On June 12, the industry lost one of its greatest icons, Bill Blass, who in the Fifties was instrumental in establishing American designers as a creative force that could compete on equal footing with those in Paris and Milan.
This story first appeared in the December 10, 2002 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Nicknamed Mister Fashion Right for his ability to design clothes that were always appropriate, Blass was a perennially elegant fixture in the business for more than 50 years with an articulate, astute and often wicked power of observation. He often spoke his opinions with such unquestionable authority that he also became known as the Senator of Seventh Avenue.
After retiring in 2000, Blass was diagnosed with throat cancer and died at the age of 79, shortly after the completion of his memoirs, “Bare Blass,” published by HarperCollins in August.
As even he acknowledged, Blass was among the last of a breed — the social designer as at home in the salons of Fifth and Park Avenues as he was in the fitting room. He was among the earliest designers to toil away in the back rooms of Seventh Avenue showrooms for years before leading a movement to get their own names on the labels, eventually building their own reputations into those of celebrities. Blass, more than others, really got the concept of society dressing, quickly winning the favors of his famous clientele with his innate wit and charm — former first ladies Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush, Happy Rockefeller, Casey Ribicoff, Lynne Wyatt, Margueritte Littman, Carolyn Roehm, Blaine Trump and Pamela Harriman, among them.
“I don’t ever remember talking fashion to Bill,” Reagan said of the late designer. “We never talked about clothes because he had a zest for living and an interest in everything else.”
During his career as a designer for Maurice Rentner in the Fifties and Sixties and then as owner, chairman and designer of Bill Blass Ltd., which was formed in 1970, he became one of the most widely acclaimed fashion designers in the world, building a $700 million licensing empire that became a blueprint for designer businesses in the Seventies and Eighties. When he retired, he took an unusual route of issuing a bond in his name, and selling his business to his chief financial officer and his largest licensee for $50 million, based on the future value of products bearing his name.
“I’ve always believed that timing is everything, and I got out at the right time,” Blass said during an interview shortly before his death. “One thing I certainly do not regret is not being active in the business in this day and age, but it’s hard to remove yourself from a business that you’ve been in for 50 years. It never really gets out of your system.”
Apart from Blass’ contributions to American fashion — he was among the first who helped move the direction in New York from authorized copies of the Parisian originals to independent, grown-up styles of American designers’ own creations — his vibrant personality helped pave the way for designers to become famous personalities, rather than anonymous employees. Commenting on this development, Blass once recalled that when he came to Seventh Avenue after World War II, designers had “no position in the world. They weren’t considered businessmen and they weren’t owners.” That all changed with the simple act of going out and mingling with society. Suddenly, Blass and several of his colleagues, like Oscar de la Renta and Geoffrey Beene, were in the media spotlight, too.
“It instigated designers to become owners and partners in the business,” Blass said. “Designers had to be forced out of their ivory towers.”