NEW YORK — Mister Fashion Right.
This story first appeared in the June 14, 2002 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
That was the nickname WWD gave to Bill Blass at the height of his career and it captured him perfectly. A perennially elegant fixture in the sometimes inelegant garment business for more than five decades, Blass — who died Wednesday night at his home in New Preston, Conn. — was one of the most gentlemanly designers on Seventh Avenue and was available day or night with just the right ensemble to make an appropriate entrance at any occasion.
Often, he made the entrance himself with a few bon-mots, or worse, a zinger that could be shot with deadly aim across a crowded room. Blass was always one to poke fun at himself or at fashion, and it was this humbleness that probably made him so unique in the fashion world. Commenting to WWD in a 1995 interview, he said with a mock scowl, “In fact, I hate fashion. The woman who’s sure of herself wants clothes that make sense for her life — stylish but not trendy. And that’s most of the women I know.”
Blass died 10 days before his 80th birthday of complications from the throat cancer he was diagnosed with two years ago.
He was, as even he acknowledged, 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. His wealthy clients were, truly, his friends — 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 on Thursday. “We never talked about clothes because he had a zest for living and an interest in everything else.”
“I always was so happy when I sat next to him at a dinner,” added Brooke Astor. “I knew it would be a fun evening.”
Blass called them all “babe,” usually with a cigarette dangling from the corner of his mouth and a whisky or vodka in his hand. To Sally Debenham, Pat Buckley and Nancy Kissinger, he was simply “Willy.” Oscar de la Renta called him “Bilbo” or “Blassy.” To everyone else, he was “Mr. Blass.” He lived the life of style and his apartment in New York and his house in Connecticut were impeccably furnished, filled with the books and antiques he collected on constant trips to London and Paris, including important works by Picasso he collected on field trips to Paris and London with John Richardson, the noted art historian.
Since his retirement nearly three years ago, when Blass took his final bow at a runway show where seats were in such demand that even a hurricane attempted to crash it, he had kept a lower profile than was customary for the designer during his dynamic career. And continuing his no-fuss style, Blass requested there be no funeral or services after his death, but rather that his ashes be strewn in his garden, said Helen O’Hagan, the former Saks Fifth Avenue publicist and a close friend of the designer.
In recent years, his man-about-town lifestyle was hindered by health problems. These included the treatments for throat cancer, which had temporarily silenced a deep, sometimes gravelly voice that was simultaneously gentle and commanding, as well as treatment for a minor stroke suffered during a trunk show in Houston in 1998 that cast a shadow over the final days of his career.
He had recovered to a great degree earlier this year, while working on a collection of his memoirs with Cathy Horyn, fashion critic for the New York Times, [see related story, page 11] that is expected to be published by Harper Collins in September, coinciding with a retrospective planned in his home state at the University of Indiana.
Blass was the quintessential designer for the “Ladies Who Lunch,” and women who wanted to look like them. His trunk show business kept him hopping around the country, always drawing crowds and raking in big bucks, with events that rang up sales in excess of $1 million in recent years at Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman. 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.
While that licensing strategy has more recently come to be derided by designers who promoted a more artistically pure concept of category expansion, Blass’ business and creative acumen made him a rich man. He became even richer when he took the unusual route of issuing a bond in his name in 2000, 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. Upon selling the business, Blass retreated to the 22-acre country home in Connecticut that he bought 25 years ago, spending his days with his faithful companion, Barnaby, a 12-year-old retriever who was a successor to Kate, Brutus and Shelby, and taking up an amateur’s interest in nature photography.
“I’ve always believed that timing is everything, and I got out at the right time,” Blass said during an interview there on an overcast morning in February of this year. “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.”
One of his greatest achievements was to sense a change in the way society women were dressing in the Fifties and Sixties — as the days and nights grew longer, he often said, so should the length of the skirt. Blass created a less rigid code of dress with simple silhouettes, improved by accessories. As he told Life magazine in 1969: “To be one of the Beautiful People, it’s not enough just to have dough and time, one has to have style. The Beautiful People are today’s Jet Set, but not yesterday’s Cafe Society. It’s a different life — entertainment is at home, not in the nightclubs.”
