Blass, Bill 1922-2002
BLASS, Bill 1922-2002
PERSONAL: Born William Ralph Blass, June 22, 1922, in Fort Wayne, IN; died of throat cancer, June 12, 2002, in Washington, CT. Education: Attended Fort Wayne High School, 1936-39; studied fashion design, Parsons School of Design, 1939.
CAREER: David Crystal Sportswear, New York, NY, sketch artist, 1940-41; Anna Miller and Company Ltd., New York, NY, designer, 1945; Maurice Rentner Ltd., New York, NY, designer, 1959-70, and vice-president, 1961-70; 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, and luggage; business sold to Haresh Harani and Michael Groveman, 1999; last collection, spring/summer, 2000; Lars Nilsson named new Blass designer, 2001. Exhibitions: Bill Blass: An American Designer, Indiana University Art Museum, 2002. Military service: Served in U.S. Army, 1941-44; became sergeant.
AWARDS, HONORS: 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 Man-style 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.
(With Joan G. Hauser) Dining in—Manhattan: Cookbook : A Collection of Recipes for Complete Meals from Manhattan's Finest Restaurants, Peanut Butter Publishing (Mercer Island, WA), 1983.
Bare Blass, edited by Cathy Horyn, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2002.
SIDELIGHTS: "Bill Blass, designer of elegant yet eminently wearable clothes, made American casual chic—and made American designers chic as well," wrote Betsy Streisand in a U. S. News and World Report appreciation of the pioneering fashion designer who died in 2002. For fifty years Blass helped direct the clothing tastes of American women, dressing notables such as Nancy Reagan—who wore a Blass original to her husband's inaugural ball—and television personality Barbara Walters. But Blass's influence traveled deeper, shaping the fashions and design for a broad cross-section of American women with his causal-but-elegant signature. "Blass's clothes show many influences," noted Barbara Cavaliere in Contemporary Designers, "perhaps too many to put his clothes in the class of true originals. His inventiveness has been more in the field of the designer's role and, most importantly, in the role of ready-to-wear's possibilities for upward mobility." Blass created a clothing empire and was one of the first fashion designers to widely license his name, gracing articles from jeans to a Lincoln Continental with the "Bill Blass" imprimatur. Blass retired from design in 1999, selling out his line for a reported fifty million dollars. Diagnosed with throat cancer in 2000, he began writing his memoir, Bare Blass, which was published not long after the designer's death.
Born William Ralph Blass, in Fort Wayne Indiana, in 1922, Blass accomplished what many other Midwestern notables such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Cole Porter did—he got out of the region as soon as he could. The future fashion king was the son of a traveling salesman father (who died when Blass was a young child) and a seamstress mother. Ironically, the Blass family lived next door to a costume rental company in Fort Wayne. Blass began to yearn for a bigger, more cosmopolitan world from the movies he watched growing up during the Depression. As Judith Thurman noted in the New Yorker, Blass also "fanned the flames of his escape fantasies with his mother's back issues of Vogue." Voted "Best Dressed" in his high school class, he was also picked as "Least Likely to Succeed." Yet even at that time, such an appellation was widely off the mark, for he began selling sketches of evening gowns when he was only fifteen; in high school he won second place in a design competition sponsored by the Chicago Tribune. Upon graduation from high school he immediately headed for New York City.
Blass found his true home in New York, attending the Parsons School of Design and working as a sketch artist for a clothing manufacturer. With the outbreak of World War II, he joined the Army and served his time in Europe working in camouflage. Returning to the world of fashion design after the war, Blass "began his climb from a boy in the back room to a world-famous designer known for his consistently classic American style," Pamela Fiori noted in Town and Country. Working for Anna Miller and Company and then later for Maurice Rentner, he slowly and steadily built the Blass style. As Thurman noted, this included such "signature incongruities" as "flannels and sequins; ruffles and tweed; gingham and lace; a mink petticoat; a taffeta ball skirt worn with a long cashmere cardigan; or a corduroy topper tossed with nonchalance over beaded trousers." By 1960, his name began to appear on clothing labels. Meanwhile, he was also changing the status of fashion designers, personally mixing in society, rubbing shoulders socially with the famous and infamous alike. His clientele included both snobs and fashion leaders, and the Blass mixture of causal elegance appealed to them. His designs did not only suit the svelte, but also—in their roominess and ease—appealed to women with normal body types.
"There are essential leitmotifs in Blass's work," wrote Richard Martin in Contemporary Fashion. "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." Martin further noted, "[Blass] can evoke Schiaparelli in the concise elegance of a simulated wood embroidered jacket; but there is also something definably Blass about the garment." In 1967, Blass also introduced a line of men's wear; in 1970 he became the owner of Bill Blass Limited, opening also a line of sportswear, Blassport. With his personality and looks, he charmed a generation of consumers, paving the way for later fashion designers such as Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren.
