BLASS, Bill





American designer

Born: William Ralph Blass in Fort Wayne, Indiana, 22 June 1922. Education: Attended Fort Wayne High School, 1936-39; studied fashion design, Parsons School of Design, 1939. Military Service: Served as a sergeant in the U.S. Army, 1941-44. Career: Sketch artist, David Crystal Sportswear, New York, 1940-41; designer, Anna Miller and Company Ltd., New York, 1945; designer, 1959-70, and vice-president, 1961-70, Maurice Rentner Ltd., New York; purchased Rentner company, renamed Bill Blass Ltd., 1970; introduced Blassport sportswear division, 1972; introduced signature perfume, 1978; began licensing products, including menswear, womenswear, furs, swimwear, jeans, bed linens, shoes, perfumes, etc.; donated $10 million to New York Public Library, 1994; suffered mild stroke, 1998; farewell gala, 1999; business sold to Haresh Harani and Michael Groveman, 1999; last collection, spring/summer 2000; Lars Nilsson named new Blass designer, 2001. Awards: Coty American Fashion Critics "Winnie" award, 1961, 1963, 1970, Menswear award, 1968, Hall of Fame award, 1970, and special citations, 1971, 1982, 1983; Gold Coast Fashion award, Chicago, 1965; National Cotton Council award, New York, 1966; Neiman Marcus award, Dallas, 1969; Print Council award, 1971; Martha award, New York, 1974; Ayres Look award, 1978; Gentlemen's Quarterly Manstyle award, New York, 1979; Cutty Sark Hall of Fame award, 1979; Honorary Doctorate, Rhode Island School of Design, 1977; Council of Fashion Designers of America award, 1986. Address: 550 Seventh Avenue, New York, NY 10018, USA.

P UBLICATIONS

On BLASS:

Books

Bender, Marilyn, The Beautiful People, New York, 1967.

Bill Blass, fall 1998 collection. © Fashion Syndicate Press.
Bill Blass, fall 1998 collection.
© Fashion Syndicate Press.

Morris, Bernadine, and Barbara Walz, The Fashion Makers, New York, 1978.

Diamonstein, Barbaralee, Fashion: The Inside Story, New York, 1985.

Milbank, Caroline Rennolds, Couture: The Great Designers, New York, 1985.

Perschetz, Lois, ed., W: The Designing Life, New York, 1987.

Coleridge, Nicholas, The Fashion Conspiracy, London, 1988.

Milbank, Caroline Rennolds, New York Fashion: The Evolution of American Style, New York, 1989.

Daria, Irene, The Fashion Cycle: A Behind-the-Scenes Look at a Year with Bill Blass, Liz Claiborne, Donna Karan, Arnold Scaasi, and Adrienne Vittadini, New York, 1990.

Stegemeyer, Anne, Who's Who in Fashion, Third Edition, New York, 1996.

American Decades, Gale Research CD-ROM, 1998.

Lagasse, Paul, ed., The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th edition, Farmington Hills, MI, 2000.

Articles

"Dialogue with Bill Blass," in Interior Design, June 1973.

"Bill Blass: Real American Class," in American Fabrics and Fashions (New York), Fall 1974.

"A Different Glamor at Bill Blass," in Vogue, September 1985.

Prisant, Carol, "Top Blass," in World of Interiors (London), October 1990.

Morris, Bernadine, "With Blass, Spontaneity Has Returned to Style," in the New York Times, 30 March 1993.

Orlean, Susan, "King of the Road," in the New Yorker, 20 December 1993.

Schiro, Anne-Marie, "Tasteful Comes in Many Colors," in the New York Times, 4 November 1994.

DeCaro, Frank, "Hairy Situations and Hula Baloos: Bill Blass," in New York Newsday, 4 November 1994.

Beckett, Kathleen, "Runway Report: My One and Only Hue: Bill Blass," in the New York Post, 4 November 1994.

"New York: Bill Blass," in Women's Wear Daily, 4 November 1994.

Schiro, Anne-Marie, "Chic and Quality from Bill Blass," in the New York Times, 7 April 1995.

"New York: Bill Blass," in Women's Wear Daily, 7 April 1995.

Geran, Monica, "Bill Blass Revisited," in Interior Design, May 1996.

Schiro, Anne-Marie, "Two Vanishing Breeds (Fashion Designers Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta)," in the New York Times, 1 November 1996.

Geran, Monica, "Cut From the Same Cloth," in Interior Design, April 1997.

Interview, "Home at Blass," in In Style, March 1998.

Schiro, Anne-Marie, "Blass as Blass, Even Damp," in the Wall Street Journal, 22 December 1998.

"Simple But Not Too Sweet is Bill Blass for Spring," online at CNN.com , 1 March 1999.

Gandee, Charles, "The 1950s: Designer Bill Blass Remembers the Years of Cocktails, Café Society, and Cool American Chic," in Vogue, November 1999.

"Bill Blass Ltd. Sold to Haresh Tharani, Largest Licensee & Michael Groveman, Blass' CFO," in Business Wire, 8 November 1999.

"SOLD! Bill Blass Empire Goes to CFO, Licensee," in Apparel Industry Magazine, December 1999.

