Bernat Klein: Pioneering designer who reinvigorated the British textile industry and worked with Dior, Chanel and Saint Laurent

 

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The Independent Online

The 18-year-old who had been recruited to help British intelligence in Cairo in 1943 by listening in on enemy radio broadcasts from Europe had been told to decide for himself what was important, and translate it. But under his headphones he was disconsolate, dreaming instead of the multiple reds, blues greens and golds glowing, as he remembered, from the bales of cloth his father used to keep stored for carrying on the family business of textile-importing in the little Serb town of Senta where he had grown up.

He had not seen his family much since 1935, when they sent him to a yeshiva (rabbinical school) in Czechoslovakia, and not at all since 1939, when he had arrived to study in Jerusalem under a leading rabbi. His true talent, art, was quickly recognised and a place found in 1940 at the city's Bezalel Academy of Art and Craft, where he soon specialised in textiles, and learned to weave.

But the fact of his having a brain as good for intellectual matters as it was for art could not be ignored. It was all the more important for a Jewish boy made stateless by war and Nazi ideology to have all the qualifications he could get.

So in what was then British Mandate Palestine, the boy now exiled from Senta had prepared himself by private study to take, in June 1943, the London Matriculation, an examination that served as a higher school-leaving certificate. The British official Palestine Gazette for some reason published the pass results only on 31 August 1944. His name appears, listed alphabetically, in the Second Division.

It was at some time during those two years, even as his parents were being deported by the Germans to Auschwitz, that the British Ministry of Information snapped up the bright Serb boy who knew several languages. But no amount of asking would get it to reveal to him the purpose of the particular tasks he was given. If there was some secret code, he later mused, he never cracked it.

By 1945, however, the young radio snooper had kept his controllers happy enough to be given a visa, via the British Council, to sail for Britain and take up a degree course in textile technology at Leeds University. He departed from Haifa on the SS Franconia, the ship used that February for the Yalta conference that determined the fate of Europe. His mother was dead, though his father had survived. His only other relations lived in Belgrade, now on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain that was about to fall between Communist states and the West. But the Serbian cloth-importer's son was launched on his way. His British hosts were to find it was not his ears that could best serve their country's interests, but his eyes.

"Bernat Klein", the name set in grey and faded type on the withering gazette of a vanished land, was to burst into flower in its owner's adopted country, Scotland, where he designed cloths with myriad rich blue, brown and hot pink hues in imitation of the colours of its southern hillsides, and energising 40 cloth mills and, at his peak, 600 workers.

He even called his first company "Colourcraft", and his vision pitched the little Borders town of Galashiels, where he based it, into manufacturing for the dizzy reaches of Parisian haute couture. Klein had obtained an agent in the French capital, and his innovative lightweight, space- and dip-dyed tweeds, an advance on the muted traditional weaves that Galashiels had long been known for producing, attracted the attention of the great Coco Chanel.

For her spring 1963 collection Chanel seized on his soft oranges, bright greens, and rich cream, and in later years other leading fashion houses including Dior and Saint Laurent followed suit. His clothes were worn by the model Jean Shrimpton, and by Princess Margaret. Klein was soon credited with having single-handedly saved the Scottish tweed industry, which, before he bought his first mill, High Mill at Netherdale in 1956, had been faltering.

On leaving his studies at Leeds he had gone to Scotland by way of Tootal Broadhurst Lee at Bolton, then Munrospun at Edinburgh. He also brought to Scotland a wife, Margaret Soper, a fellow design student, whom he had met at a Leeds ball, and whom he married in 1951.

Colourcraft, founded in 1952 with £500 given by a friend, opened in the same year a shop in Edinburgh called Boutique and produced, with four looms in a shed, a range of rugs, head-squares and ties. Klein also sold scarves for the modest price of 2/11 (two shillings and 11 pence – in present currency less than 15p) from shops such as Littlewoods and British Home Stores.

But by the 1960s, with couture orders multiplying, he feared pricing-out his original less wealthy clients. Here his wife stepped in and devised patterns for knitting and sewing from, so that those unable to luxuriate in Klein's most expensive velvet-ribbon-woven tweeds could at least purchase skirt-lengths and varied-hued knitting-wools.

He never let his work be less than an art form, and took up oil painting, something he would carry on for the rest of his life, the exploration of colour and texture informing his cloth-dyeing and weaving. He acknowledged the influence of the painters Georges Seurat and Paul Klee, and detailed his passion for weaving in his book Eye For Colour (1965).

He engaged the architect Peter Womersley to design him a modernist house, at High Sunderland, near Selkirk, with a view over the Eildon Hills and a vista of gloriously coloured copper beeches from which he drew inspiration, and there lived with his family. The couple had three daughters. Margaret died in 2008.

National Museums Scotland acquired his collection of about 200 items in 2011 and the High Mill now houses Edinburgh's Heriot-Watt University's School of Textiles and Design. Klein was made CBE in 1973, and retired in 1992.

ANNE KELENY

Bernat Klein, textile designer and artist: born Senta, Serbia 6 November 1922; CBE 1973; married 1951 Margaret Soper (died 2008; one son, two daughters); died Selkirk 17 April 2014.

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