Interview: Bernat Klein, textile designer

Bernat Klein at his Borders home
Bernat Klein at his Borders home
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When Bernat Klein was a teenager, he became a spy. A young James Bond perhaps? “A very mild version,” laughs the octagenarian textile designer, artist and colourist, who could be described as the spy who came in to the cold or even the spy who clothed me.

For, more than 65 years ago, Klein moved to Scotland where he has lived and worked ever since.

“I dreaded it,” he recalls over lunch in his Scottish Borders home, which resembles a huge glass box hidden deep in leafy woodlands like some enchanted object from a fairytale. “I thought Scotland would be so very, very cold – and it was,” he shudders. Nonetheless, he lost his heart to the country’s warm, friendly people, to the light-drenched landscape and to the ever-changing seasons.

He was living in Egypt when, barely 18-years-old, he was recruited by British Intelligence. It still puzzles him because, being a Serbian Jew, educated in Czechoslovakia and Jerusalem, he had little command of the English language in which he is so fluent today. Indeed, he’s written several books in his second language, including the classic Eye For Colour (1965).

“My job, in Cairo, was to monitor broadcasts from Europe and to report anything suspicious. I really wasn’t very good at it, because no one explained the purpose of my work. They said, ‘Get on with it. Listen to the broadcasts and translate. Decide what is important and what isn’t.’

“It gives me the shivers! If there was some secret code, I never cracked it,” he murmurs, shaking his head in bewilderment before laughing quietly at the absurdity of it. Klein’s unlikely career as a spook lasted only months. “I was so glad to get away from it; it was boring,” he recalls.

He was impatient to get on with his education and to become an textile designer – an ambition he’s fulfilled, winning plaudits and dozens of awards, inclding an honorary degree from Heriot-Watt University, a Textile Institute Design Medal and a 2007 Scottish Style award. He was appointed CBE in 1973 and has designed fabrics for haute couture houses, such as Chanel, Dior, Yves St Laurent and many others, as well as creating stunning designs for Scandinavan-style soft furnishings, while almost singlehandedly rescuing the Borders weaving industry from of its post-war doldrums, when he recalls clothes were either mud-brown or sludge green. “And that was just the women!” he exclaims. “At least the men had their kilts, tartan ties and trews.”

Eventually, Klein was to employ 600 people at the height of his mill’s success, thanks to his creative talents and the business acumen of his late wife, Margaret, also a designer, who died in 2008.

Now, Klein’s remarkable archive has been acquired by the National Museums of Scotland. “It’s only 200 or so pieces,” he tells me over quiche and salad, served by his younger daughter, Shelley, who runs her own business designing greeting cards and stationery from their home in the Ettrick Valley, near Selkirk.

“I threw an awful lot of stuff away,” continues Klein, who will be 90 next year and who is a dyed-in-the-wool minimalist, hence the clean-cut lines of his award-winning High Sunderland home. A paeon to postmodernism, it stands next door to the striking design studio, also by architect Peter Womersley, which has been sold twice over, although, sadly, it has yet to be brought back to life.

As National Museums of Scotland textile curator Fiona Anderson, points out, Klein’s archive actually includes more than 1,800 items, ranging from sketches for his textile designs and fabric swatches to finished garments, as well as cuttings books in which his career in the international worlds of fashion and interior design has been faithfully recorded by newspapers –“A Scot from Jugoslavia!”, the Sunday Times (April 7, 1963) – and glossy magazines.

Eventually, the National Museums of Scotland will stage an exhibition of the Klein archive, which has yet to be catalogued. “A huge task,” according to Anderson, who is clearly relishing the prospect, revealing a rack of jewel-coloured evening dresses from the late Sixties and Seventies, recently liberated from the NMS’s Granton storage facility.

Glorious, gorgeous colour is the key to Klein’s creations. He’s written: “My passion for colour has grown almost into an obsession... I think that colours are as important in our lives as words are; and words cannot be used as substitutes for colours.” It’s his modernity that has always marked him out – he has no time for fuss and ornamentation. “I’m a quiet revolutionary,” he says of his love of pared-down design.

Certainly, he has created an extraordinary body of work. He’s gone from designing and making woollen scarves for Woolworths to creating couture fabrics for the likes of Sixties’ model Jean Shrimpton, Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon, who photographed Klein’s designs and who also wore Klein’s tweeds.

Klein never dreamt of such glittering success. He simply wanted to design beautiful textiles, “although I was always ambitious”. However, one day in January, 1962, he was sitting in his office in Galashiels, leafing through the latest edition of the French fashion magazine, Elle. To his amazement, in full colour and across several pages, was his newest cloth – mohair tweed in a mixture of shades of cream, orange, leaf green and red – modelled by Chanel into one of her classic suits.

