NILSSON BRINGS NEW ATTITUDE AS BILL BLASS’S HEAD DESIGNER
Byline: Eric Wilson
NEW YORK — The events of recent days at Bill Blass may have seemed a little more characteristic of “Melrose Place” than Seventh Avenue, but Lars Nilsson, who has suddenly stepped out of the shadows at the house to become its new head designer, should not be confused with a soap opera star.
Nilsson, who is 33, has quietly, but diligently, worked behind the scenes at a roster of industry heavyweights, having served as Christian Lacroix’s right-hand man for nine years, worked with Oscar de la Renta at Pierre Balmain, coordinated the couture studio of John Galliano at Christian Dior and directed the women’s collection of Ralph Lauren at various points in his career.
Now, Nilsson is taking over the role of head designer for one of the most prominent and powerful names in American fashion. But, in a turn of circumstance rather than scheme, he is taking the job from Steven Slowik, a longtime colleague who hired him away from Lauren last year, and who was abruptly dismissed on Friday after a disappointing first season.
To his advantage, Nilsson is credited with several personality traits that appear to fall more closely in line with what is expected for the future by Bill Blass, who retired last year, and the company he left behind. Several of his colleagues have described Nilsson as more flexible and easygoing than his recent predecessor.
For his part, Nilsson would hardly describe his ascension as cut-throat.
“It was very tough,” Nilsson said. “It was a very difficult decision, but it wasn’t mine to make. Steven is a friend and I’ve known him for years. He’s the first person I called on Friday. We talked and we still are very close friends. Of course, it’s in my mind, but I have to try to do my best.”
What Nilsson has in mind for the company is also less revolutionary than the direction Slowik took with his spring collection, which included several variations that took apart elements of Blass’s signature style and put them back together in a more casual, often deconstructed way. That turned out to be the wrong direction from the perspective of editors and Blass’s core customers, who were looking for a modern twist, rather than a tear from the past.
Bill Blass has cancelled its Bryant Park runway show scheduled for Feb. 15, the company noted, but a small fall presentation of Nilsson’s work will be made to the press in Blass’s showroom in the same 10 a.m. time slot.
“I don’t think I want to shock anybody,” Nilsson said Tuesday in his first interview in the new position.
“I want to make beautiful clothes that anyone could wear,” he said. “The challenge of doing something like this is very incredible, but I want to make it something elegant, sophisticated and beautiful. What I have had lately and will have in the future is communication with Mr. Blass. I feel that I fully have his support in taking the company forward.”
As far as successors go, Nilsson is fairly low-profile, despite his resume, when compared to some of the names that were considered when Blass announced his retirement in November 1999. But his polite, well-studied and open-to-suggestion manner may prove to be his greatest asset when considering that Blass’s is a collection looking to evolve organically within a range of witty, urbane design, rather than, say, the abrupt departure from a signature style employed by John Galliano at Dior or Alexander McQueen at Givenchy.
Nilsson is also passionate about his work and curious about the way things work. He described himself as “interested in everything.” He collects books, particularly first editions on photography from artists like Cecil Beaton and MacDermott and MacGouth. He also staged an exhibition in 1997 in Paris of his own photography, mostly still life portraits of flowers and installations.
“I always want to learn more and meet more people,” he said. “That’s what life is about. I’m not someone who can stay in bed till 8 a.m. on Saturday morning. It drives a lot of my friends crazy because I have a lot of energy.”
Since Nilsson also was presenting himself for the first time to the press on Tuesday as the voice of a house, he volunteered his preferences in music, as Slowik’s taste for drum-and-base became a metaphor for the ideological split he took from Blass’s uptown personality.
“I like classical, a lot, modern techno and I love disco,” Nilsson said. “Gotta stay true to myself.”
Nilsson was born in Stockholm, where his father sold Caterpillar equipment and his mother worked part-time in a clothing store. He studied design and tailoring there until he was 19, when he moved to Paris to study at the Chambre Syndicale.
“It was sort of natural. There was never a question about it,” he said. “I always liked clothes and texture and working with my hands is something I always wanted to do.”
His first job at Lacroix started as a two-week internship but developed into a long-term role as the designer’s personal and couture assistant. That experience helped him make the move to Balmain in 1995, which turned out to be a short employment, as he was immediately tapped by Dior to become its coordinator of the couture studio. A vacation to New York led him to apply to Ralph Lauren, where he was brought in as design director for the women’s collection in 1999.
“I have a knowledge of luxury and of luxury goods,” Nilsson said. “Elegance in general is something I’ve been trained in over all these years, which is very close to what the house of Bill Blass has been doing. The aspects of how you develop a collection — going from an idea, then putting the show together and then selling — I have seen all the parts of the spectrum.”
Nilsson’s interests lie in fabric, texture, colors and prints, he said, noting his strengths are in tailoring and eveningwear design. Asked what image came to mind when he thought of Bill Blass designs, he responded: “It’s a very elegant and chic lady, wearing a suit for daytime, and her hair is coifed.”
“But that’s one woman,” Nilsson said. “Bill Blass is someone who has dressed a lot of women and that’s absolutely the way it will be in the future.”