Blass to the Future

Meredith Jenks

A new designer at the helm of Bill Blass—along with an uncovered cache of discarded runway samples—primes the storied American label for a comeback

Even as far as White House galas go, the 1976 state dinner for Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip is legendary. Potentates, captains of industry of every stripe, as well as Hollywood royalty such as Bob Hope and Cary Grant attended, yet there was only one representative from the world of fashion—Bill Blass. President Ford introduced him to the visiting monarch as “our king of fashion.” 

Blass died in 2002. In his prime he was a true star, a Nietzschean self-determinist who willed himself to become the first designer to break out of the back rooms of Seventh Avenue and into the drawing rooms of the society swans he designed for and squired around town.

The label, founded in 1960, has not survived him. But after a long interregnum it seems that Bill Blass may finally have a worthy successor in Chris Benz, who took over the creative reins last year. The 33-year-old New York designer, whose defunct namesake line shared a spirit and color palette with Blass’s, is the sixth designer to head the label since Blass retired, in 1999. (Including Peter Som, who tried his hand in 2007.) 

Benz thinks we’re all in a bit of a Blass moment. “We’ve seen a huge shift in the speed of women’s lives that is not aligned with the past decade’s fixation with impractical shoes, bags, and clothes,” says Benz. “The notion of dresses with flats, for example, has always been a fashion-secret go-to, which is now popping up all over the place. This feels particularly Bill Blass.” But given Blass’s enduring legacy, it’s hard to believe that his substantial archives dating back to the 1940s were almost lost to posterity not long after the label’s current owners—a pair of Korean sibling garmentos known as the Kim Brothers—acquired the brand in 2008.

As the story goes, according to Benz, the rent on Blass’s old Seventh Avenue offices had not been paid in two years. The Kims were told that unless someone came to pick up the contents of the back room, “it was all being thrown out the next morning.”

“Our operations manager rented a U-Haul,” says Benz, “thinking that he was picking up a few bits and pieces, only to find the entire clothing archive and hundreds of boxes filled with everything you can imagine. He ended up going back and forth to New Jersey about 15 times on New Year’s Eve.”

At the heart of the sprawling archives, now safely located in the new Bill Blass headquarters in the Flatiron District, are more than 1,200 items of clothing, many rare runway samples. Blass’s signature use of high-impact color (one of his mottoes was “When in doubt, wear red”) is everywhere, as are the dramatic flourishes (bugle beading, paillettes aplenty) and very BB American-sportswear staples (skirt suits, tunic dresses, shell tops).

“Obviously there are a lot of cool ‘Lady with a capital L’ looks,” says Benz, browsing the crammed racks of clothes stored in clear plastic garment bags. “No one offered that casual uptown sophistication better than Bill Blass.” But there are a lot of surprises, too, like an unexpected amount of “elevated street wear.” Benz points to a rack of sequined T-shirts that look like they could be from a recent collection by The Row. “There is a high-low vibe to his aesthetic, which feels very of the moment.” 

The salvaged treasure trove is an anthropological snapshot of affluent America in the second half of the 20th century. The walls of an adjacent room are lined with hundreds of filing boxes filled with photographs, sketches, fabric swatches, calendars, invitations, keepsakes, and datebooks that belonged to Blass.

A letter from Ralph Lauren simply declares, “What can I say? Bill, you are the greatest.” A flip through a 1978 diary reveals a February 20 lunch and drinks in Bal Harbour, Florida, with a reminder to “bring tuxedo.” A stack of fashion-show invitation lists includes a, well, incident in which—clutch pearls!—Mrs. Bill Paley, better known as Babe, appears to have been struck off at the last minute. Beyond a table of plaques and awards, a wall of shelves is filled to capacity with recorded documentation of every fashion show and television interview Blass ever gave. The media wall also points to his interests outside fashion, with nods to his beloved golden retrievers and renovations of his prized home in New Preston, Connecticut.

What makes the archives even more important is the fact that, other than a retrospective in his native Indiana, there has never been a significant survey of Blass’s work. No show at the Fashion Institute of Technology or Parsons School of Design, let alone at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “It’s kind of crazy when you consider the designers who have been given major shows over the years,” notes Benz, adding that the company is looking for a meaningful way to make use of the archives for students and fashion fans on- and off-line.

Valerie Steele, director of the Museum at FIT, is candid as to why there hasn’t been a Blass show. “There are two kinds of fashion exhibitions that focus on a single designer,” she says. “One focuses on superstar designers and tends to be paid for by the company; the other looks at interesting niche designers and is usually put together by a curator who is really passionate about revealing how seminal to the fashion world designer X or Y was. Blass was neither an eccentric historical figure nor was he owned by a big company that can promote a blockbuster show.”

For his part, Benz is only future-minded as he readies a small presentation for his November debut, which is intentionally off the fashion-calendar grid. Like Blass, Benz will get up close and personal with his customers.

“I love a trunk show,” he says. “I love being in a dressing room and seeing a woman who normally wears lots of dark colors try on a brightly colored dress and feel beautiful. It sounds corny, but it happens over and over again. This will be an important aspect to the next generation of Blass.”

Looking over the Visqueen-covered American couture, once worn by the likes of Lynn Wyatt and Nan Kempner, the heir says, “The Blass product has always been about cool, easy chic, and we are working diligently to that end.” Benz adds even more diplomatically, “There is a lot of charm and nostalgia that goes along with an archive like this. But at the end of the day it’s about extrapolating what Mr. Blass would do if he were here and in his early thirties.”

When in doubt, wear red.

Photo Credits: Meredith Jenks