Designer Bill Blass (1922–2002) was a dominant force in American fashion for decades. An astute visionary and the first womenswear designer to venture into men's high-end apparel, Blass soared from lowly 7th Avenue anonymity to household-name status when consumer spending exploded during the late 1960s and designer labels signaled status. “He changed the way people thought about designers,” declared veteran fashion journalist Cathy Horyn in Harper's Bazaar. “Blass was the first designer to see that the public needed someone like himself: a man with great taste, good looks, and heaps of sex appeal.”
Like two other trailblazers in mid-20th-century American fashion, Norman Norell and Halston, Blass spent his formative years in Indiana, where he was born William Ralph Blass on June 22, 1922. The Fort Wayne native was the son of a hardware-supply salesman who committed suicide when Blass, the second of two children, was five years old. The Great Depression of the 1930s and the social stigma resulting from her husband's death created difficulties for his mother Ethel Blass, a dressmaker. It was certainly worse for her only son: by age eight he had become the target of sexual predators who took advantage of Ethel's belief that their attention toward her son was friendly and fatherly.
Following the war, Blass toiled in relative obscurity for more than a decade at Anna Miller & Company, a 7th Avenue apparel company that produced sober designs for matronly women. His more daring creations first gained the attention of Baron Nicolas de Gunzburg, a senior editor at Vogue magazine who was impressed by the young designer's inventive silhouettes, use of nontraditional fabrics, and general aplomb. De Gunzburg introduced Blass to Diana Vreeland, then working at Harper's Bazaar, and her patronage helped him curry the favor of socialite clients and launch his career as a solo designer of women's ready-towear. At the time, the Anna Miller label was owned by Miller's brother, Maurice Rentner, who had a separate company. When Rentner died in 1958, the two entities merged, and Blass convinced the company's older executives to let him design under the name “Bill Blass for Maurice Rentner.”
The daywear and formal collections Blass now released sold phenomenally well at Saks Fifth Avenue, Bonwit Teller, and other fashion-forward retailers. Recalling this era in a 1997 article for the New Yorker, he remembered a visit to the bar of the fabled Ritz Hotel in Paris, where he spotting a pair of prominent American style icons. In contrast to the cinched-waist formality of 1950s fashion, one woman was “dressed just as if she were in her country house on Long Island,” wearing a sweater-and-tweed-skirt ensemble and forgoing the then-requisite millinery. Blass dated his creative awakening to that day at the Ritz, noting in the New Yorker that “American women have a way of wearing clothes which doesn't date them. The best-dressed ones … have had a sense of themselves which hasn't depended in the least on what the world was wearing. And so it came to me that there could be a way of designing for women that was, in the best sense, American.”
Blass funneled his salary and bonuses to professionals who helped him establish financial and creative independence. He hired a business manager to oversee licensing arrangements with manufacturers, moving from trial runs in hosiery and children's apparel to furs, footwear, and eventually home accessories. He also hired savvy Madison Avenue copywriter Jane Trahey to promote him as an emerging name in women's fashion; Trahey devised elegant, memorable puns using his malleable surname for full-page ads in national magazines. The first industry recognition came in 1963 when Blass won the Coty American Fashion Critics Award for women's apparel. Two years later, he became a partner in Maurice Rentner Ltd., and within a few years he was able to buy his employer outright.
By the dawn of the 1970s, Blass had become a regular presence not just in the editorial pages of Vogue and other leading fashion bibles but also in feature articles and columns chronicling the footloose lifestyle of the international jet set. He had a rugged, mid-century American look that photographed well, and by now he had exchanged his Hoosier-state accent for the unplaceable East Coast manner of speech. He entertained at his penthouse on Sutton Place, the former home of actress Marilyn Monroe, and planted a terrace on the property with 15,000 dollars worth of trees, as Ephron revealed. Blass also vacationed in Morocco and socialized with a coterie of glamorous women ranging from Nancy Kissinger, wife of U.S. national security advisor Henry Kissinger, to Babe Paley, whose husband founded the CBS network.
