NEW YORK — After some seismic activity, Bill Blass Ltd. is looking to establish a stable foundation with its new designer.
Following a tumultuous two weeks at Blass since the abrupt dismissal of Lars Nilsson, the company confirmed on Friday that veteran designer Michael Vollbracht will become its new designer in an effort to regain a closer connection to the heritage of the house’s late namesake.
The rough handling of Nilsson’s departure — he was fired a day after presenting his spring runway show — has created an atmosphere of ill-will toward the house among many of its longest editorial and retail supporters, not to mention the women who were once Blass’ loyal customers. But Vollbracht might be the only viable candidate who could win them back. His appointment confirms a story in WWD on Feb. 13.
Although he had largely removed himself from the contemporary fashion industry for the past decade, slipping into a state of near anonymity, Vollbracht had a thriving career on Seventh Avenue for two decades and was once one of the most recognizable artists working in Manhattan, until he left the city to live full-time in Florida in 1989. His personal history is so closely woven to the fabric of Seventh Avenue lore, as well as that of Bill Blass, that his appointment might have seemed a more natural choice upon Blass’ retirement in 2000. (He may be better remembered as Michaele Vollbracht, as he formerly spelled his name when he designed a signature ready-to-wear collection and worked as an illustrator for Henri Bendel and Bloomingdale’s.)
"I really didn’t know him at the time," said Michael Groveman, chief executive officer and a principal of Bill Blass, who selected Blass’ earlier successors, the former Ferragamo ready-to-wear designer Steven Slowick and then his assistant, Nilsson. "I’ve gotten to know him quite well since then, and in hindsight, perhaps it would have been a better choice. But I don’t look back. After meeting with a number of interested people, he just seemed to be the right choice."
Vollbracht came back to New York to work with Blass on the retrospective that opened at Indiana University in October and the related Abrams catalog. He spent two years with the designer examining the company archives, prior to Blass’ death last June, and developed a close understanding of Blass’ approach to design."I’m awestruck," Vollbracht said in an interview at the Blass studios on Friday. "This is a big job. I’m naturally scared, but I can do it. I am going to bring something to this house that is fresh, while maintaining what is at the essence of the house. The Blass customer base is still there — maybe they’re a little confused —?but they are still there. Working with Bill, I got to know the heritage of the house really well. I got it. He kept telling me, ‘This is not the Michael Vollbracht show.’"
Vollbracht and Groveman said the company will continue to present full runway collections and that Vollbracht’s first work will be seen in its resort and spring lines for 2004. As he approaches the future of the house, Vollbracht is respectful of its weighty past, but committed to presenting a modern take on "great-looking, elegant, sexy and pretty clothes," he said. "Pretty is such a degraded word. So many people out there are just showing ugly clothes."
Sometimes, Vollbracht kind of sounds like Blass, with his clipped commentary and mannerisms, but it’s not intentional.
"I can’t aspire to that," he said. "It’s his name and I have to honor that. I can never fill his shoes. That would be very stupid of me to try, but I can still hear his voice saying not to do this or do that."
Like Blass, Vollbracht came to New York from the Midwest as a kid. Blass came from Indiana and soon ended up fighting in World War II, while Vollbracht, who is 55, arrived in 1964 from Shawnee Mission, Kan., and went straight to Parsons School of Design.
Upon his graduation in 1969, he won the school’s prestigious Norman Norrell Award and when Norrell was unable to attend the Parsons ceremony, Ann Keagy, its notoriously hard-handed fashion chair who died in 1999, invited Blass to present the award. Vollbracht was immediately hired by Geoffrey Beene and put to work as an illustrator for the wardrobe being created for Linda Bird Johnson’s wedding.
A young Issey Miyake was assisting Beene at the time, but the designer selected Vollbracht over him to design his junior collection, Beene Bazaar. In 1971, he was hired away by Donald Brooks, the dress designer where Zack Carr started as an assistant, and worked on a similar junior line, as secondary collections were then known.Two years later, Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg from Vogue reviewed Vollbracht’s work and indicated he was unimpressed, so he was fired. Ironically, 30 years later, Vogue’s Anna Wintour and André Leon Talley were both huge supporters of Nilsson’s work at Blass, and were said to have played some part in guiding the direction of his final collection.
Vollbracht was hired right away by Geraldine Stutz, who built Henri Bendel into a retail force with the introduction of its boutique shopping concept, as an illustrator, and he learned quickly by tracing the work of Kenneth Paul Bloch in WWD. Within a couple of years, he was recruited by Bloomingdale’s, which paid a lot more money — about $500 a sketch — in 1975.
There, he drew portraits of Calvin Klein, Ralph Lauren and Jean Muir for store windows and, through an inadvertent printing error, became famous. Vollbracht sketched a woman’s face in partial profile — only the features are visible — for a new white shopping bag, nine million of which were printed before anyone realized they had done so without including the Bloomingdale’s name. Yet, they became instantly recognizable throughout the streets of New York, and eventually the world, as a status symbol driven by the sheer size of force of the retailer.
"My 15 minutes of fame as a really famous designer was a long one," Vollbracht said.
With no funding, he started his own collection in 1978. His first show, with an elaborate theme called "The Lady in the Tiger," was a huge success, landing in Bergdorf Goodman. His second collection earned a Coty Award and by the Eighties, Michaele Vollbracht became a household fashion name. In 1981, he guest starred as himself on an episode of "Hart to Hart" about a fashion designer suspected of murdering his models, and then appeared on "Paper Dolls" with Lloyd Bridges.
The extra "e" in his name was an affectation of childhood. "I added it when I was 13 to make my father really upset," Vollbracht said. "But after my business failed, I went to see a psychic and she told me to get rid of it because it was messing up my numerology."The collection lasted seven years, after which Vollbracht returned to illustration and art, sketching style icons from designers such as Carolina Herrera, Cathy Hardwick and Mary McFadden to celebrities like Brooke Shields, Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Crawford, who was a drinking buddy. Those years are chronicled in a book he published in 1985 called "Nothing Sacred," which was reissued by Rizzoli in 2000 when Parsons put on an exhibition of his work.
Since then, Vollbracht has remained active as an artist, but his work on the Blass retrospective inspired him to give designing another try. At one point before his death, Blass asked him to send him some sketches to his home in New Preston, Conn.
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