In a similar vein in a June 1998 interview with WWD on how and where designers get their inspiration, Blass said: “Sometimes I get inspiration from an opera or a painting, but in the back of my mind, I’m always thinking, `Is this something a woman will wear?’ I can remember a trip to Japan that inspired a group of clothes inspired by the culture. It was memorable for its lack of customer appeal.”
Blass stamped his name on thousands of products, from home furnishings to sleepwear to jeans to cars — even an ill-fated line of Bill Blass chocolates — that in some years approached $1 billion in retail sales. But Blass often bristled at the suggestion that he had overcapitalized on the value of his name. He did turn down deals for Bill Blass caskets and braces, after all.
“You can’t really do a lot of things,” he said last year in WWD. “Particularly, when it comes to wine and food. I don’t think anyone was ever successful in that area. In that case, the persona of a fashion designer is something that the public just won’t swallow.”
Since his retirement, the Blass brand has gone through a difficult transition at the hands of other designers. Former Ferragamo ready-to-wear designer Steven Slowik was handpicked by Blass to take over the line, but his debut was poorly received and he was replaced after one season by his assistant, Lars Nilsson, who had trained at several couture houses. Nilsson has made significant improvements in three seasons, earning the Blass stamp of approval, even though the retired designer preferred to stay out of the game.
“Motivation? I ain’t got motivation, kid,” Blass said in February. “I was disciplined for so many years. That’s how I held on for as long as I did, but I didn’t like the idea of being the oldest person in fashion. People are mostly surprised I’m still alive, anyway. [Pauline] Trigere could sweep into a room at 93 and still make a statement. So can Mrs. Astor, but very few gents can I’m so sick of that grand old man, the Senator from Seventh Avenue and all that crap.”
While Blass maintained a close connection to his friends and his ladies, even those who knew him well said there were strict boundaries to his personal life. “Bill was somebody who was very, very private,” said Oscar de la Renta. “We are two of the most competitive designers on Seventh Avenue, but that never got in the way of our friendship. We remained friends because I respected his privacy. Bill was a loner. He liked to be alone by himself with his books and his dogs.”
Tom Fallon, who joined Blass’ company as an assistant designer and worked with him for 23 years, was one of his closest acquaintances, but he, too, said there “was a very private part of him that he never showed anyone.” Blass came from an era before designers routinely discussed their private lives or appeared on the cover of The Advocate. He addresses that reticence in the upcoming book he wrote with Horyn. “It was a question of conduct _ conduct, perhaps, being the last refuge of a coward,” Blass writes. “
“He had what appeared to be a very accessible personality,” Fallon said. “Women absolutely adored him. They all wanted to be one of Bill’s gals and count themselves as one of his friends.”
Born on June 22, 1922, in Fort Wayne, Ind., the son of a hardware store owner, William Ralph Blass left home at age 17 and got a job sketching fashions for David Crystal, a large sportswear firm on Seventh Avenue. During World War II, he served in the Army Corps of Engineers’ secret camouflage unit known as the “Shadow Army” for three-and-a-half years, which Blass often said was one of the most important periods of his life because it was his first experience living day-to-day in the company of men, since his father had committed suicide when he was five. He considered it “basic training for my career on Seventh Avenue.” And even in the privations of World War II Paris, Blass made sure he had the necessary luxuries — years later, an acquaintance from the British Embassy remembered supplying Blass with bottles of Scotch from the embassy’s cellars during his visits to the city.
Spending time with artists and architects, selected to serve in the unit for their creative skills to craft elaborate ruses to thwart Nazi troops with the illusion of an advancing army, was vastly different than his childhood in Indiana. Growing up there during the Depression, Blass knew he would become a dress designer, even as a boy watching the films of Carole Lombard, a fellow Hoosier, as well as those of Kay Francis, Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo. When he was eight or nine, Blass sketched imaginary New York cocktail parties, already dreaming of his escape.
Blass said earlier this year that he would dedicate his book to Lombard: “I’d pass by Carole Lombard’s house when I was a kid. She inspired me to get out of Indiana. It was ironic that she was later killed in an airplane crash on her way out of Indiana after a visit.”
When Blass returned from the war, he got a job as a sketcher at Anna Miller, which was owned by a brother of the more famous Seventh Avenue manufacturer Maurice Rentner, founded in 1912. Following Rentner’s death in 1957, the two firms were merged and Blass became head designer for Rentner. After Blass took over, the firm successfully changed its emphasis from clothes for younger women to those for more mature customers, and by 1960, he was made a vice president. Advertisements from the period show a look that was to become the Blass signature — a feminine tailored evening suit made in a traditional men’s fabric.
