As far as birthday parties go, this one is going to be a whopper.
To pay tribute to the late Bill Blass, the Fort Wayne, Indiana community is organizing “The Bill Blass Centennial,” which will feature an array of events and exhibitions spanning 100 days. The festivities will kick off on what would have been the legendary designer’s 100th birthday on June 22 and will run through Sept. 30. Blass, who hailed from Fort Wayne, died in 2002 at the age of 79.
The American designer’s name was synonymous with good taste in the ’70s and ’80s, due partially to his well-heeled client friends who he socialized with: Pat Buckley, Nancy Reagan, Happy Rockefeller, Nancy Kissinger and Brooke Astor among them. Blass once told WWD: “It instigated designers to become owners and partners in the business. Designers had to be forced out of their ivory towers.”
Known as “the Senator of Seventh Avenue,” Blass, who retired in 2000, was integral in establishing American designers on an equal footing with their European counterparts. Another factor of his household name fame was the licensing empire that he built well beyond fashion into Lincoln Continental interiors, home furnishings, chocolates and more. With about 87 licensing deals at one point, Blass built a multimillion-dollar business, with bedsheets being the most lucrative at one point.
Leading the Blass birthday celebrations is entrepreneur and philanthropist Kathy Carrier, who is also funding the project. One of the cornerstones will be a two-part exhibition — with one half planned for the Fort Wayne Museum of Art and the other half set for the Fort Wayne History Center. Jenna Gilley, associate curator of exhibitions, is curating the exhibition. A sculptor has been commissioned to develop six statues that will each highlight Bill Blass designs. A graphic designer has been hired to develop a logo.
Carrier, who grew up watching her mother sew Bill Blass patterns, traveled with a few of the other organizers to New York last week to meet with executives at Bill Blass Ltd. to review the archives and see the fashion up close. They also walked through what will be a new Bill Blass store in Midtown, Carrier said.
”It’s about the Fort Wayne community honoring someone, who was a World War II hero and a design genius,” Carrier said. “Forty-three of the awards he received were for fashion only. Coty created a lifetime achievement award because they had given him other awards and they didn’t know what else to do,” Carrier said. “What he did with his trunk shows, traveling 30,000 miles a year all over the U.S.…”
The far-reaching tribute will cover a lot of ground, encompassing three museums, 14 library branches, Blass’ former high school, the lake community, where his family had a cottage, and the New York-based Bill Blass archives and the Sage Collection at Indiana University. The intergenerational outreach will include a Bill Blass coloring book, statues and exhibitions of his designs and more.
While the name may prompt many to ask “Bill who?”, organizers are confident that his life, especially the hardships, will resonate with Generation Alpha and Gen Zers. Video cameras and other equipment have been purchased for students at his alma mater South Side High School so that they can not only learn about his perseverance but share their own stories through videos and podcasts.
The fact that the house that Blass grew up in is located across the street from the high school stands to make the hardships of his life more tangible. Both his father and grandfather committed suicide, with the former doing so in the family’s home when Blass was five years old. “The difficulties that Bill had growing up, during the Depression with poverty and having a single mother raise him really resonates with a lot of today’s kids. The kids at South Side High School are designing shoes and will do a chalk walk from the front door of the school — these are high school students from a rough neighborhood — to the house that Bill Blass grew up in,” Carrier said.
At 15, Blass started selling his sketches to a New York manufacturer for $25 to $30. “Who does that in high school during the [Great] Depression?”
A few years later he used those savings to move to New York. An early job with Anne Klein was short lived. He then joined the Anna Miller company. After her death in 1960, he continued to work for her brother Maurice Rentner and created the Bill Blass for Maurice Rentner label. In 1970, Blass bought the company and renamed it his own.
There also seems to be a built-in base of devotees, considering that a recent Facebook post that included Blass’ meatloaf recipe generated more than 8,500 views. To help keep all the information about Blass’ life in order, the centennial team is inquiring about specifics or bouncing information about Blass’ life off of his former butler Al McGloin and his niece Barbara Camp and nephew William Camp.
Blass’ involvement with the World War II U.S. Army tactical deception unit that was known as the “the Ghost Army” will be highlighted in the centennial. Blass and his fellow soldiers helped outmaneuver and deceive German forces in the European theater and helped save the lives of thousands of allies during World War II. Using inflatable tanks and artillery and sending false radio transmissions were among their tactics. Organizers have enlisted the help of Rick Beyer, bestselling author and director of the World War II documentary “The Ghost Army.” As president of the Ghost Army Legacy Project, Beyer was instrumental in getting the Ghost Army unit recognized with the Congressional Gold Medal.
Beyer will bring his exhibit, which features 46 pieces, including an inflatable tank, to highlight the Ghost Army’s story. In September, he will offer lectures and show his documentary as part of the centennial. The Veteran’s National Shrine and Museum in Fort Wayne has commissioned a Ghost Army commemorative coin that is being sold.
Also on display at the museums will be Blass’ sketchbook from World War II, on which he sketched his first Bill Blass logo, and a game that Blass created for his dog “Barnaby.”
Asked why she created such a comprehensive view of Blass’ life, Carrier said: “It wasn’t really anything that I decided. I just created a team of people, who had an interest like I did. We’re all going off into our areas of interest. It’s just branched out on its own. I think that after COVID[-19], people are just hungry for a good story and to be motivated and have fun. What is not to like about Bill and his work.”
During a visit to Bill Blass Ltd. last week, Carrier and a few others perused some of the 500 boxes of photos, sketches, highly organized archives and other memorabilia about the company’s history. Rather than ship the information, the plan at this point is to digitize it. The company already provided 200 electronic images of his work and is loaning some ensembles to exhibit.
An executive at Bill Blass postponed comment Monday to a later date.
Indiana University will be loaning 15 of the few hundred Bill Blass designs in its Elizabeth Sage Historic Costume Collection for an exhibition. Blass bequeathed a $1 million gift to Indiana University. Prior to his death in 2002, he jetted into Bloomington to ensure an exhibition of his work would be just right. Arriving an hour earlier than his welcoming committee had expected him due to a daylight savings time-induced mix-up, Blass went straight to work. Displeased with the assortment, the designer phoned his client friends to send the designs that he wanted, Carrier said.
As for what Blass might make of the extravaganza, Carrier said: “In his [autobiographical] book ‘Bare Blass,’ he talks about not wanting a lot of recognition and that the camaraderie that he found in World War II was meaningful recognition and surviving World War II was recognition enough. I don’t know that he would be looking for all this, but I have to believe that he would feel loved by his hometown. His life was remarkable. It would be remarkable in any decade, but particularly coming up through the Depression, fighting in World War II and making a completely fabulous career in fashion. I think he would feel at least the honor and the respect that we have for him in Indiana for his life and his achievements.”