“I was too excited to speak or to realise the far-reaching implications,” he remembers. An agent had been appointed to sell Klein’s products in Paris. Only two cloths had been sent a few months earlier.

It was a turning point for Klein, because he already had his business selling lambswool scarves for the princely sum of 2s 11d (not quite 15p) in vast quantities, such as 2,000 dozen, to chain stories – Littlewoods, British Homes Stores and Marks & Spencer were among his customers. Every mill in Galashiels – “in those days there were 40” – was weaving for him. (He launched his own business after borrowing £500 from a friend.)

Soon, he was jetting back and forth to London. “In the mornings I would show my scarves to Woolworths and, later, mohair stoles to Marks & Spencer; then in the afternoon I would meet Yves St Laurent or Pierre Cardin to show my exclusive new textile designs. It was a most unusual way of doing business – the two trades were so different. Being able to make designs acceptable to both was incredible.”

He always did his own thing, he insists, recalling inventing velvet tweeds of woven ribbon and tweeds that were heavily influenced by Pointillist painters, such as Seurat. “The couturiers did not dictate colours to me. I had already started to paint to get my creative juices flowing and my colour wheels spinning. I gave them the colours I chose; I was the dictator!

“All my inspiration has always been derived from nature, what I see when I look out of my windows or walk down to the woods, where there is so much colour, even in winter. I was always mad about colours – I still am. You should select the colours you wear according to the colour of your eyes, something I wrote about in my book, Eye For Colour. Then, wear only very plain garments.”

While we eat fresh apricots, he tells me that he found Jean Muir’s elegant designs “too frilly,” but that his bêtes noires are Zandra Rhodes and Vivienne Westwood. “Ugh!” he exclaims. “I prefer male designers.” Balenciaga? “Yes!” St Laurent? “Some designs,” he says grudgingly. Alexander McQueen? “Ummm...” Galliano? “I can’t separate the man who said what he said [a reference to Galliano’s racist rants which led to him being sacked by the House of Dior] from the clothes. No.”

Klein knows of what he speaks since he observed the world of haute couture from the inside out for decades, but Galliano’s remarks surely touched a raw nerve since Klein’s mother, Zorina, known as “Zori,” was a victim of the Holocaust. She died, a prisoner of the Nazis, in a concentration camp. His father, Leopold, known as “Lipi,” somehow survived and moved to Israel to live.

Today, this small, gentle man’s eyes still fill with tears when he speaks of his kind, easy-going mother, who was universally loved, and his austere, rather strict father, recalling a “happy, well-balanced childhood” in the yellow-grey town of Senta, north of Belgrade, with its “blonde, sandy” river. Both parents worked in the textile wholesale business.

So fabrics were woven into his genes?

“Oh yes, table talk in our family was always textiles. I listened and I watched for hours as my father met different sales representatives,” he says, adding that his parents were Orthodox Jews who took their religion very seriously. So at the age of 13, he was packed off to a Czechoslovakian seminary.

“My parents never discussed it with me, but I think they knew the war was coming. When I was 16, they sent me to Jerusalem because they did not want me to serve in the war.” He studied for two years at Jerusalem College of Art before that brief spell as a spy. “As soon as the war was over, I moved heaven and earth to get into Leeds University in 1945 to study textiles and that’s where I met my wife, Margaret Soper, who was working for the Board of Trade.” They married in 1951 and have one son, Jonathan (58) and daughters, Gillian (54) and Shelley (48).

After graduating in 1948, Klein got a job designing woven fabrics for ties and handkerchiefs in Bolton before moving to Edinburgh to work for Munrospun, for whom he designed ladies’ coat and skirt fabrics. The company relocated to Galashiels in 1950 – and he’s been based in the Borders ever since.

“I don’t think I could have produced the fabrics I did had I worked in London,” he says, adding that he and his wife built up yet another business based on the mohair yarns he was constantly developing. “We made wool for handknitting which was sold with co-ordinating fabrics, which we also wove. That lasted for almost 20 years – we even had our own shop in Edinburgh. Margaret designed all the patterns because I knew nothing about knitting,” he says. “Then, suddenly, I found myself 72-years-old and I decide to retire.”

Klein still paints every day. His paintings take a long time since he’s easily tired, although he’s never made more than four or five works a year anyway, he says, showing me a beautiful abstract on which he’s working. It’s as if he’s stolen a scrap of lapis lazuli-coloured sky, trapping it on canvas.

“I still haven’t quite got it, though, because I want the bluest blue you’ve ever seen – I have become very interested in certain aspects of blue,” he says, still the alchemist, still the sorcerer, still conjuring up all the colours of the rainbow.