NEW YORK — Bill Bill Blass is back at bridge, but this time with dresses.

The executives at Bill Blass Ltd. have partnered with BBS International Group to produce a line of day-to-evening dresses featuring the classic, understated look for which the late iconic American designer was known, but at more attainable, broad-reaching prices.

The new collection, which opens this week, is expected to bow in about 250 to 300 retail doors this fall and holiday, with wholesale prices ranging from $99 to $139 for the daywear collection and from $129 to $440 for evening.

"Bill Bill Blass is recognized as the bridge price point of Bill Blass," said Michael Groveman, chief executive officer of Bill Blass Ltd., referring to the sportswear collection that launched last year in partnership with Urchin.

Interviewed Monday at the showroom at 530 Seventh Avenue here, Groveman said, "The previous line was a sweater knitwear line and this is primarily a dress collection. [The name] started as bridge, and while it really wasn’t enough as a category, there was a need in the market for great dresses. So rather than having various labels out there, why not stick with a good label that was accepted in the marketplace in the bridge category and carry it forward as dresses?"

Targeting better department stores, Groveman said he expects the line to reach about $3 million to $5 million in sales by the end of 2004, with the business eventually hitting $20 million over several years. The line is headed by former retail executive Hedy Wilder, who is president of Bill Bill Blass, a division of BBS International Group, and design director Kenny Bonavitacola, formerly design director of Perry Ellis International’s licensed dress business and previous head designer at Kasper Dress, Tahari and the Warren Group.

The goal is to reach more of America with the new dress line — the woman who knows the Bill Blass name, but can’t afford the designer price tag.

"This is the woman who aspires to wear those dresses but certainly cannot afford $2,000 to $3,000 for a dress, but can afford a $200, $400 or $500 dress," Groveman said. "Whenever you go down in price, you can reach many more people and there’s really a lack of great dresses at this price in the market. And a lot of these dresses we’ve done in our [designer] collection before. So if they were successful on the high-end, we feel it will be successful at this end."The collection is spread over some 120 pieces, with about 70 percent of the line focused on special occasion and 30 percent on versatile, day-to-evening looks. For evening, details include intricate embellishments and beading, embroidery and trapunto stitching. Fabrics for day include three-ply crepe with silk charmeuse and houndstooth. For evening, key fabrics include taffeta, silk, peau de soie, lace, velvets, satins and tulle. The evening dresses will come paired with velvet bolero jackets and stoles, and silk and cashmere cardigans also will be introduced to be worn with the dresses — something which was very classic Bill Blass, Bonavitacola said.

"The idea is she could wear it to work and then to the theater," said the head designer, noting the line remains true to the classic Bill Blass heritage, but modernized. "I’ve been inspired by Bill Blass my entire career and while I don’t think I translated it literally, I took a lot of the details [from the archives]."

One example of a dress that was a literal translation from the Bill Blass archives is a long, flowing, black velvet sculptured dress, which Bonavitacola lined in ivory for dramatic effect.

"I think this might have been done in the Seventies and shown in 10 stores and retailed for $7,000, and this will be under $1,000," he said. "So it gives the woman who’s always had the desire to wear Bill Blass, but couldn’t afford it, the same look."

Like Bill Blass in his heyday, who appealed to an audience as diverse as Lee Radziwill to Aretha Franklin, the Bill Bill Blass team today thinks this incarnation will have far-reaching appeal, too.

"I could see this collection on a 20-year-old woman to a 60-year-old woman," Bonavitacola said. "Even these young starlets, they love old [styling]. There’s something they’re attracted to and that’s what we’re trying to give them — something with a Fifties, Sixties feeling, but under $500. You’d have to go to a vintage store and spend $5,000 [for the real thing.]"

Michael Fink, senior fashion market director at Saks Fifth Avenue, said the store is always looking for new products, and dresses are seeing a revival."There’s a customer of all ages who loves the ease of a dress," Fink said. "A lot of young executives in our office here have recently discovered the dress and it’s just a great, easy item, and so hopefully this will look good and be a beautiful product. Day into evening is another fantastic opportunity and it will be interesting how they interpret that.

"What I’m hoping for personally is that they draw from the legacy of Bill Blass and that they incorporate that wonderful whimsy he had — the shock of the unexpected, such as overall use of men’s wear fabric done in a feminine way."

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