“After Jackie Kennedy, Americans came to adore the idea that a first lady had style,” Blass said in an article in WWD’s “One Hundred Years of Fashion,” published in 1998. “That gave us all a sense of pride. But no first lady has set styles for a new silhouette.” Blass breezily summed up the influence of first ladies on American fashion: “A pill box hat, three strands of pearls and a color,” he said, referring to Jackie’s hats, Barbara Bush’s pearls and Nancy Reagan Red.
Early photos of Blass, in editorial spreads and in advertising, frequently showed a cigarette dangling from his lip. At parties, it was a cigarette and a glass of vodka, and his trademark wit. He was known to call people younger than him “old boy,” and was never shy about commenting on issues of the day.
In 1965, responding to off-the-cuff comments made by Norman Norell, raking the American designer establishment for taking too much inspiration from their Parisian counterparts, Blass responded by inquiring how Norell could objectively judge anyone’s collections, “when he only sees John Moore’s?” — a sly reference to Norell’s protege who was widely known to be his lover.
“I’m fed up to the teeth with rigid clothes,” Blass once pronounced. Another time he said: “There is nothing so dreary in clothes as perfection. The most boring woman is the one who looks as if she spends her life in the fitting room.” In fact, Blass was always about real clothes for real people. In 1966, preparing for a November press showing, he yelled out: “If there’s one model in here on Monday with fake eyelashes or a fake hairpiece, they’ll be tossed right out the window.”
But it wasn’t as if Blass was an enfant terrible. Rather, he often demonstrated a remarkable restraint in dealing with difficult editors or business people, even customers, recalled Fallon, who is now publicity director of the Carlisle Collection. “His way of expressing affection to you was to kid you,” Fallon said. “So I was happy when he was insulting me. It was always when he became quiet around me that I got nervous.” On a couple of occasions, Fallon lost his temper, such as during the infamous backstage bitchery at the 1973 Versailles show, or later, when dealing with a European licensee. On both occasions, Blass told him to shut up.
“He insisted on gentlemanly behavior, and he knew how to take care of himself,” Fallon said. “He knew what kind of business had to be done, and he knew that you do it quietly.”
Of course, Blass occasionally crossed the line himself. In the February interview with WWD, he recalled at Versailles, “there was an awful lot of animosity toward Anne Klein. And it was not because she was a woman, but because she really was a b—-. And Halston kept calling himself `Mr. Halston.’ `Mr. Halston is not happy.”‘
Blass was awarded two honorary doctorate degrees, one from The Rhode Island School of Design (1977) and the other from Indiana University (1984). In 1984, he also received The New Yorkers for New York Award from the Citizen’s Committee for New York City. In 1987, he was appointed by president Ronald Reagan to The President’s Committee on the Arts and the Humanities. One of Blass’ biggest passions was the New York Public Library. He served on its board of trustees from 1986, and, in 1994, donated $10 million to the library.
“You could consider it a miracle that I’m in the position to do this,” the designer said at the time. “It was Brooke Astor who inspired me, as she does all of us. The New York Public Library and books are a passion for me, and I feel so strongly about books changing people’s lives.”
Within the apparel industry, Blass has also won numerous awards. He was a three-time Coty American Fashion Critics Award winner (1961, 1963 and 1970), and is a lifetime member of the Coty Hall of Fame. He was also a recipient of the first Coty Award for men’s wear in 1968, and received three special Coty citations for overall excellence. In 1987, Blass was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, of which he was one of 20 founding members in 1962. Only four others are still alive — Donald Brooks, Gustave Tassell, Luis Estevez and Arnold Scaasi. Blass served as president of the CFDA from 1979-81, and remained a member of its executive board.
“I was a lousy president,” he said recently. “The only good thing that happened was bringing Perry Ellis in when I left. The challenge is to devote all your time to it, and I wanted out and Ellis said he would come in. My best contribution to the CFDA was making sure he succeeded me. He was by far the best president.”
In 1996, Blass was given the Dom Perignon Award for Humanitarianism for his philanthropic efforts at the CFDA Awards at Lincoln Center and in 2000, he was the subject of a special tribute as “The Dean of American Fashion.” He was unable to attend that year because of ill health, but asked Peter Som to accept in his place so that the young designer would be exposed to the international fashion press. In addition to his efforts at the library, Blass was one of earliest major supporters of AIDS programs at New York hospitals. He often tied his retail trunk shows into local charities, giving a portion of sales as a donation.
His generosity with young designers became as legendary as his personality, but if ever asked about his largess or his lifestyle, Blass seemed as jaded to the whole thing as could be. “Me jaded? Oh well…,” he said on such an occasion in 1981. “`I’m world weary, world weary, living in a great big town…’ Mr. Noel Coward, that could be my theme song. The simpler life is, the better. Maybe that’s what style is after all.”
As always, that was followed by a mischievous wink and grin.