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Bill Blass Put U.S. Fashion on Map

June 13, 2002

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NEW YORK (AP) _ Bill Blass was one of the pioneering designers to put the United States on the fashion map.

Until the 1970s when Blass, Halston, Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren emerged as ``names″ of American style, the nation’s garment industry was just that _ an industry that made garments.

``Bill removed himself from the garment industry and focused on the elegant side of fashion,″ said Eleanor Lambert, a longtime publicist who is in her 90s and is credited with starting New York Fashion Week.

Blass, who died Wednesday of cancer at his home in Washington, Conn., at 79, is considered a founding father of sportswear, but Lambert, who was a close friend, said the designer offered both wearable daytime clothes and elaborate eveningwear.

``He put sweaters where they belonged but he also did beautiful, elegant special-occasion clothes,″ she said.

The son of a hardware store owner and a dressmaker, he began sketching gowns as a boy in Fort Wayne, Ind., and sold some of his ideas to manufacturers in New York. He later moved to Manhattan to study fashion at the Parsons School of Design.

``He talked a lot about how he was influenced as a child by Hollywood glamour,″ said Kathleen Rowold, curator of the Elizabeth Sage Historic Costume Collection.

(Just weeks before his death, Blass completed his memoir, ``Bare Blass.″ HarperCollins has it scheduled for publication in the fall.)

She noted that Blass was particularly influenced by Carole Lombard, the 1930s actress who was married to Clark Gable _ and was a fellow Fort Wayne native.

Rowold worked with Blass’ friend Helen O’Hagan and protege Michael Vollbract to coordinate ``Bill Blass: An American Designer,″ an exhibit planned for October at the Indiana University Art Museum.

``He was a part of every decision, he chose every photograph and every prop,″ Rowold said. ``He was a very glamorous and charismatic man but he was a very accessible man, which is an unusual combination.″

The clothes (and that’s all they were to Blass _ clothes not art, according to Rowold) reflected his personality: He created simple, well-made and well-proportioned garments.

``His look is classic not extreme fashion,″ said Francesca Sterlacci, chairwoman of the fashion design department at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York.

Sterlacci said Blass regularly toured the country’s retail stores to meet with his customers and gather their input. He designed for them, not models, she said.

``One of the things that made Bill so unique was that he never played to the trends. He had a singular vision of what his customers wanted to wear _ he always knew what would make them look and feel great,″ Lauren said Thursday.

Blass often dressed first ladies, celebrities and media moguls. ``I love his clothes, because they are comfortable, wearable and pretty,″ Nancy Reagan once said.

O’Hagan, who was the vice president of public relations for Saks Fifth Avenue for 38 years, said she contributed a navy-red-and-beige checked raincoat with plaid lining and a coordinating single-breasted skirt suit to the Indiana University exhibit that she’ll resume wearing when the show ends. She also has a 10-year-old navy pinstripe suit by Blass that was the inspiration for the versions other designers trotted out just this year.

``These are clothes I’ll never part with,″ O’Hagan said.

Blass’ company grew to a $700 million a year empire, which the designer sold in 1999 for $50 million. The last collection overseen by Blass himself was presented in New York in September 1999 and it earned him a standing ovation from a crowd of retail buyers and fashion editors.

``Bill Blass’ collections were consistently both Blass and very of the moment. I can’t remember him ever having a bad one,″ Anna Wintour, Vogue’s editor in chief, said Thursday. ``In his life and designs, Bill Blass represented the essence of American style: charming, carefree, and delightfully uncontrived.″

Lars Nilsson, currently the design director for Bill Blass’ label, recently said he uses Blass’ American aesthetic as a guideline in tandem with his own Scandinavian background.

During an interview last fall, Nilsson said a typical marriage of his vision and the traditional Blass look is a long skirt with a print taken from Swedish folklore and elegant French beading paired with a crisp white shirt.

When Nilsson visited Blass’ home to preview his first pieces under the label, Nilsson said he was relieved to see Scandinavian furniture decorating the house.

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