The recipient of numerous awards, Blass became especially known for dressing stars and political wives, including Candice Bergen, Barbara Walters, Nancy Reagan, and Barbara Bush. Rising from the lower middle classes to a man with a fortune, Blass was generous with his time and money, assisting young designers in starting their careers, and giving ten million dollars to the New York Public Library as well as helping to raise large sums for AIDS research. In 1998, he suffered a mild stroke and retired the following year. In the fall of 1999 he was given a going away party in Manhattan that turned into an evening of ovations.
Blass's memoir, Bare Blass, begun in 2000 and finished shortly before his death in June of 2002, is considered a no-holds-barred look at his life. Edited by the fashion critic for the New York Times, Cathy Horyn, the book is, according to Lisa Lockwood in Women's Wear Daily, "eighty percent memoir and twenty percent oral history." In chapters such as "Men," "Women," and "On the Road," Blass presents an intimate but not overly dramatic look into his life, including his affairs with both men and women, his friendships with the high and low, and the story of his steady rise from a kid from Indiana to one of the fashion kings of the twentieth century. "Blass bares much, but not all, in his memoir," noted Genevieve Buck in a Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service review of the book. Book's Penelope Mesic praised this aspect of the book in particular. "The book's lesson by example," wrote Mesic, "that emotional restraint never wears out its welcome—is one a Jerry Springer Show generation might well take to heart." Reviewing the memoir in the New York Times Book Review, Margaret van Dagens concluded that Bare Blass "covers the highlights in the life of the man with style and humor." Typically understated, Blass summed up his life in this memoir as a "typical American success story after all. The small town background, the war, New York."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Bill Blass: An American Designer, Festschrift, Abrams (New York, NY), 2002.
Blass, Bill, Bare Blass, edited by Cathy Horyn, HarperCollins (New York, NY), 2002.
Contemporary Designers, 3rd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 1997.
Contemporary Fashion, 2nd edition, St. James Press (Detroit, MI), 2002.
Book, May, 2001, Kristin Kloberdanz, "Blass' Bliss," p. 29; November-December, 2002, Penelope Mesic, review of Bare Blass, p. 89.
Chicago Tribune, October 9, 2002, Genevieve Buck, "Memoir Details Designer's Life—From Dreary Childhood to King of Fashion," p. K475.
Interior Design, June, 1973, "Dialogue with Bill Blass"; May, 1996, Monica Geran, "Bill Blass Revisited"; April, 1997, Monica Geran, "Cut from the Same Cloth."
New Yorker, December 20, 1993, Susan Orlean, "King of the Road"; September 9, 2002, Judith Thurman, "Noblesse de Robe."
New York Times, March 30, 1993, Bernadine Morris, "With Blass, Spontaneity Has Returned to Style"; April 7, 1995, Anne-Marie Schiro, "Chic and Quality from Bill Blass"; November 1, 1996, Anne-Marie Schiro, "Two Vanishing Breeds (Fashion Designers Bill Blass, Oscar de le Renta)"; February 20, 2000, Elizabeth Hayt, "A Blass Evening, Elegant and Understated"; September 22, 2000, Ginia Bellafante, "Those Who Defy, and Those Who Don't."
New York Times Book Review, September 22, 2002, Margaret van Dagens, review of Bare Blass, p. 25.
Vogue, September, 1985, Barbaralee Diamonstein, "A Different Glamour at Bill Blass," pp. 238-242; November, 1999, Charles Gandee, "The 1950s: Designer Bill Blass Remembers the Years of Cocktails, Cafe Society, and Cool American Chic," pp. 470-476; August, 2002, Andre Leon Talley, "Made in the USA," pp. 264-271.
Women's Wear Daily, October 24, 1994, "Blass with Sass," p. C28; April 7, 1995, "New York: Bill Blass"; August 5, 1997, Holly Haber, "A Chat with Bill Blass," pp. S76-S77; September 13, 1999, Mary Krienke, "Bill Blass; 'Mr. Fashion Right' Waxes about Fashion Direction and Fun," p. S53; January 27, 2000, Eric Wilson, "Slowik Said to Get Blass Job"; February 11, 2000, "The Blass Menagerie"; May 16, 2000, Eric Wilson, "Bill Blass Receives a Retrospective"; February 16, 2001, "New York: A Delicate Balance"; June 14, 2002, Lisa Lockwood, "Bill's Book: A First Look," p. 11.
Daily Variety, July 9, 2002, p. 14.
Economist, June 22, 2002.
Indianapolis Business Journal, July 15, 2002, Bruce Hetrick, "It's So Hip to Be Simple, So Let's Take Advantage," p. 41.
Newsweek, June 24, 2002, Cathleen McGuigan, "Transition: Bill Blass," p. 16.
Time, June 24, 2002, p. 21.
Town and Country, September, 2002, Pamela Fiori, "In Memoriam: Bill Blass (1922-2002), pp. 228-229."
U. S. News and World Reports, June 24, 2002, Betsy Streisand, "The King of Casual Chic," p. 12.
Vogue, August, 2002, Julia Reed, "The Ladies' Man," pp. 271-272.*