NEW YORK — It doesn’t pay to get a bad review at Bill Blass.
A day after Lars Nilsson showed his sixth collection for the house, he was unceremoniously dumped along with five other design employees because, the company said, “sales did not live up to expectations.”
This story first appeared in the February 13, 2003 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
But the timing and circumstances of the dismissal were as unusual as that of Nilsson’s predecessor, Steven Slowik, who was fired in January 2001, three weeks before he was supposed to show his second collection.
What ’s more,retail sources said the company might already have a replacement in the works —designer Michael Vollbracht,an old pal of Blass himself who had his own fashion line in the Eighties.Vollbracht is also a former fashion illustrator who now works on art design for books.He played an integral part in last October ’s Blass retrospective in Bloomington,Ind.,as well as the publication of the related Abrams catalog, “Bill Blass:An American Designer.”
Nilsson,who was creative director, said he and Hervé Pierre Braillard, design director,were informed of the decision on Tuesday morning in a closed-door meeting with Michael Groveman and Haresh Tharani,the principals of Bill Blass Ltd.They were then ordered off the premises.
While their designs for the house were not universally praised and never quite clearly fit into the Blass legacy,the duo had built support among editors and retailers,as well as drawing back many of the old Blass customers and several new ones by sponsoring a number of charity events over the past year.
At the Blass show on Tuesday,clients who had left the Blass camp after Slowik came on board —such as Blaine Trump, Casey Ribicoff and Nina Griscom — were in the front row after being lured back to the fold.
“Editorially,it ’s been wonderful,”said Groveman,chief executive officer of the firm,in a phone interview.“But retail sales have been very disappointing.We have an obligation to our retail customers to deliver products that are more in the spirit of Bill Blass.”
But in an exclusive interview with WWD,Nilsson charged that Groveman had failed to set a clear mandate for what his vision of Bill Blass Ltd.should be since the death of its namesake designer and founder last year.He said he and Braillard were systematically excluded from company decisions or working with licensees.They also couldn ’t get an employment contract and were even banned from attending the opening of the Blass retrospective in Indiana.
Hervé and I are not crazy people,” Nilsson said.“The way they made us leave the company,telling us not to touch a computer or to delete anything,was very upsetting.I don ’t have anything to hide.It ’s very sad they do not have more respect for the work that we did.”
Groveman would not discuss the specifics of the events or elaborate on why the designers were let go a day after showing their collection,other than to say,“It ’s never a good time.It was something that we thought we had to do.”
Retail sales of the designer collection year,he said,but sell-throughs were below expectations.The company said a new design team will be announced soon, but Groveman denied there were any candidates under consideration.Asked about reports that Vollbracht might be taking over,he would not comment.
“There are no candidates at this time,”he said.
But the bulk of the company ’s volume — $600 million at retail —comes from licenses for such products as women ’s jeans, men ’s shirts,suits and children ’s wear.
Tomar Magnes,a design assistant; Claudia Marta,the designers ’personal assistant,and Nicolas Caito,who ran their work room,also were let go on Wednesday along with Caito ’s assistant, Nilsson said.
A native of Sweden,Nilsson said he plans to continue designing and will look into several possibilities in New York, but he expressed concerns about his work visa.Despite his complaints over the circumstances of his fate,Nilsson managed to remain somewhat upbeat about the Blass experience,even looking at his firing as a positive because it would open up a world of opportunities. Perhaps that ’s something he learned from Blass himself.
“I’m far too positive,”he said.“I want to look into all of the possibilities, whether it ’s men ’s,women ’s or accessories.But the support that I ’ve had at Blass has been amazing,from working with the stores and the editors.I have tried to really work within the tradition of the house and not do any trash or work that would not be appropriate for Blass.I was getting great feedback from the beginning and I really don ’t understand what Michael ’s vision is for this.”
Ironically,Nilsson came to the job of creative director when Slowik,who had hired him as his assistant,was terminated after a poorly received collection failed to spark the interest of stores or editors. Slowik,who won a heated race to take on the Blass mantle following the announcement of Blass ’retirement in November 2000,has been working with Texas designer Susan Dell for the past three seasons.
Nilsson had spent the previous year as design director for the women ’s collection at Polo Ralph Lauren.Prior to that,he was director of the couture studio for John Galliano at Christian Dior and was Christian Lacroix ’s personal assistant for nine years prior to that,building a strong network of relationships throughout the Paris couture and ready-to-wear industries.Braillard was recruited to Blass from Vera Wang later that year.
“There was a lot of personality involved in the company,”Nilsson said. “There always is.But I wanted to make this happen on a professional level as a team because that was what was important for the company.I think Michael ’s vision is very far from what Mr.Blass ’ vision was.But it’s so hard for anyone starting out today.You have to push out a collection and be a success within six months.It ’s tough,but I still love it.”
Slowik ’s departure in 2001 left Nilsson with just a few weeks to present his first fall collection,which was fairly well received by retailers and the press. Since then,his collections have received mixed reviews,but to a large extent his line has gotten strong marks from stores such as Saks ifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman during the trunk show circuit.
Nilsson and Braillard had an easy working relationship together,but also conveyed that personable touch with customers.During the New York Botanical Garden ’s winter benefit,sponsored by Bill Blass,Braillard,known throughout the industry simply as Hervé Pierre,took a turn on the dance floor with nearly every young socialite in the room — Natalie Leeds,ernanda Niven,Hilary Dick,Tory Burch,Marjorie Gubelmann and Ashley McDermott among them.
The designers met 15 years ago as students at Le Chambre Syndicale in Paris and worked separately at a number of different houses in Europe before making their separate ways to New York. Hervé Pierre had worked for Balmain, but was overlooked for top design duties there when the company hired Oscar de la Renta.He didn ’t bear a grudge,as de la Renta set him up in New York with a job designing for his ready-to-wear collection prior to his stint at Wang.