NEW YORK — As the third designer to helm the Bill Blass collection since the old boy’s retirement, Michael Vollbracht is approaching the job as an actor might take on an Oscar-worthy role.
For four months, he has lived, breathed, ate, slept, talked and drank in the dashing and droll style of the late designer, getting inside his head to the point that, “someone had to tell me to stop channeling Bill,” he said, softening his voice.
Considering the house’s recent history, with two designers being axed for creating collections that were very un-Blass, Vollbracht was hired partly for one important reason: He had a better working knowledge of the designer than any other viable candidate, having worked on a retrospective and catalog on the career of Blass, who died last summer. During that time, Vollbracht picked up some of the Blass mannerisms — the clipped, witty commentary; standing with a cocktail in one hand and the other tucked away under his armpit, no hesitations about cursing.
Vollbracht, who had picked up neither needle nor thread since closing his signature collection 15 years ago, delved into the archives to assemble his first resort collection for the house, which opens to retailers today. Building on the late designer’s forté of dresses and suits, he stayed close to pattern, with exact parameters for the number of pinstripe suits, little black dresses and crepe color-block jackets, each with three alternative matching skirts, trousers and beaded evening pants. While his predecessors have complained that the historic mentality of the house left little room for innovation, Vollbracht felt quite the opposite.
“If I were coming back with my own business, I wouldn’t know what to do,” Vollbracht said. “I’d be off in Gaultier land. With Bill Blass, I know what my limits are. It has to be Blass. It has to be suits, and this,” he said, pointing to a white double-breasted blazer in matte lisse, “this is our bread and butter.”
Vollbracht, who is 55, is also taking a different strategy to the collection than did Steven Slowik or Lars Nilsson. While he said there is a need to broaden the house’s customer base, his focus is on a woman, like him, over 50. As a muse, he called up Karen Bjornson, who was Halston’s house model in the Seventies and a favorite of Blass, as well. She agreed to work for the company, modeling the resort line like a purebred filly, trotting the clothes out and posing in that old-fashioned style of three fast steps and pose, as if she were trying to frighten a three-year-old.
“I never wanted to go backward, but Karen gave my mind an idea of a pretty girl,” Vollbracht said. “Karen is our customer. She is a mother. She’s married to an interior designer. She’s got the intellect to wear the clothes. I went to the CFDA event two weeks ago and all I saw was models walking around in torn clothes. Sitting down in Bill Blass, a woman should have something to talk about.”
From the resort collection, she could talk about the groups of tricolor sherbet sundresses, as did Vollbracht, as “Color Me Hot,” or the suits as “Blass Pinstripes,” or the ombré evening gowns as “Hampton Bouquets,” or a sheer black blouse with a white Peter Pan collar as
“ladylike, but naughty.” While they’re not the sort of clothes that would necessarily make such a statement on a runway, Vollbracht’s approach has been to walk before he runs, and he’ll have the chance to do that in September with his first full collection. Getting the basics out of his system, Vollbracht will have the chance to put his own mark on the label for spring.
“I’m just getting my feet wet,” he said. “This is a tough business and I know I may be whipped out of here, too, because I didn’t do my job.”