Byline: Eric Wilson

NEW YORK — After a lot of buildup to what was ultimately a disappointing debut collection for Bill Blass, designer Steven Slowik was dismissed on Friday in a surprise shake-up at the house.
He’ll be replaced as head designer by Lars Nilsson, whom Slowik himself hand-picked to join the Blass team in July.
The moves come just a month before Slowik was to present his second collection for Blass with a runway show at Bryant Park, which has been canceled, the company said on Friday.
In an exclusive interview, Michael Groveman, president and chief executive officer of Bill Blass, said the decision to terminate Slowik’s employment was based upon the disappointing reaction to his spring collection for the house, which was panned as unfocused and too far a stretch from the uptown vision of the house’s legendary namesake, who announced his retirement in November 1999.
“The direction he was going in was not the direction that the house of Blass represents,” Groveman said. “The appointment of Lars Nilsson, and the work on the collection that he has done over the past several months, is much more in line with what Bill Blass stands for, and that is why I made the decision.”
Slowik, reached by telephone at his home, said he was disappointed and surprised by the decision, but also was critical of his own missteps at the house during his first season. He said that he has no immediate plans, and, displaying a sense of wit characteristic of the master whose shoes he attempted to fill, added, “This is the drama of fashion. It’s all Hollywood.”
Slowik, who had designed ready-to-wear for Ferragamo in addition to a signature collection in Paris, was not working for Blass under contract. The 40-year-old designer landed the job in February with Blass’s personal stamp of approval, ending months of speculation about who would take the reins of one of America’s most recognized designer brands and beating out a number of prominent applicants that included James Purcell, Randolph Duke and Eric Gaskins.
Blass, reached at his home in Connecticut, said he was not surprised by the decision to remove Slowik and described it as “probably necessary.”
“This is not an easy period, and I hope that it will work out with Lars,” he said.
In July, Slowik brought Nilsson on board as senior designer. Nilsson had spent the previous year as design director for the women’s collection at Polo Ralph Lauren. He had been director of the couture studio for John Galliano at Christian Dior prior to joining Lauren and previously was Christian Lacroix’s personal assistant for nine years.
Slowik and Nilsson had met while Slowik was designing his signature collection in Paris.
Nilsson, who was named head designer of Blass’s creative team on Friday, was not available for comment. The company said its fall 2001 collection will be shown to buyers and press in its New York showroom beginning Feb. 5.
While the news is indicative of a somewhat painful transition for the Bill Blass company since Blass’s retirement, Groveman remained confident that, under Nilsson’s direction, its collection will become more aligned with the signature Blass elements of luxury fabrics, glamorous evening clothes, men’s tailoring and American sportswear than what some felt was too modern a take under Slowik’s direction.
In his 60-year career, Blass built a fashion empire that includes at least 40 licensees with retail volume estimated in excess of $760 million. Prior to his departure, his rtw collection was estimated to generate another $25 million in retail sales nationwide.
Blass sold his interest in the firm in 1999 through an unusual bond issue to Haresh T. Tharani, chairman of the firm’s largest licensee, The Resource Club Ltd., and Groveman, who was previously chief financial officer of Bill Blass Ltd.
The company aims to update its image without taking too broad a step that would alienate the core constituency of Upper East Side socialites who have remained loyal to the charismatic Blass throughout his career. Slowik’s first show was not well received by Blass’s ladies, many of whom declined to comment on their impressions of the show as they left the tents in September. Even in its corporate identity, Blass has been slow to embrace change, having only upgraded its phone system this year to one that includes automated voice mail from a system that alerted staffers of an incoming call by a series of bells that rang through its showroom.
That mentality was the sole point on which Slowik was vocally critical on Friday, saying, “One extremely difficult aspect of this situation has been the psychology of the company, which is embedded into its own past.”
As Slowik put together his first collection for the house, he described the formulation of a “visual vocabulary” of Blass elements, such as men’s wear fabrics and fine tailoring, which he then attempted to update with ultra-lightweight construction, a vibrant color palette and cut-out dresses that showed elements of deconstruction.
He switched the soundtrack in the Blass showroom at 550 Seventh Avenue from Frank Sinatra and Cole Porter to drum-and-base releases from Kruder Dorfmeister and showed his collection to buyers with hand-selected arrangements of garden roses from the flower market and scented candles to fill the environment. He also tended toward wearing Prada suits with simple T-shirts, compared to Blass’s uniform of jacket and tie.
“These are incredible shoes to slide into,” Slowik said at the time of his appointment. “I don’t know if I can fill these shoes, but that’s not what I’m here to do.”
But from Groveman’s perspective, it was too far off from Blass’s sophisticated approach to American dressing that was equal parts uptown and down, and what seemed like an effortless combination of masculine and feminine elements. From what he’s seen of Nilsson’s impact on the collection, Groveman felt that the designer would be able to bring the line more into the direction of what is expected by the house.
“The company hasn’t changed tremendously over the past year,” Groveman said. “I’ve been here for quite a while, over 10 years. The biggest change obviously was that Mr. Blass isn’t here as the main designer. You really can’t replace a Bill Blass, but the balance of the company has remained intact.
“What will transpire over the next several months will be seeing what Lars is capable of,” he said. “Obviously, there are a lot of other people that have been here on the design team and will be working with Lars, and Mr. Blass is also still advising the collection.”
Blass has been recuperating from a long illness and has in recent months taken a more active role in advising the company from his home in Connecticut.

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