-down shirt. “I snap all day long whenever I see something beautiful or interesting. And I tend to find beauty in everything.”

Her story is somewhat well known and, as social historian Colacello might observe, uniquely American. Michigan-born, she grew up as Kelly Rector in Connecticut and Manhattan. She started riding horses at age 4, an activity that became a central part of her life until just a few years ago. Her father, Tully Rector, was a director of TV commercials, and she credits him in the book with introducing her to another lifelong passion, film. Her mother was a model, something stunning young Kelly also dabbled in before turning to design. She graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology in 1977 and landed a job as a design assistant with Ralph Lauren. Four years later, she was looking to make a move and interviewed with Calvin Klein. She landed the job after running into the designer at Studio 54, and it proved to be an auspicious time in the growth of the Calvin Klein brand. In 1982, Kelly traveled with Bruce Weber and his crew to Santorini, Greece, for the shoot that launched Calvin Klein’s underwear line. Snapping away to document the behind-the-scenes action of the history-making fashion shoot, she took full advantage of the opportunity to watch Weber shoot Iman and Andie MacDowell. Four whirlwind years later, she married Calvin Klein in Rome.

The marriage to the considerably older and spectacularly successful Klein changed her life, of course. A year after their wedding, Calvin made an international society splash when he bought Kelly the Duchess of Windsor’s jewels at a Sotheby’s auction. One ring was inscribed with the word “Eternity” on the inside, which eventually became the name of the company’s best-selling fragrance. Kelly, in many ways, embodied the Calvin Klein aesthetic: the ocean blue eyes, Connecticut-honed skills as a horsewoman—the ultimate in preppy Waspy chic. In 1992, she told the New York Times, “I am Calvin’s muse. He designs everything for me. I happen to be very American, look very American.” She was absolutely right. Calvin was hardly the only one who was smitten with her iconic American beauty.

Some of the many memorable moments in the fabulous social life of the Kleins
are enshrined in spreads in the book, including a sailing trip on the Italian Riviera with Lapo Elkann in 2006; breakfast with Henry Kissinger, Jann Wenner and Calvin the morning before Malcolm Forbes’ birthday bash in Tangiers in 1989; a small summer party with Lee Radziwill, son Anthony and John F. Kennedy, Jr.; and Kelly’s own birthday party at perennial favorite Indochine in 1994 with luminaries like Anna Wintour, Carolyn Bessette-Kennedy and Larry Gagosian, models Elle Macpherson and Veronica Webb and celebrity photographers Steven Meisel and Bruce Weber in attendance. Another charming insider moment dates back to 1981, when Kelly captured “Four Moguls Sleeping” aboard the Midnight Saga. The dozing moguls were Barry Diller, Calvin Klein, David Geffen and Sandy Gallin.

Apart from these tantalizing peaks into a glamorous, jet-setting life, the book is filled with stunning visual surprises. Kelly credits renowned art director Sam Shahid, who created several Calvin Klein campaigns, with working with her images and finding surprising echoes between very different pictures. When juxtaposed, Christy Turlington and a picture of Madonna (i.e., Jesus’ mother) will strike a common chord. The shape of a coat is reminiscent of the majestic rock pictured beside it. Or David Bowie and Iman in Mustique will find themselves next to a picture of a makeshift shrine to Jesus in Cuba. (Klein is a big fan of Catholic iconography and churches.) Suffice it to say that in the editing process, each picture got a new life.

When Calvin and Kelly’s marriage ended in 2006, Kelly’s other passions endured. Her fashion photography career hummed along. She had reached some heady heights of her own in the fashion world, photographing covers for British and Spanish Vogue and spreads for Marie Claire and Harper’s Bazaar, among other accomplishments. Early in her career, she had shot supermodels like Gisele Bündchen, Kate Moss, Shalom Harlow and Christy Turlington. She is an intuitive, self-taught photographer with no formal training who admired the work of innovators like Horst P. Horst, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Man Ray, Richard Avedon and Edward Weston. Her own style, she says, tends toward the more naturalistic. “I leave the models looking the way they look,” she says. “I like to keep the beauty in the girl without too much manipulation.” And, as Colacello says, beauty abounds.

In her introduction, Klein poignantly lays out some of her reasons for collecting these images between book covers and her overall philosophy of photography. “All photographs are fragments of the past. They preserve what happened in a moment,” she writes. “The camera allows me to pay a special kind of attention. Photography, for me, is a devotional act. Trying to take the best photograph that I can is my way of honoring the friends, cities, artworks, landscapes, mentors, and atmospheres that I’ve been fortunate enough to know.”

One friend she feels fortunate to know, and likewise, Aerin Lauder Zinterhofer, praises Klein’s effortless elegance and artistic soul: “Kelly is an instinctively creative person, intensely engaged with the world around her, and she has a remarkable ability to find the beauty in everyday things.” Because she is always finding it, Kelly snaps away all day long.

The book is both a sweet and stylish way of memorializing her extraordinary life to date, and while it always gratifying to finish a project, all of her books are labors of love that on some level she hates to finish. Releasing a book can be part of the process of letting go. Her book about horses was a kind of farewell to her career as a competitive equestrian a few years ago, another big change that Kelly decided was due after one particularly bad fall. “It was time to be safe,” she told Architectural Digest in 2012. “After all, I’m a mother now.”

Motherhood is, of course, the most significant recent turn her story has taken. Eight years ago—after her divorce—her son, Lukas, was born, as Klein says, “late in life.” Her days now revolve around him and her work. A typical day has her rising early to have coffee and read the newspaper before he wakes. She wakes him, makes him breakfast and walks him to school, then usually hits the gym for some Pilates or spinning. Most days she goes to her studio to work on a photo shoot or book project. She’s usually home for an early 5:30 or 6 p.m. dinner with Lukas. Then she’ll read or watch Shark Tank, she says, unless something compelling like a friend’s birthday or an “interesting screening” beckons. Lukas, she says, is way more academic than she was as a child, and a voracious reader, so she feels like she is getting another education right along with him. He recently introduced her to the books of Roald Dahl.

About four years ago, she built her winter home in Palm Beach, leaving horse-and-farm-country Wellington, where she had spent winters for two decades. Perched on the Intracoastal Waterway, the 3,000-foot stucco home is breezy, chic and earthy, outfitted with soothing all-natural finishes, (“nothing shiny,” she has said). She worked closely with noted architect David Piscuskas, who also redesigned her Central Park West apartment to create what she has described as an “indoor/outdoor house.” Open and small, the Palm Beach gives her and Lukas easy access to the out of doors where they both like to spend a lot of time, and lots of together time while they are indoors. “I love Florida,” Klein says, echoing the thoughts of many, “the palm trees, the tropical weather, riding my bike on the nice wide sidewalk.” She still spends a fair amount of time seeing friends at the equestrian center and polo stadium in Wellington. Or, she can be found antiquing or window-shopping on South Dixie, grabbing a bite at her favorite Japanese restaurant, Imoto, or shopping for breads and desserts at the French bakery on South County Road. When it comes to socializing, she prefers small get-togethers with friends, and in Florida as in New York, she tends to retire early, and rise before Lukas does. It’s been a long time since she has put on an evening gown, or the Duchess of Windsor’s jewels.

Whether it’s in New York, the Hamptons in the summer or Palm Beach in the winter, she will likely have her camera in tow, ready to snap away or find the beauty in the everyday.


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