By  on July 30, 2007

NEW YORK — Michael Bastian is stepping into Bill Blass Ltd. as creative director for men’s wear, a position that hasn’t existed at the storied American house since 1987.

The move reflects plans by NexCen Brands Inc., which bought the label in December, to relaunch men’s sportswear and tailored clothing for fall 2008.

Bastian will oversee design of all licensed and wholly owned men’s wear categories, which will later include fragrance.

The former fashion director of Bergdorf Goodman Men, who became a designer in 2006, will continue to design his eponymous label. So will Peter Som, who was tapped by Bill Blass to be creative director of the women’s division, filling a vacancy left by Michael Vollbracht in May. Som is the fourth designer to fill that role since Blass’s death in 2002. Bastian considers Som an old friend.

The arrangement started coming together around Easter, when Bastian got a phone call from the company while visiting his parents upstate.

“I think NexCen sees an incredible opportunity in men’s,” he said. “There’s a huge legacy and enormous goodwill for this brand.”

Bill Blass has become one of most internationally recognized brands for women’s wear since its inception by William Ralph Blass in 1970. Elegant and tailored, it remained a staple of ladies who lunch, even as it struggled to fill Blass’s shoes. But men’s wear was neglected for so many years that Blass’s legacy in that realm faded from popular memory.

“People forget he was the first to do a lot of things,” Bastian said. “He was first to have a men’s runway show. The first to have a designer shop-in-shop, at Bonwit Teller. He had the first designer fragrance for men in America. But there’s been a huge gap since it ceased to be a collection business coming directly from his vision.”

Bastian said it was too soon to discuss runway formats, but he is definitely hoping to put the men’s collection back on the catwalk, either in tandem with women’s wear or alone.

“Men’s in general is a growth market now,” he said. “More guys are interested in clothes and dressing up. So this is the perfect time to bring this back.”

Bastian never worked for Blass, but admired him tremendously ever since a chance encounter in the late ’80s. Bastian was an assistant fashion editor, sent to pick up a bag at the Bill Blass headquarters. He unwittingly barged into the designer’s office and found him smoking at his desk.

“He introduced himself and we chatted, and I thought he was a wonderfully charming gentleman, a kind that doesn’t exist anymore. And the way he pulled himself together—always a suit, but the jacket off, sleeves rolled up, no tie. He was always smiling, polite, witty, the type of guy you want to sit next to at a dinner party.”

Like Blass, Bastian is well liked in the industry, and in his short time as a designer he has already been nominated for the CFDA’s Swarovski Award for Menswear. Last week he was named a finalist for the CFDA/Vogue Fashion Fund. His mission has been the perfection of classic American casualwear, with modern fits and luxurious fabrics and details. The collection, though it comes from a distinctly American sensibility, is all made in Italy, where the designer spends about half his time.

“In my head I have a very clear idea of who the MB guy is, and I’m developing a clear idea of who the Blass guy is. The American concept is my thing, so they’re going to be related but definitely different.”

Bastian is champing at the bit to look at Blass’s archives.

“What would Bill wear if he were 30 in New York now? It would be modern and sexy and cool, but based on the idea of a gentleman. I was reluctant to use that word because it’s shorthand for ‘old man’ in our industry. But it shouldn’t be. A gentleman is well mannered, involved, considerate of people’s feelings. These are valid ideals and they’re so rare now.”

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