Eugene Lewin, who was chairman, said the Blass’ collection in 1959 was “quite a shock to the buyers. It was like going into a steak house and getting a Chinese meal. They ate it up.”
Stan Herman got his first job on Seventh Avenue in the Fifties, working for Blass as a sketch artist. “He always knew how far he could go, and he did it elegantly all his life,” Herman said. “He was the leader in American fashion as far as bringing the designer’s name to the forefront of a label.” Adolfo, one of his famous ready-to-wear contemporaries, said Blass gave him his first shot as well as a $10,000 investment to start his own company in 1962.
“He has such an aura of glamour,” Adolfo said. “But underneath that was a kind, generous, sweet human being. Sometimes he might have sounded harsh, but he really was not.”
By 1968, besides being a partner and executive vice president at Rentner, Blass also was president of Bill Blass Inc., which was a newly formed licensing entity for men’s and children’s wear, furs, swimsuits, hosiery, raincoats, scarves and luggage. He was living the high life — that year, he was earning about $250,000 a year, with a plush penthouse on East 57th Street and a home in Maine. In 1970, the entire company was re-formed as Bill Blass Ltd.
Commenting on this development, Blass recalled that when he first came to Seventh Avenue in the Fifties, designers were invisible. Well compensated, but invisible.
They had “no position in the world,” Blass said. “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.”
And Blass revelled in it to an extent. Perennially game, he would pose for photographers sitting in a fire truck or holding an umbrella and wearing a raincoat while a model in one of his dresses stood beside him. John B. Fairchild, former publisher of WWD and currently editor-at-large, remembers visiting China with Blass and Fallon in 1972 and the designer’s endless antics _ including running around the hotel in their bathrobes. The group was one of the first to visit the Communist nation after it was reopened to the West. Afraid of the food, Blass would only eat the peanut butter and jelly and alcohol smuggled in — in Fallon’s luggage. At a formal dinner with senior Chinese government officials, Blass appeared to be cleaning his plate of every exotic delicacy placed in front of him.
“Then he stood up to respond to the official toast and everything went `plop,”‘ Fairchild recalled. “He was stuffing it all into his napkin.”
Despite the gyrations of fashion, through all its hippie, punky and grungy stages, Blass’ clothes were always executed in good taste. “Smart” was an adjective often used to describe the look and attitude of his collections. From dresses to sportswear to eveningwear. His hallmark was classic style, packed with color, impeccably tailored in fine fabrics. He was also known for his attention to detail, with one review in 1964 saying he offered “always the right shoes, gloves, jewelry and millinery to fit the mood. Individuality has an opportunity through accessories.” He was heralded the year before for turning Porthault’s flowered sheets into dinner dresses, and had already been named by Esquire as one of the world’s 30 best-dressed men.
It was right around that time that the cult of the designer as personality began to develop. Until then, most designers had not been anything close to the public figures and megabrands they were to become. Blass made fashion designing a career that was respectable. He designed the clothes Gene Tierney wore in her 1962 film “Advise and Consent,” the same year WWD dubbed him “Mister Fashion Right.” His collection that year was praised as “always elegant… the Blass shapes are better each season.”
He hired Eleanor Lambert as a publicist in the Sixties. In a 1963 press release about his second Coty Award, she described Blass as “a good-looking, untemperamental young man whose private life and fashion career are all of one piece. A popular bachelor escort, he goes to most of Manhattan’s charity balls, theater openings and movie previews. He lives and entertains in a charming East Side penthouse apartment decorated with English antiques, porcelains and fur rugs. His fashion collections for Maurice Rentner have the same kind of inside-New York personality. Even his country tweeds are city-country.”
In an interview in September 1964, describing the “new total woman,” Blass said she is the “emergence of the individual.” He predicted the longer lengths would be coming back in shortly, and they did, although they went up again just as fast. But he was ready. In 1966, he advocated the new evening gown: a very short A-line dress. He could have been talking about the Nineties, but it was still 1964 when he said: “It’s chic to be square again. Americans do this very well. They have children — I mean really enjoy children. They’re involved in home decorating and in cooking…all the things once pooh-poohed as unchic.”