"Blass Bids Farewell with Signature Collection," online at CNN.com , 8 December 1999.

Wilson, Eric, "Slowik Said to Get Blass Design Job," in Women's Wear Daily, 27 January 2000.

"The Blass Menagerie," in Women's Wear Daily, 11 February 2000.

Hayt, Elizabeth, "A Blass Evening, Elegant and Understated," in the New York Times, 20 February 2000.

Wilson, Eric, "Bill Blass Receives a Retrospective," in Women's Wear Daily, 16 May 2000.

Cannon, Michael, "Parties," Town & Country, June 2000.

Bellafante, Ginia, "Those Who Defy, and Those Who Don't," in the New York Times, 22 September 2000.

"Braillard Denies Blass Move," in Women's Wear Daily, 2 February 2001.

"New York: A Delicate Balance," in Women's Wear Daily, 16 February 2001.

"Bill Blass," in Biography Resource Center, online at www.galenet.gale.com , 17 July 2001.

***

"Like most people who seem to be most typically New York, Bill Blass comes from Indiana," wrote native Midwesterner Eleanor

Bill Blass, fall 1998 collection. © Fashion Syndicate Press.
Bill Blass, fall 1998 collection.
© Fashion Syndicate Press.
Lambert in an early press release for Blass when he worked at Maurice Rentner. Blass reigns as an American classic, the man who abidingly exemplifies high style because his work plays on the sharp edge of glamor but never falls into the abyss of indecency. Likewise, it defines sophisticated style because it has elements of the naive and the crude in impeccable balance. Blass is the perfect example of fashion's deconstructivist internal oppositions of real, hyper-glamor, and style synthesis.

Although Blass believes in eliminating the superfluous and stressing the essentials of clothing, he is no Yankee skinflint or reductive modernist and aims to beguile and flatter, adding perhaps a flyaway panel, not necessary for structure, that would never appeal to a Halston or a Zoran. He aims to create a fanciful chic, a sense of glamor and luxury. It may be that these desires are fashion's game, but it is undeniable that Blass is the expert player. Everything he does is suffused with style, and he creates evening gowns that would stagger Scarlett O'Hara. His shimmering Matisse collection, embroidered in India, transformed the wearer into a conveyor of masterpiece paintings.

Blass has always been an indisputable enchanter, a man who loves being with the ladies he dresses. Correspondingly, they love being with him, but the relationship is not merely indicative of the elevation of fashion designer from dressmaker to social presence. Blass learns from his clients and, in learning, addresses their needs and wishes. In designing separates, he describes what he likes with a certain top, admits that one of his clients prefers to wear it otherwise and acknowledges it looks better as she wears it.

There are essential leitmotifs in Blass' work. Recalling Mainbocher, he invents from the sweater and brings insights of daywear into the most elegant nighttime presentations. Blass imports menswear practicality and fabrics to womenswear. His evening gowns are dreamlike in their self-conscious extravagance and flattery to the wearer. He can evoke Schiaparelli in the concise elegance of a simulated wood embroidered jacket; but there is also something definably Blass about the garment. In a very old-fashioned way, he celebrates life without the cynicism of other designers. He can be audacious in mixing pattern and texture, though generally with the subtlety of his preferred palette of muted color. Texture is equally important—a red wool cardigan resonant to a red silk dress or the complement of gray flannel trousers to fractured, shimmering surfaces for day and evening. Layering is essential to Blass: whether it is a cardigan teamed with a blouse or sweater or gauzy one-sleeve wraps for evening, Blass flourishes in layers.

Blass evolved into a superb licensing genius and dean of American fashion designers. His is an intensely pictorial imagination, one that conjures up the most romantic possibilities of fashion. He maintains an ideal of glamor and personal aura, redolent of socialites and stars of screen and stage. Yet though there is little in Blass' work that is truly unique to him and not practiced by any other designer, one would never mistake a Blass for a Mainbocher or a Schiaparelli nor for any of his contemporaries.

In December 1998 the legendary designer suffered a mild stroke in Houston, Texas, at age 76. His last showing was the spring-summer collection of 2000. He appeared at a grand farewell, hosted by Manhattan society to honor his lengthy career in design, in fall 1999. From middle-class beginnings as the son of a dressmaker and hardware dealer, he had dressed the likes of Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Nancy Kissinger, Candice Bergen, Barbara Walters, and the fashionable elite.

Of Blass' retirement party, Patrick McCarthy, chairperson of Women's Wear Daily, noted, "There are not many standing ovations in fashion. Bill just gave a little wave, barely perceptible, but it was a wave good-bye." On 5 November 1999, he signed over his $700 million design and licensing complex to Haresh T. Harani, chairperson of the Resource Club Ltd., the Blass licensing agency, and Michael Groveman, CFO of the Blass empire.

Retired to a historic 22-acre estate and colonial home in New Preston, Connecticut, a month after selling his fashion house, Blass has kept one foot in Manhattan at his in-town Sutton Place apartment. Of his departure from sketch pads and runways he declared, "I thought the end of the year, beginning of the new century, was the perfect time. After all, I'd been doing it for 60 years… God knows you're not immortal."

—RichardMartin;

updated by Mary EllenSnodgrass



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