Interestingly, Blass's interest in designing for men pre-dated his success in the women's couture and readyto-wear market, and his bespoke suits were tailored on London's Savile Row. In 1967 he teamed up with a Philadelphia manufacturer to launch a separate men's collection under the Bill Blass label, becoming the first U.S. designer to cross an industrywide gender barrier that had been considered impermeable. As he later explained to Ephron, he had approached industry executives a decade earlier with a proposal to create a line of spiffy suits and bold, off-duty menswear. “They told me that there were two minority groups that doomed every fashion development—the homosexuals and the Negroes,” he explained. By the 1960s, a major generational shift had occurred.
A consummate salesman, Blass was also a creative visionary whose runway collections were lauded by Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. His most sizable talent proved to be his ability to connect with the well-heeled masses. Unlike some contemporaries, Blass enjoyed attending trunk shows, meeting customers at boutiques and high-end department stores across the United States. While celebrities and socialites wore luxurious Bill Blass evening gowns and swanned around New York City and the Côte d'Azur, legions of loyal customers drove his success, their preferences reflected in the orders of buyers at retailers such as Neiman Marcus. Blass became such a well-recognized brand that he was asked to design a signature Lincoln Continental model for Ford Motor Company, incorporating luxurious white leather interiors and Blass Blue trim.
Chief among Blass's competitors during the 1970s were fellow Indiana native Halston and Dominican-born Oscar de la Renta, the latter an old friend. The latter part of the decade saw the arrival of two major upstarts: Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein. Like Blass, both Lauren and Klein posted phenomenal sales in men's and women's markets and made small and separate fortunes through fragrance and hometextile licensing deals. They also co-opted Blass's confident promotional flair. “A man who was almost invariably photographed in pinstripes and glen plaids, a cigarette dangling from his lips, Mr. Blass was arguably the first American fashion maker to conspicuously wed the suave persona he had invented for himself with the clothes he made,” declared New York Times writer Ruth La Ferla.
Throughout the 1980s Blass maintained a strong presence at the annual New York Fashion Week, and he enjoyed a significant boost when First Lady Nancy Reagan chose Bill Blass designs for high-profile events. In 1987 he won a lifetime achievement award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America, and in 1994 he made a ten-million-dollar bequest to the New York Public Library, where a reading room was named after him. After he suffered a mild stroke in 1998, he decided to retire, this decision confirmed by the subsequent diagnosis of cancer of the mouth and throat. After completing the restoration of his 22-acre estate in Litchfield County, Connecticut, Blass sold his company, which had an annual sales volume of 700 million dollars, to two longtime company executives. “I got out at the right time,” he told Women's Wear Daily contributor Eric Wilson. “It's hard to remove yourself from a business that you've been in for 50 years. It never really gets out of your system.”
Blass's coauthored memoir Bare Blass was published three months after his death from cancer on June 12, 2002. For a man who once claimed he had never set foot in a supermarket, Blass possessed a star quality that belied his humble Midwestern roots. In a tribute in New York magazine a few weeks after his death, socialite Nan Kempner recalled a dinner party at which she and Blass shepherded the exit of England's visiting Princess Margaret. “Our hosts arranged for us to go out the back door,” Kempner told journalist Bob Morris. “We ended up going out the front door, and everyone on the street made a bigger fuss about him than for her. People in New York couldn't have cared less about Princess Margaret. They cared about Bill Blass.”
Blass, Bill, with Cathy Horyn, Bare Blass, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2002.
Harper's Bazaar, August, 2002, Cathy Horyn, “Bill Blass.”
New York, July 8, 2002, “An American Classic.”
New Yorker, April 14,1997, “Bill Blass: American Gals,” pp. 72–75.
New York Times, June 14, 2002, Ruth La Ferla, “The Bill Blass Legacy: Simplicity with a Kick.”
New York Times Magazine, December 8, 1968, Nora Ephron, “The Man in the Bill Blass Suit.”
Women's Wear Daily, February 6, 2002, Eric Wilson, “Bill Blass Bares All.”❑