Born: New York City, 19 May 1925. Education: Attended Vassar College; graduated in philosophy from the University of Wisconsin, 1942; did graduate work in aesthetics at the University of Buffalo. Family: Children from first marriage: Richard, Sara, Jason. Career: Assistant curator, drawing and prints, the Museum of Modern Art, New York; freelance editor, Harry N. Abrams publishing house, New York; columnist, Art in America, New York; began designing hand-knits in the early 1970s with sales to Henri Bendel, New York; company incorporated as Joan Vass, Inc., 1977; labels included Joan Vass Sporting, Joan Vass New York, menswear and womenswear; Joan Vass USA, lower priced women's line, introduced, 1984; Joan Vass USA for Men introduced, 1988; New York flagship store opened, 1989; opened Chicago boutique, 1992; launched jewelry line and Joan Vass Spa; opened Houston shop, 1999. Awards: Smithsonian Institution, Extraordinary Women in Fashion award, 1978; Coty American Fashion Critics award, 1979, 1981; Prince Machiavelli Prix de Cachet award, 1980.
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Joan Vass is an American designer who believes the only purpose for a label in a piece of clothing is to show which way to put it on. Her easy-to-wear designs for both men and women are beautifully crafted, in simple, elegant lines.
In college, Vass studied philosophy and aesthetics. She worked as an assistant curator of drawings and prints at the Museum of Modern
Art in New York. At the same time she edited art books for Harry N. Abrams and wrote columns about art auctions for Art in America. Vass began a cottage industry in the early 1970s when she brought her personal interest in hand-knits and crochet to women who needed an outlet for their marketable skills.
Vass created designs for hats and mufflers which these women crocheted. Marketed at Henri Bendel, New York, they quickly sold out. She went on to create designs for sweaters for both men and women, having them produced under the label Joan Vass New York. Vass provided the designs, the yarns and buttons if necessary. Her cadre of workers, ranging in age from 20 to 70, came from a variety of backgrounds including housewives and artists. They would knit, crochet, or hand-loom the design, incorporating their personal style. The production for this line was limited, selective, and not accessible to everyone. The Joan Vass New York line was still popular in the late 1990s and into the 21st century. Craftspeople still create the designs provided by Vass and it remains a small-volume, selective design business which now includes woven materials. All of the designs from the past are still available to be produced.
The return to natural fibers, the individuality in American fashion expression, the use of knits for more than just the travel wardrobe, plus a new-found appreciation for handmade items during the 1970s all helped create a welcoming environment for Vass designs. Her work was unique, practical, and beautifully crafted. She established her own company in 1977. In the 1980s, a mid-priced licensed line was first produced on a large scale by the Signal Knitting Mills in South Carolina. Working with Vass designs, these clothes carried the label Joan Vass USA and were made of beautiful fine-gauged, natural fiber, knitted and woven fabrics.
A third design line called Joan Vass Sporting was created, a more casual collection with much more detail. Though natural fibers are still used, the designs also use some of the new synthetic fibers such as chinchilla, a 100-percent polyester fabric. Whether Joan Vass New York, Joan Vass USA, or Joan Vass Sporting, the designs Vass creates are simple and easy to wear. They are predominantly made of natural fibers, usually in subtle colors, in unstructured shapes. There are no extras such as shoulder pads. Besides sweaters, she designs trousers, skirts, and shorts and dresses. Her stated aim is to produce interchangeable, ageless designs which evolve from season to season. Reviews in the Daily News Record have described Vass' designs as classic. When the clothes are old, she wants her clients to don them for gardening.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Vass designs were perennial favorites, enough so that she opened stores across the U.S., including shops in New Orleans, Chicago, Dallas, and New York. Her designs could also be found in high-end specialty shops and better department stores as well, including newer Vass labels for plus sizes and sportswear. In addition, Vass had segued into jewelry and footwear, known for her distinctive designs.
In an interview for House & Garden (January 1989) Vass told Johnathan Etra, "If you notice me I am not well-dressed." She feels style is something that lasts, and does not preclude a sense of humor in her design work, as she has been inspired by iguanas and created bizarre and funny hats. Vass is an American woman with strong ideas and concerns reflected in her designs, and frequently expressed. In the later years of her career, Vass became an outspoken fixture at Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) meetings, always letting fellow members know her sometimes controversial thoughts. Because of her outbursts, Vass deemed herself "an old crone," yet her views have often been seconded by CFDA members.
updated by Nelly Rhodes