By  on July 5, 2005

NEW YORK — For many, mention of Bill Blass casts an indelible image of the quintessential gentleman whose name was synonymous with high- quality design. Now, 35 years after the designer set up his business, Bill Blass executives are trying to build on his heritage by adding a little more pizzazz.

In that vein, it's fitting that the brand's new image book opens with a brief biography and black-and-white photograph of Blass smoking a cigarette. Created by AR, the full-service ad agency here, the coffee table-type book features scores of colorful photos of spirited and stylish people wearing Bill Blass, underlining the company's raison d'être: "We are a world of timeless, classic American style." There are also guidelines about logo placement and other necessities for licensees to be used as a rule book of sorts.

Like any major designer label that takes on a hefty dose of licensing over the years, Blass has suffered its share of dilution. With chief executive officer Michael Groveman managing the business side and designer Michael Vollbracht overseeing the creative, the company is trying to redefine itself with a more cohesive image and a few new categories. Referring to the rebranding, Groveman said: "This is equity — not so much an investment."

The Bill Blass collection rings up an estimated $25 million in retail volume annually and its licensed products are said to generate $750 million in retail volume.

After six months of reviewing the brand's 40-plus licenses, examining distribution and logo placement, executives have trimmed down the licenses to 30. "We have been in the licensing business for almost 40 years. We felt like it got a little fragmented," Groveman said. The company is also on the move with other initiatives.

  • A $1 million print and outdoor advertising campaign featuring Isabella Rossellini's daughter, Elettra, will make its debut this fall. Chabot Hardin is working on the ads.
  • Collection Bill Blass, a bridge collection, and Bill by Bill Blass, a better line, will make their debuts in spring 2006. The company plans to hire a designer to handle Collection Bill Blass, but it will be manufactured through a partnership. Details haven't been finalized. The company plans to have a licensing deal for Bill by Bill Blass.
  • It will introduce a sunglass collection, a women's fragrance and a men's fragrance for spring 2006.
  • All merchandise will carry hang tags and labels with the brand's new logo, a modification of the existing one with two back-to-back Bs by spring 2006. The end result, according to vice president Jean Claude Huon, is "retailers understand the world of Bill Blass more."
"We have segmented all of it with distribution in each tier. We have better control of the whole brand," Huon said.The company has not advertised since last fall, but is hoping the younger Rossellini, a multilingual student, will embody the Bill Blass lifestyle.

"Bill Blass is a lifestyle. We wanted something different than just a model." Huon said.

Like the company's founder, Vollbracht is committed to meeting and greeting customers at trunk shows. He is spending more time on the road at some of the brand's 100 trunk shows and that is paying off, Huon said. This spring, the designer's appearance at Saks rang up $2 million in sales, he added.

"Michael Vollbracht is a Bill Blass man. He always thinks about Bill Blass," Huon said. "We want to be still living in a Bill Blass world, but we want it to be modern."

Huon, who joined Bill Blass as a liaison between Vollbracht and his design team and the brand's licenses, was promoted last month after longtime sales director John Lindsey exited. Huon now heads up the brand's licensing and sales. He has pinpointed the Carolinas and Florida as areas of opportunity. Huon sees potential in the possibility of relaunching the brand's home collection. He also is looking into staging a fashion show for 1,000 people in Chile and selling Bill Blass products through a licensee in Panama.

The additions of bridge and better sportswear labels will help the company reach younger customers who are familiar with the brand but cannot afford the main line. The same is true of the more reasonably priced fragrances.

As one of the only big-league designer names that is still privately owned, Bill Blass Ltd. has reportedly attracted its share of suitors. Groveman, however, declined to comment about recent speculation the company was in talks to sell the brand to a financial buyer or whether Bill Blass is seeking a buyer.

In 1999, when Groveman was chief financial officer, he and Haresh Tharani, chairman of Bill Blass' largest licensee, The Resource Group Ltd. bought Blass from the designer through a securitization deal that was put together by UCC Capital Corp. president and ceo Robert D'Loren. Tharani owns a 60 percent stake and Groveman owns the remaining 40 percent.

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