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