Former spy turned designer Bernat Klein dies at 91

FASHION designer Bernat Klein, who brought colour to the drab world of British textiles from his “cold” adopted home in Scotland, has died at the age of 91.

FASHION designer Bernat Klein, who brought colour to the drab world of British textiles from his “cold” adopted home in Scotland, has died at the age of 91.

Klein, a Serbian Jew who settled in Scotland more than 60 years ago, is credited with almost single-handedly rescuing the Borders weaving industry from its postwar doldrums with designs that attracted some of the world’s biggest fashion houses.

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His first job was as a spy for British Intelligence during the Second World War but he went on to start a design business that brought him friends from the top of the fashion industry as well as numerous official honours.

Sixties supermodel Jean Shrimpton wore his clothes as did Princess Margaret, while society photographer Lord Snowden wore his tweeds. An accomplished artist, Klein was still producing oil paintings right up to his death at his Selkirk home last Thursday.

Yesterday his daughter Shelley said her father had been alert and active into his 90s and was still able to paint. “In fact, he only finished an oil painting last week,” she said.

So influential was his contribution to his industry that the National Museums of Scotland snapped up his design archive for the nation in 2011.

He died after a very short ­illness. “A good way of putting it was that he had a long and colourful life, because colour was certainly his thing,” Shelley added.

Klein was born in the former Yugoslavia in 1922 and aged 18 moved to Israel where he was recruited as a wartime spy by Britain to monitor and translate signals. After the war he emigrated to Leeds to study textile technology.

Attracted by the tweed industry, he moved to the Borders in 1952 where he set up a weaving centre in Galashiels. By the early 1960s, his colourful designs were being noticed by the big fashion houses and Coco Chanel cemented his reputation by choosing his fabrics for one of her spring collections. He went on to work with Dior, Balenciaga, Pierre Cardin and Yves Saint Laurent.

Style bible Vogue praised him for having “revolutionised traditional English fabrics to win them new recognition abroad”. He once told an interviewer: “My passion for colour has grown almost into an obsession … I think that colours are as important in our lives as words are.”

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At its height his mill employed 600 people but in 1966 he resigned to branch out on his own again. Basing himself near Selkirk, he established a cottage industry of hand-knitters, employing up to 250 people and went on to produce his own clothing collections.

He won a Design Council award in 1968, was appointed a CBE in 1973, given an honorary degree by Heriot-Watt University, which runs textile design courses, in 2003 and was honoured by the Scottish Style awards in 2007.

In an interview with The Scotsman following the acceptance of his archive by NMS, Klein described his move to Scotland, “I dreaded it,” he said. “I thought Scotland would be so very, very cold – and it was.”

Friends said he loved the country nevertheless and was determined to make it a brighter place, recalling the clothes he first saw in the Borders were either mud-brown or sludge green. “And that was just the women!” he said. “At least the men had their kilts, tartan ties and trews.”

Klein was made an honorary member of the Royal Incorporation of Architects Scotland because of his design skills. Rias secretary Neil Baxter described him as “an adoptive Scot whose international influence as a textile designer cannot be underestimated. As an entrepreneur he helped revitalise the Border’s weaving and cloth manufacturing industries.

“Working alongside the glitterati of 20th-century fashion, several of whom were personal friends, Klein gave Scottish textiles a new cachet and was largely responsible for the introduction of tweed to the catwalks of Paris and Milan. For a generation of Scottish women, owning a Bernat Klein creation was an aspiration.”

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