Born: Brooklyn, New York, 8 September 1942. Education: Studied drama; no formal training in design. Family: Married Millie, 1971. Career: Millinery designer under the label Rafael; formed joint venture with Onward Kashiyama Co., 1989-92; launched independent label, WJK, to show menswear collection, 1992. Awards: Coty American Fashion Critics award, 1974, 1975, 1976, 1978; elected to Coty Hall of Fame, 1976; Hall of Fame citation, 1978. Address: Via Manzoni 43, Milan, Italy.
Lambert, Eleanor, The World of Fashion, New York, 1976.
Morris, Bernadine, and Barbara Walz, The Fashion Makers, New York, 1978.
Khornak, Lucille, Fashion 2001, New York, 1982.
Hyde, Nina, "Bill Kaiserman, Putting His Shoulder to the Wheel," in the Washington Post, 7 December 1986.
"Tanned Blond and Dresses to the Hilt: We Must be in Milan," in the Chicago Tribune, 14 March 1990.
Marisa Fox, "Designers Sing a Soprano Tune for Fall," in the Chicago Tribune, 7 February 2000.
Bill Kaiserman has had success in the fields of menswear and womenswear. With no formal design training, he began his career as a salesperson in a men's clothing shop. While there, he started designing hats and sold them under the label Rafael. He was soon producing suede and leatherwear to complement the millinery. Cashmere sweaters and silk shirts were added, together with the safari suit—a revolutionary new shape in menswear establishing the concept of the leisure suit and leisure dressing for men.
Kaiserman's menswear success led him to produce ranges of womenswear, still under the label of Rafael. Beginning with tailored clothes, his look gradually became softer and more casual, evolving into a sophisticated daywear look, made to high standards in luxurious, discerning fabrics and colors. Produced in Italy, his clothes came to represent the best standards in American fashion.
Kaiserman cited his customers as being between 30 and 45, who wanted to look young and well dressed without resorting to the extremes of teenage fashion. As a menswear and womenswear designer, he has noted the marked difference in designing for both sexes. With womenswear, the approach is more creative and free. An idea can often be realized to its full potential, whereas with menswear, an imaginative idea often has to be restrained: "There are just a few shapes that are acceptable, there is less room for fantasy," he has said. He believes men should not look too formal, styled, or contrived. Women, on the other hand, look fabulous when the body shape is emphasized and exaggerated.
Amply recognized for his contribution to American fashion, Kaiserman has received several Coty awards and a Hall of Fame citation for his contribution to menswear. He and his wife Millie both declared themselves fitness and health fanatics. Kaiserman confessed he often gets design ideas when lifting weights and has joked that if he never made it as the world's biggest international designer, he would certainly be the strongest.
It is ultimately his menswear concept that was Kaiserman's greatest contribution to fashion. His leisurewear opened up greater boundaries for menswear design as a whole, and his leisure suit became a liberated classic for many men. He chose the name Rafael because he thought it would look better in print than his own; ironically, his name as a designer eclipsed the label he chose to represent his product.
In the 1980s, Kaiserman disappeared from the fashion industry, closing Rafael and moving to Italy. "My business had gotten too big for me to handle," he told Nina Hyde of the Washington Post. "I was spending 90 percent of my time trying to run a business and 10 percent designing, if that." He told Hyde that fashion's social scene, including parties and drugs, were "choking me to death." After about five years on hiatus from the business, Kaiserman eased his way back into designing by producing lines for other companies. In 1985 he signed an agreement to design womenswear for the upscale label Cache, founded in 1975. "His talent is superb," said Cache president Mitchell Rubinson. "His style is certainly compatible with the typical Cache client who is sophisticated and fashion-aware."
Kaiserman told Hyde that his ideal garment structure had changed a bit over the years. "What I care about is enough structure in the clothes to enhance the shape of the body," he said. "No one has a perfect body without a little help."
Returning to the Milan fashion scene with the backing of clothing conglomerate Kashiyama & Company, a licensee of menswear from Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein, the new Kaiserman menswear was not always as well received as his Rafael clothing. Suits and jackets were looser and proportioned differently; critics and clients alike seemed to yearn for Kaiserman designs from decades ago. A former assistant, however, Michael Savoia, turned heads with his debut menswear collection in New York in 2000. The well-tailored suits harked back to Kaiserman's crisp and classic Rafael clothing so popular in the 1970s and 1980s.
updated by Lisa Groshong