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NEW YORK — Bill Blass is forging into the future with not one, but two designers at the creative helm.

This story first appeared in the July 27, 2007 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The iconic American brand will today name Peter Som as creative director for its women’s division and Michael Bastian as creative director for men’s.

Som, 36, is replacing Michael Vollbracht, who left the company in May after a four-year stint, while Bastian, 41, takes on a new role.

Som and Bastian will continue to design their own namesake collections. Som’s appointment confirms a report in WWD on July 6.

The move to tap two American talents whose profiles have been on the rise is a sign of Blass owner NexCen Brands Inc.’s commitment to growing the house’s designer tier and relaunching high-end men’s wear.

NexCen Brands bought the Blass brand in December for $54.6 million in a cash and stock deal.

Som will oversee the entire women’s business, which includes the upscale ready-to-wear collection sold at stores such as Bergdorf Goodman, Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue, as well as the various company-owned and licensed divisions. His first collection is expected to be pre-fall 2008.

Bastian, meanwhile, will oversee the relaunch of the Blass men’s wear designer line, with the first collection expected to be ready for fall 2008. He will also oversee the creative direction of the multiple company-owned and licensed men’s categories.

“Each women’s and men’s division will have its own defined creative vision, and the roles of Peter and Michael will enable the brand to receive a level of attention in each design area that it hasn’t had previously,” said Robert D’Loren, president and chief executive officer of NexCen Brands, in a statement.

Som is no stranger to the house. In the mid-Nineties, he became a Blass protégé, working closely with him as his design assistant. In fact, when Blass was unable to attend the Council of Fashion Designers of America Fashion Awards to accept a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2000, he asked Som to accept in his place. Blass died in 2002.

“Peter worked here as a young man, and I worked with him and knew him very well,” said Michael Groveman, ceo of Bill Blass Ltd. LLC. “We spoke to a number of people, and he was the strongest candidate. We think he brings a lot to the table.”

A major in art history and art at Connecticut College, Som attended Parsons School of Design and also apprenticed with Michael Kors and Calvin Klein. He launched his own collection for spring 2001, received sponsorship from Ecco Domani and was nominated for the CFDA’s Perry Ellis Award. Som designs in the tradition of American sportswear, with clean separates to mix and match and dresses for more elegant occasions that harken back to the Grace Kelly look. His line is sold at Bergdorf Goodman, Bloomingdale’s, Nordstrom, Saks Fifth Avenue and Neiman Marcus, among other stores.

Last February, NRDC Equity Partners president and ceo Richard Baker was spotted in the front row of Som’s show, fueling speculation the Lord & Taylor parent was looking to back the designer, whose business has in the region of $5 million to $7 million in sales.

“To me, Bill Blass really represents one of the great American design houses,” Som told WWD. “He had such a clear idea of his vision of streamlined luxury and ready-to-wear. His designs to me represent a woman who is strong, confident yet not afraid to show that she still has a feminine side.”

Som seems prepared to take on the task of designing two collections a season.

“I think there is no doubt that I will be twice as busy in the upcoming year, but I welcome the challenge as it will only help me to continue to refine and perfect my craft,” he said. “I will probably be drinking a lot more coffee in 2008.”

Before Vollbracht, Blass was designed by Steven Slowick and Lars Nilsson, who each had short stints designing women’s after Blass retired.

“It’s a whole fresh attitude,” Groveman said, when asked what Som would bring to Blass. “He’s got a much younger mind-set than what we have had here in a while, and he has the Blass sensibility, since he had his start here. This is where his roots are, and he has sort of come full circle. Peter has had a number of years on his own to mature and hone his craft. In women’s, we have an established business and are doing quite nicely at retail. This will only enhance our business and grow it.”

Linda Fargo, senior vice president, fashion office and store presentation at Bergdorf’s, lauded the Som appointment. “We are big fans of his,” she said. “The pairing of Peter with Bill Blass is an inspired idea. Peter intrinsically understands refined femininity, played back to a modern classic sensibility.

“When I think about what defines the Blass legacy, I start thinking about quintessential American sportswear that’s done with a luxury hand, and Peter understands that,” she added.

Blass’ design director Prabal Gurung, who is widely considered a rising star in fashion, will remain at Blass and report to Som.

Bastian, meanwhile, was Bergdorf’s men’s fashion director before starting his own men’s line in 2006. In just three seasons, Bastian, like Som, has established himself as a designer whose aesthetic aims to give a new polish to American sportswear, and tailored shirts have become one of his strong points. At the CFDA Awards last month, Bastian was nominated for the 2007 Swarovski Award for men’s wear, which honors emerging talent.

“We haven’t had a men’s collection business since Bill designed it many years ago,” Groveman said. “Bill Blass has been in the men’s business since 1967, and it started off at the high end. Over the years it got watered down. We wanted to go back into the collection…and to do so, we needed a top talent, so we brought in Michael.”

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