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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — It almost seemed like old times.
From New York, Dallas, Miami and San Francisco, more than 30 close friends of Bill Blass made their way to the late designer’s home state Friday for the opening of the first retrospective in his honor, a journey that was no easy feat, by all accounts. Just as guests began their descent into airports throughout Indiana, the tail end of Hurricane Lilly stormed across the heartland to spew torrents of rain and gusty winds. The storm aroused ominous memories of Blass’ last runway show in September 1999, which was marred by the remnants of a similarly devastating weather system.
A hurricane in Indiana? The odds seemed as likely a scenario as the convergence of society tornadoes Louise Grunwald, Casey Ribicoff, Mica Ertegun, Nina Griscom and Carolyn Roehm, all touching ground that afternoon upon the sprawling green campus of Indiana University. They proceeded to check themselves into a dormitory-style hotel filled with loud teenagers barreling down the halls well into the night.
Two of the senior class members of the social contingent — Ribicoff and Ertegun — along with Bill Blass chief executive Michael Groveman and the 69-year-old designer Adolfo, had chartered a private jet direct to Bloomington. But after four aborted landing efforts in the rain, they were diverted to Indianapolis and had to rent a van to drive the rest of the way. Judy and Elizabeth Peabody, meanwhile, arrived on schedule in Indianapolis on a direct Delta flight, but were aghast to discover the limo waiting to take them the remaining 50 miles to Bloomington was as white and corny as the fields they passed by.
If it sounds like a cruel joke, that might well have been Blass’ idea when he finally agreed to a retrospective of his career a few years ago and opened his archives to curators from the Indiana University Art Museum. After all, apart from the pride he took in his native Fort Wayne, Blass was a designer who built his business largely by traveling to trunk shows around the country, befriending not only the bold-face names of society, but also the quietly wealthy women who habituate the small town corners of America. It seemed only fair that to appreciate his career, Blass’ gals would have to suffer a little discomfort by coming to him. And they gladly did.
“You can tell who Blass’ true friends were by who made this trip,” said Helen O’Hagan, the former Saks Fifth Avenue publicist who once traveled with Blass to special events around the country and helped coordinate the museum opening festivities. Twenty-four hours in Bloomington had a “Planes, Trains and Automobiles” feel about it, but that was fine with the Peabodys, Cynthia and Sarah Boardman, Tom Fallon, Duane Hampton, Lawrence and Shelby Marcus and John Richardson, all of whom considered themselves in on the joke. Each of them channeled Blass’ husky voice at one point or another, trading barbs all along the way.
“I couldn’t believe it when I heard that Casey and Mica were circling over Bloomington for hours,” said Sally Debenham, who considered her commercial flight from San Francisco with her husband, Warren, to be the furthest flung from Indiana. “God is good! They suffered too!” (Ribicoff, clearly sick of the ribbing, simply turned her cheek when asked about the flight: “Aren’t you just adorable for asking?” she groaned.)
Once they were on the ground, most of Blass’ fans retired to their rooms for the afternoon, except for veteran fashion director Ellin Saltzman, who headed for the IU bookstore to purchase Hoosiers ball caps. Meanwhile, the university staff put the final touches on the Blass exhibit, only the third costume-related show to be hosted at the museum. Housed in an I.M. Pei building made entirely of triangles, its collection of Stuart Davis and Picasso paintings is heralded as one of the most significant among American universities, although its Elizabeth Sage Historic Costume Collection, named after IU’s first professor of textiles, has received less attention or funding. Indianopolis native Anne Bass, along with Dale Leff and Beverly Rice — who were once fashion directors for the Midwest retail chains L.S. Ayres and Jacobson’s, respectively, that were largely represented in Indiana — encouraged Blass to donate much of his archives to the university to further the development of its fashion department.
Kathleen Rowold, curator of the collection, first spoke to Blass two years ago about the exhibit. During a lunch at Doubles in Manhattan, Rice expounded to Blass the importance of his being a designer from Indiana, considering it was also the home state of Norman Norell and Halston.
“Beverly told him that she believed in her heart that all this rich talent came from the spirit of the Native Americans who lived here,” Rowold said. “Blass looked at her and asked, ‘Are you kidding?’”
Despite spending his youth in Fort Wayne, Blass had never been to Bloomington until 1999, when he came to tour the university and speak to students in its fashion merchandising program, currently representing a small fraction of the university’s enrollment of nearly 34,000 students. “Frankly, I thought Mr. Blass was going to think this was a hayseed college,” Rowold said. But Blass was impressed and almost instantly changed his mind about the retrospective, putting his full support behind it and overseeing nearly every detail about the show, its opening and the related book, “Bill Blass: An American Designer,” published by Abrams this month and edited by Rowold, O’Hagan and designer Michael Vollbracht.
The experience of putting together the roughly 75 cocktail dresses, coats, suits and evening gowns that make up the exhibit, Rowold said, was unlike any she had worked on before, considering Blass’ outspokenness on nearly every selection. “When he cut something, he just said, ‘It’s unimportant,’” she said. “Sometimes I had to really explain why the public would be interested.”
The fashion at the exhibit starts with Blass’ work for Anna Miller in 1952, with the earliest selection being a leopard halter dress with a cream silk skirt, but mainly tilts heavily toward the designer’s pieces from the Eighties and Nineties, clearly his favorite. Many dresses he called in specifically from his friends, remembering what they wore, when they looked their best, like Judy Peabody’s garden coat made of hundreds of silk flowers from his 1968 collection for Maurice Rentner; a pink jacket with a lapel done up in sequins in the shape of a slice of watermelon, from his fall 1983 collection and donated by Lynn Wyatt, or Shelby Marcus’ yellow plaid tweed suit from 1990. When it looked as if the exhibit might not come off, Blass himself bought dozens of mannequins from Pucci for the show. He even bought the lights for the exhibit. (Blass’ generosity did not go unnoticed by the university — a $1 million bequeath to IU made in his will, which was not specifically earmarked for fashion education, will be used for the development of its costume collection, said university president Myles Brand.)
