After taking a breather from the fashion scene, Chris Benz is back at it, having taken on the role of creative director at Bill Blass Group LLC.
This story first appeared in the October 30, 2014 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
During a walk-through of the company’s lower Fifth Avenue offices and vast archives Wednesday morning, Benz and Stuart M. Goldblatt, president and chief operating officer, spoke of their plans to reimagine the label to usher in a new generation of in-the-know international shoppers.
The designer’s name has not been seen on a women’s collection since Jeffrey Monteiro exited the company in 2012. Without question, the Bill Blass Group has had its share of fits and starts since Blass retired in 1999 and died in 2002. Steven Slowik, Lars Nilsson, Michael Vollbracht, Peter Som and Monteiro were among the designers who headed up the creative team at one point or another.
Benz, who has spent the past few months remodeling his Brooklyn house, said he is already envisioning “what feels modern today, what women need and want today outside of seasons, huge collections and overdevelopment with not only design and product but how he would be running his business, taking advantage of social media and new platforms for personality connections with the customer. As a designer looking to the future, you don’t want to get lost in the archives.”
Goldblatt added, “The reason Chris is on board is because we wanted a top-flight designer — someone who paralleled Mr. Blass. We were watching a video interview with Mr. Blass and he was asked if he will ever retire. He said, ‘No, this is a young business. The only way I can stay around is by reinventing myself.’ The whole idea was to bring in an American designer who understands the woman today and who is highly social just as Mr. Blass was.”
Apparently, Blass also had a clear idea for his company long before it was actually formed. In the company’s well-organized archives, a pencil sketch of Blass’ double “B” logo was sketched on the cover of a field notebook that belonged to the designer while he was stationed in France for the U.S. army in 1941. (It also contained numerous fashion sketches.)
In the past two years, the company has been pulling back all the licenses, copyrights and registered trademarks and will officially relaunch in spring 2016. Remnants of his licensing empire — boxes for Bill Blass chocolates, dolls and ads for Bill Blass-designed car interiors — are displayed in the 6,000-square-foot offices. There has not been a Bill Blass women’s collection available in stores since fall 2012. With distribution rights already in place in more than 50 countries, the Benz-led Bill Blass collection will be an international label right out of the gate, although selectively, initially, Goldblatt said.
At its pinnacle in the free-spending Eighties, the Bill Blass brand was about a $750 million entity, thanks in part to Blass’ fondness for trunk shows and socializing with many of the well-heeled women he dressed. “He really was a social animal in the Seventies and Eighties — he was at every party,” Goldblatt said. “He would go to lunch once a week with John Fairchild. He would spend just about every night with Diana Vreeland. And then there was Eugenia Sheppard, the International Herald Tribune’s fashion writer, whose husband hated going to all the social events. So Bill Blass was, as they said in those days, her ‘walker.’” (A phrase coined by WWD.)
While Benz will present his own vision of today’s Bill Blass customer, he will pick up the designer’s mantle in terms of giving back. Known to be “extremely philanthropic,” Blass and Vreeland funded the first fashion exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art; he organized the first AIDS fund-raiser in 1986, underwrote the American Heart Association and donated a reading room at the New York Public Library. True to his own intention of giving back, Benz said good-bye Wednesday morning to prepare for a visit from students at his alma mater, Parsons the New School for Design.