In Honor of Charles Kleibacker

Normally at this time of year, the Museum is busy with preparations for the annual Kleibacker Film Festival. This year would have been the 9th annual festival celebrating excellence in fashion and design, and due to the pandemic we made the decision to cancel this program for the first time since its inception.

Charles Kleibacker, the festival’s namesake, made tremendous contributions to the worlds of art and fashion. Charles had an eye for excellence and a heart for people. Born in a small town in Alabama in 1921, Charles first learned about the retail world from a family-owned department store and cotton gin around the corner. After attending Notre Dame, then obtaining a graduate degree in retailing from NYU, Charles got his first break in the late 1940s with a job assisting Hildegarde, a glamorous American cabaret singer well known for the song “Darling, Je Vous Aime Beaucoup.”

While touring in Paris, Hildegarde would be dressed at the House of Dior. Charles remarked on the experience “As a member of her entourage, I was welcomed to view the daily showing at three in the afternoon whenever I could get away from work. I went often! This was a turning point for me. The beauty of the Dior salons, the clothes, the models, and the whole atmosphere – I was mesmerized. Then and there I made up my mind – this is what I’ve always wanted to be, a designer of women’s clothing, clothing that has merit.”

After three months abroad, Charles returned to New York and got to work learning everything he could about the worlds of fabric, draping, and design. He spent the next several years working with well-known designers such as Antonio del Castillo of Lanvin and Nettie Rosenstein, known as the mother of the little black luncheon dress.

In 1960 Charles opened Kleibacker Studio in New York. Charles become famous and known as “the master of the bias cut.” His label sold well at Bergdorf Goodman, Henri Bendel, many specialty stores and to private clients, including First Ladies Pat Nixon, Lady Bird Johnson, and actress Diahann Carroll. 

“The dresses were sublime. These dresses were all about the feminine figure. You wore the dress. It moved with you. It was so carefully cut on the bias. It was like wearing nothing. The garments just floated.” Coco Hashim retired fashion executive for The Limited, John Wanamaker, Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdale’s, Henri Bendel, Bonwitt Teller (2009)

Charles came to The Ohio State University in the fall of 1984 for one quarter as a visiting professor in the Department of Textiles and Clothing, College of Home Economics (later Human Ecology). He later become designer-in-residence in 1985, with a goal to build a Historic Costume and Textiles Collection for the University. The collection started with 800 garments and would end with close to 8,000! Charles closed his studio in New York in 1986 and committed himself to the collection. Charles curated many exhibitions, threw flawless parties, inspired many, and made Columbus an entirely more elegant and fashionable place to live! Amongst Charles’ most exceptional exhibitions were Memorable Dress / Ohio Women in 1986 and Black & White: Dress from the 1920’s to Today in 1992.

In 2002, Charles was appointed as the adjunct curator of design at Columbus Museum of Art and in 2004 established a fund at the Museum called the Charles Kleibacker Endowed Fund for Excellence.  During his final exhibition in 2009, Class Act: Storied Women / Designers of Note, the Museum celebrated reaching the milestone of $500,000 in the fund. The fund honors Charles’ commitment to excellence and supports ongoing programs that address issues of art and culture, including those inspired by the world of design. After losing Charles in 2010, four of his dearest friends – Adam Burk, Cordelia Robinson, Virginia Stoltz, and John Wirchanski – assisted the Museum in managing the Kleibacker Fund and created a three-day fashion film festival that has become an annual favorite for the Museum. We look forward to sharing the festival with you again in 2021!

Learn more about Charles in this video series.

If you would like to contribute to the Charles Kleibacker Endowed Fund for Excellence, click here or email with questions.