NEW YORK — Bill Blass has a new bill of goods.

Marking the first big brand extension for the 32-year-old designer firm since it was floated on the bond market in 1999, the principals of the Blass brand have set up a new company, with a knit sportswear specialist, called Bill – Bill Blass, aimed at the bridge market.

The new collection, which opens to retailers next week for a fall launch, marks the second designer entry for the season into the bridge market, one of the most troubled sectors of the retail industry of the past decade, but also one that might be considered prime for a comeback during recessionary times. As reported, Polo Ralph Lauren is launching Ralph Lauren Blue Label, which is projected to become a $100 million business its first year.

Blass’s Bill label is projected more conservatively, with first-year wholesale estimates from $10 million to $20 million, but it is targeted at a decimated segment of bridge that once counted sales in the hundreds of millions, with labels such as Adrienne Vittadini and Andrea Jovine that specialized in career and dressy knits.

“The bridge market has not done well in the last few years, but I think it’s prime to be a big market,” said Michael Groveman, chief executive officer of Bill Blass Ltd., who bought the brand with Haresh T. Tharani, chairman of its largest licensee, from the designer in the unusual bond deal just before Blass retired.

The principals have partnered with Brad Saltzman, president and ceo of the contemporary sportswear brand Urchin, to set up Bill – Bill Blass and to provide the manufacturing and sales muscle for the new label out of Urchin’s showroom at 550 Seventh Avenue, where Bill Blass is also headquartered.

But Blass has attempted to crack the bridge market several times before with limited success, most recently with the Bill Blass USA collection that was licensed to Augustus Clothiers. That was discontinued in 1998 when that company ran into financial problems, but Groveman and Saltzman feel the brand’s image of modern, sophisticated dressing holds a lot of untapped appeal, if they can just hit on the right formula.

“Bill – Bill Blass is a more modern way for women to shop in the bridge category,” Groveman said. “Instead of being very costumey, this is a more item-driven collection.”

The initial collection, designed by Tad Boetcher with Terry Brown, is merchandised around monthly deliveries beginning in July and focused on classic Blass looks culled from the company’s vast archives: twinsets, pinstripes, herringbone, a few boldly patterned sweaters and tuxedo details on blouses and pants.

Juan Montoya, executive vice president of the new venture and a four-year veteran of Urchin, said the launch is driven by knitwear and novelty looks in an effort to distinguish the collection in a market that often relies on staple career and sportswear basics.

The line is priced to wholesale from $75 to $140 for knits and $95 to $195 for wovens, with an overall targeted retail range of $175 to $450. Among the key looks are a polished cardigan that features Blass’s mirrored-B logo in black bugle beads, a colorblock kimono sweater, a bias-cut fisherman’s turtleneck and value-oriented double-faced silk and cashmere twinsets that are reversible.

“One thing we are very sensitive to is having both 100 percent wool and non-wool blend programs, so that we can sell to stores throughout the U.S.,” said Saltzman, noting that Bill – Bill Blass is targeting specialty chains such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom for the launch, in addition to key regional specialty stores.

Saltzman, who is also president of Bill – Bill Blass, worked for Vittadini and Jovine prior to joining Urchin as a start-up four years ago and said no one has really stepped up to replace those labels in the bridge market.

“We want to fill a very important niche that has not been available for the past 4 1/2 years,” he said.

Groveman, meanwhile, saw a void within the Blass empire, too, and anticipates further expansion of the label through new ventures in the coming months. The core brand is positioned in designer ready-to-wear departments, although figures for some of its finer pieces often rival those of the Parisian couture.

After Blass’s retirement following his spring 2000 runway show, the line was initially designed by Steven Slowik, but he was replaced after a season by his then-assistant Lars Nilsson, who has garnered much more favorable reviews.

Below the image-driven designer line, Blass’s biggest presence is in jeanswear, with the Bill Blass Jeans collection that was licensed in 1998 to Tharani’s company, Resource Club. The designer collection has an estimated wholesale volume of $15 million, while the brand overall brings in about $760 million at retail, including all licensed products.

“We expect the bridge category will become one of the largest parts of the business and also one of the most visible,” Groveman said. “There was a big gap from what we do at the couture level and what we do with jeans. This is the first step of filling that void in between.”

It’s also something in which Blass himself has had a hand, recommending certain looks from the archives for inspiration. The name of the line was his pick, too.

“We spoke about several options, but he said he liked Bill, so that was it,” Groveman said. “His two cents are worth a lot.”

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