“People want to look put together without looking too dressed up,” Jeffrey Monteiro explains, by way of summing up his resort outing for Bill Blass.
Focusing on daywear with cocktail pieces added as “highlights,” Monteiro says, the 24-look lineup draws on Blass’ rigorous attention to finishing — see the grosgrain ribbons lining inside seams — while hewing to Monteiro’s downtown sensibility (he designed for Mayle for five years). The result is a chic, clean collection of suits, coats and sheaths that are as streamlined as the label’s new, white-on-white, nearly 6,000-square-foot showroom on lower Fifth Avenue.
If Monteiro, 41, is nervous about his debut at a house that has been a virtual revolving door for nascent and established designers since Bill Blass’ death in 2002, he doesn’t show it. Pointing out a glass case full of Blass memorabilia in the showroom (hidden in one scrapbook that Monteiro opens: the program for a 1976 White House state dinner for Queen Elizabeth, emceed by Bob Hope), Monteiro is sanguine about the added scrutiny during this resort season, one of the most jam-packed in recent memory. “It’s about building a signature and a language over time rather than being like, it’s one season, that’s it,” he says.
The Bill Blass firm that lured in and tossed out designers from Steven Slowik (2000-01) to Lars Nilsson (2001-03) to Michael Vollbracht (a relatively long tenure — four years) to, finally, Peter Som (2007-08), is a more simplified one these days, says its president, Scott Patti. The company itself now goes by the name Bill Blass Group, and was purchased in late 2008 by brothers Cin and Peter Kim of Peacock Apparel Group for a reported $10 million; at the time, there were 22 Blass licensing contracts. As of this April, there were five.
“One of the problems they had at the old company was that they didn’t have a focused presentation for the licenses, and they were selling to everybody from Sears to Saks,” explains Patti. “Which is a problem, because there’s nothing wrong with selling to Sears, as long as you have a mind-set that that’s the goal — to sell to Sears. That’s not our mind-set yet — we want to get Bill Blass back to the better business, starting with women’s.”
That means — as of now — no Monteiro-designed aviator glasses or candlesticks. The company does not have specific retailers on board yet for the women’s wear; buyers will start looking at the full collection on Friday. Patti, a garment-industry veteran who met Blass in the late Eighties, when he worked for a necktie company, says Monteiro had competition for the job from more than a hundred designers. But it was not just his straightforwardly cool aesthetic — favored by actresses like Natalie Portman and Michelle Williams, a far cry from Blass’ Pat Buckley set — that caught the eye of the Kim brothers.
“His design talent is excellent, but then again, we saw a lot of people who have design talent,” Patti says. “I think it was his personality. It’s just special, and we knew someone had to fit in. He could describe Bill Blass the way we wanted him described.”
For Monteiro, Bill Blass represents technical precision — “everything was double-face!” he exclaims. He adds that spring will likely include more of that ilk — and be intended for customers with a social, upwardly mobile lifestyle. But the overarching characteristic that Monteiro hopes to channel is versatility. “Blass mixed in a certain circle, and he surrounded himself with [society] women. But he also traveled around to every little town and city and did trunk shows all over the country. He fed a customer,” Monteiro says. “That core customer is still there, but it’s also a different era. Now most women work. So what do they need for that life where they’re mothers and they work and they have events to go to? My clothes need to accommodate those things.”
The designer is a film buff, and this resort collection, all of which will retail for below $2,000 — with the exception of a stone-beaded cocktail number that goes for a decidedly aspirational $9,000 — was inspired by “Bay of Angels,” a 1963 Jacques Demy movie starring Jeanne Moreau. “It’s about subtlety and intimacy,” says Monteiro.
Literal translation: below-the-knee pencil skirts — “it’s fresher to go longer” — have small slits along the thighs and one elegant gray coat is worked from cotton and Lycra, molding scubalike to the body, which can also be worn as a dress. A blue wool suit has pintucking up the front legs, lending sharpness, and gently loose jackets are cropped and collarless. “I love the idea of a jacket that can be layered,” says Monteiro.
Though he will continue to design his namesake contemporary collection, Monteiro is focused on the Blass gig as a long-term one (and, for his part, Patti says he has assured Monteiro that he is not pulling the dress forms out from under him: “We want him to have time to make it work.”) Which is why Monteiro is so intent on blocking out the sartorial peanut gallery surrounding his debut. As he puts it, “Mr. Blass always looked like he was having fun. He was enjoying himself. I think when that happens, it translates to the clothes.”