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NEW YORK — As far as Peter Som is concerned, his turn at Bill Blass is going to be all about ease. It’s apparently his favorite word when it comes to describing the look of his pre-fall collection, his first for the house since being appointed creative director in July.
"There was definitely this sleek sort of ease that I wanted to impart," he says, pointing to a sequined silk tulle cocktail dress in Blass’ Seventh Avenue headquarters on Wednesday. "That made [the pre-fall collection] very Blass for me.
"Blass is all about opposites," he continues, this time referring to a gray-and-blue floral-printed cashmere coat. "Like a summer print, but in a wool, with an ease to it." The same goes for a cashmere jersey cocoon dress with pink sequined shoulders. "All this hand-embroidery and this cashmere and jersey," says Som. "That, to me, is Blass — effortless, easy evening."
In fact, the entire pre-fall range was inspired by the "sense of ease" Som found when he mined Blass’ look books from 1969 and 1970, the house’s launch seasons. "I thought it was interesting to see when Mr. Blass started his collection," says Som of his idea of going straight to Blass’ roots. What he found was true-blue American sportswear that goes from day to evening with "a little bit of a wink and a nudge." Som translated that into a mix of luxe furs, eveningwear — hammered silk columns, a bell-shaped, washed duchesse dress, numerous looks done up with floral embroideries — and men’s wear-inspired day clothes such as tailored waiter’s jackets, wide-legged trousers and bow-neck blouses. The largely gray and white palette features shots of color including cerise and teal, which, according to Som, were a twist on red, white and blue and intended as an ode to Blass’ sportswear heritage and Jasper Johns’ American flags.
Still, Som kept the Americana homage subtle. After all, Blass is not about trying too hard. "I think that’s the most luxurious kind of luxury," says Som. "To look amazing and like you didn’t try at all."
While Som’s design ethos might be effortless chic, he’s certainly working hard to introduce a new customer to the house. Since its founder’s death in 2002, Bill Blass has continued to produce clothes for its original clientele — mature society women who are at this point very grown up — but has failed to create any cross-generational appeal. The revolving door of designers that followed, not to mention some straight-up bad clothes, left many wondering what Bill Blass was all about. Som maintains that Blass owner NexCen Brands didn’t deliver a mandate, yet he seems well aware of his charge.
"I think they brought me in knowing that I am a sportswear designer, and I’m not about unwearable, crazy, over-the-top things," says Som, who opened his own collection for fall 1999. "But we want to bring in a new customer. There’s a younger attitude. There’s a mother-daughter thing. We want to bring in the daughter and people who maybe haven’t thought about Blass in a while."
Som came in on the heels of Michael Vollbracht, who departed the house in May after four years at its helm, but it’s not Som’s first stint at Blass. Shortly after graduating from Parsons in the mid-Nineties, he worked as an assistant designer under Bill Blass himself. "I think there’s the feeling that hopefully I understand what the collection’s about, having worked here with [Blass]," he says. "Hopefully I’ll be able to bring something new to the table."
That said, Som asserts that the slate has been wiped clean, right down to the showroom space, where he had the walls painted white and installed new gray carpet.
Of course, resuscitating a major American label involves more than a new coat of paint and floor treatments. But, while the pressures he faces may be large, Som’s transition appears to be as effortless as his new Blass aesthetic. When asked how he’s handling the stress of two collections, he admits things are more hectic, but says it could be worse.
"There’s a lot more scheduling, but my office is right down the street," he says. "They should install a chairlift." And coincidentally, the next time Som is inclined to mine Blass’ archives, he need only take the stairs — which are located in the same building as his Peter Som studio. "See," he says. "It was meant to be."