All this was done not for Blass’ self glorification, his friends said, but for his pride in Indiana, which was reflected down to his choice in music to play in the background of the exhibit, a selection of tunes from fellow Hoosiers Hoagie Carmichael and Cole Porter.
Shortly before the exhibit opened, Rowold and Vollbracht reworked several pieces in the space, painted a mousy shade of brown somewhere between taupe and mushroom.
“I’ve overused the word mouse, lately,” said Vollbracht, a close friend of Blass for so long that his voice tends to take on the same gravelly inflections and short, witty clips. “I’d call it diarrhea.”
“I was hired by Mr. Blass to be theatrical, and Kate just blanches at that word,” he said, as Rowold, less accustomed to the Blass repartee, seemed to visibly shrink. “She’s a trooper.”
By 6 p.m., all of Blass’ guests had safely arrived and, after a toast with Indiana-procured wines — yes, they grow grapes in Indiana, too — began to make their way from the hotel to the museum, a distance of about 100 yards. Cadillacs, with the sales stickers still in the windows, were provided from a local dealership to chauffeur them to the exhibit, which opens with a collection of precocious sketches Blass drew as a child and a lifesize reproduction of the bulletin board full of clippings that hung behind his desk in his studio at 550 Seventh Avenue. Almost all of the women wore Blass, of course, and some of them made bee-lines to see the gowns they had donated on display, while they imagined what Blass himself would have said.
Saltzman, for instance, scolded herself for wearing red shoes that matched the red suit she wore. “Bill hated red shoes,” she said. “I don’t know why I wore them.” As she entered the museum, standing in front of a red circular sculpture, Ribicoff — wearing a similar suit in black and white — caught sight of Saltzman and yelled out, “OK, Nancy Reagan!” Then O’Hagan turned up wearing a champagne colored suit, and Ertegun arrived in yet another, this one blue, similar down to the matching fabric-covered knot buttons.
“Ellen called and asked, ‘Are you wearing the red one?’ Then Casey called and asked, ‘Are you wearing the black and white one?’” O’Hagan said. “So I’m wearing this one, because it’s the only one in this color.”
Then Debenham turned up in yellow. “You know,” she said, “to come 3,000 miles to this and Mica, Ellin and Helen are wearing the same outfit, I guess that means taste travels.”
Louise Grunwald, wearing a black-and-white car coat cut with an abstract “B” closure, found herself staring at the same outfit on a mannequin, which was donated by Leff. “Nice of you to have two made,” Saltzman called out to her, to which Grunwald replied, “I’m extravagant.”
“I gave these clothes so long ago that I’d forgotten what I gave,” Grunwald said. “Except for that paisley dress over there. Every time I open my closet, I notice that it’s missing.”
Elsewhere, Yvonne Miller, Blass’ longtime house model who eventually became his director of publicity, was introduced for the first time to Michael McManus, a close friend of the designer from Miami she had until then known only over the phone.
“You didn’t tell me that this was Mac!” she exclaimed to Vollbracht.
“Well, they finally let him out,” Vollbracht said.
“Hey,” McManus replied, “I just pressed this suit.”
“Not very well,” Vollbracht said.
Blass was clearly present, if only in spirit. Never one for long speeches, his friends audibly gasped when someone took a turn at a lectern for too long in the museum’s marble auditorium, where not a word uttered could be understood because of the echo. Ertegun, Grunwald and Blass had clearly had it at one point, sitting down on a stairwell to sit out the fuss, and Ribicoff eventually grabbed the mike and simply said, “Thanks,” just like Blass would have done. Then it was on to a dinner that Blass had planned out months in advance — with a menu of beet, endive and walnut salad, meatloaf with red pepper jelly, vanilla and coffee sundaes and oatmeal-raisin cookies. Before he died in June, Blass had even stipulated how the dinner was to look, designing floral bouquets of local species — in this case, lipstick roses and hypercum berries — perched on stacks of old annuals from the university.
Griscom and Roehm traded stories about Blass over dinner, remembering a trunk show in Beverly Hills when the latter showed up in a rainbow-splattered juniors’ prom dress she bought off the rack as a joke, and Blass made her change clothes in the lobby of their hotel. Duane Hampton, who claimed to have an archive of Blass dresses that would rival the exhibit, pulled back her chignon to reveal a pair of “BB” earrings, which she discovered in a thrift market years ago. And Lawrence Marcus pulled out a stack of photographs like a proud parent, only they were of Blass’ bestsellers at Neiman Marcus from 1976. When he was cleaning out his office, Marcus said, he discovered the negatives and had a set of prints ordered for the occasion. Others spent some time discovering Indiana University’s other hidden pleasures
“You know they house the Kinsey Report here?” asked Vollbracht, referring to the 1940s study of sexual behavior, to his neighbor at dinner.
“Yes, you told me,” Saltzman replied. “It’s the biggest collection of pornography in the world.”
“After the Vatican,” he said.
It was all too much for some spirits to handle, and as guests began to make their ways back home, it was Judy Peabody who channeled Blass’ spirit of knowing when to leave the party.
“It’s been a wonderful day,” she said. “It’s been a wonderful week, or however long we’ve all been here.”