Bill Blass Ltd.
Bill Blass Ltd.
Incorporated: 1968 as Bill Blass Inc.
Sales: $50 million (1998 est.)
NAIC: 315222 Men and Boys’ Cut and Sew Suit, Coat and Overcoat Manufacturing; 315233 Women’s and Girls’ Cut and Sew Dress Manufacturing; 315234 Women’s and Girls’ Cut and Sew Suit, Coat, Tailored Jacket and Skirt Manufacturing; 54149 Other Speicalized Design Services
Bill Blass Ltd. produces clothing collections by the designer Bill Blass and licenses an array of products that bear his name or initials. Blass’s fashions have long been a favorite of wealthy and prominent women, including several presidents’ wives. His clothes “are rarely thought of as artistic or trendsetting or remarkable,” according to Susan Orlean of the New Yorker; rather, writes Holly Haber of WWD, he is “the quintessential designer for ‘ladies who lunch.’” Bill Blass Ltd., which is also prominent in menswear and men’s accessories (accounting for about 40 percent of its revenue) and licenses products that include fragrances and furniture, ranked as the fourth most recognized American designer in a 1999 survey. The 77-year-old Blass sold his business in 1999.
“Overnight” Stardom in the 1960s
Born in 1922 in Fort Wayne, Indiana (which he told Leila E.B. Hadley of the Saturday Evening Post was “a miserable place to grow up in”), Blass knew he wanted to design clothing at a very early age, and in his teens he was already selling sketches to firms in Manhattan’s Seventh Avenue garment district. He left for New York City immediately after graduation from high school, soon finding a job as a $35-a-week sketch artist for a sportswear firm. After service in World War II, he became a designer for the Manhattan firm of Anna Miller and Co., Ltd. In the late 1950s Anna Miller merged her company with her brother’s firm, Maurice Rentner Ltd.
Rentner, a manufacturer of high-priced clothing, was noted for catering to the “amply proportioned” woman. “Our 1959 collection was quite a shock to the buyers,” Rentner’s chairman recalled when later interviewed for the New York Times by Nora Ephron. “They came in looking for matronly stuff and we gave them Bill’s young look. . .. They ate it up.” Blass quickly rose in the firm to head designer, vice-president, and partner.
By 1963 Blass was a celebrated designer, having received the Coty American Fashion Critics’ Award for the second time. His designs were known for quality fabric, simple lines, mix-and-match combinations of fabrics and patterns, impeccable tailoring, and brilliant colors. His customers included Jacqueline Kennedy, Happy Rockefeller, and Marilyn Monroe. The beige chantilly-lace dress in which he clad model Jean Shrimpton for a Revlon lipstick ad proved a sensation. Put into production by instant demand, it achieved unprecedented sales in such stores as Bon wit Teller, Lord and Taylor, and Neiman-Marcus. Blass was also designing furs, swimsuits, rainwear, and children’s wear for other companies, plus accessories such as shoes, hosiery, scarves, gloves, luggage, jewelry, and wrist-watches. He was even asked to design a tire. The designer established a Rentner licensing and franchising subsidiary, Bill Blass Inc., in 1968.
Blass claimed to be the first American designer of women’s apparel to enter the menswear field. He told Barbaralee Diamonstein that he designed for the man over 35 who wanted to look “with it, but not ridiculous…. It was a terribly silly period. Grown men looked like their own sons, with long sideburns and bell-bottomed pants and body jewelry.” Pincus Brothers-Maxwell began manufacturing, distributing, and marketing Bill Blass menswear, including suits, shirts, ties, shoes—and even a kilt—in 1967. A Life article called the line “a blend of Damon Runyon and the Duke of Windsor.” “The man over 40 needs help,” Blass explained to the magazine. “My [suit] jackets are more fitted and cut higher in the arm hole to make him look thinner and stay thinner.” The designer was a recipient of the first Coty Award for Menswear in 1968.
Essentially traditional in taste, Blass, despite his commercial and critical success, also found designing women’s apparel to be a challenge in this decade. “The single most difficult period for me was the ‘sixties,’” he recalled for a 1981 Vogue article by Edith Law Gross. “For the first time, clothes came from the street. .. . Overnight, you had to make clothes that were cut off to here, that were amusing, bizarre, but above all young. I survived by making crisp, attractive clothes that my customer also could relate to.” In 1970 Blass won a third Coty American Fashion Critics’ Award and, with it, lifetime membership in the Coty Hall of Fame. Also in 1970, he bought out his Rentner partners and renamed the company Bill Blass Ltd.
The 1960s were the first time that fashion designers became celebrities in their own right, worthy of hobnobbing with their wealthy and socially prominent customers. Before, Blass told Diamonstein, “The designers were anonymous, they weren’t interviewed. They never talked to the press, and they rarely saw the buyers.” A handsome and charming bachelor, the sophisticated Blass was perfectly placed to profit from the decade’s relaxed social mores. He advanced his career by cultivating the right women, establishing precedent by inviting them to his shows and seating them in the front row. He was not, Cathy Horyn of the New York Times wrote in 1999, “at the intersection of American fashion and society. He was the intersection.”
Blass was also making public appearances around the country, averaging more than 30,000 miles of travel a year, with models wearing his designs in tow. A fashion editor described him to Ephron as “a super-businessman [who] … can sell the eyelashes off a hog.” But he also knew when not to sell, having learned, he later told Gross, “one key thing: never sell anybody anything that isn’t attractive on her.”
Tending to Business: 1970–90
The mainstay of Blass’s clothing for women in the 1970s was the blazer. Trousers were prominent, and were dressed up with fur-trimmed wrap coats and cardigan sweaters. The designer introduced his Blassport ready-to-wear sportswear division in 1972. Three years later he revived the cocktail dress and, in 1978, added a signature perfume.
The total volume of Bill Blass sales by all licensees reached the $200-million level in 1980. By the early 1980s Blass’s roster of licensees came to 30 in the United States alone. His name was now on perfumes and colognes, bed linen, towels, glassware, eyeglasses, Lincoln Continental automobiles, and even backgammon sets and a box of chocolates. Jeans were added in 1987, and the total worldwide sales volume of Blass-labeled goods reached $450 million in 1989. But Blass was taking great care to make sure his name was not being used inappropriately, vetoing such propositions as Blass-designed stoves, refrigerators, orthodontic braces, and fabric-lined coffins.
The licensed revenues depended ultimately on the prestige of Bill Blass Ltd.’s own collections, whether these expensive productions made money or not. Blass’s strength, he told Gross, was “making the sketch, and then I’m best at fitting. Because then I can spot absolutely what I want and what’s wrong.... I’ll tell you the secret of a great dress: it looks as though human hands hadn’t touched it.” Blass expanded his list of celebrity clients, which now included politically prominent women such as Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Nancy Kissinger, and Pamela Harriman; media presences such as Katharine Graham and Barbara Walters; and performers such as Candice Bergen, Anjelica Huston, Mary Tyler Moore, Jessye Norman, and Barbra Streisand.
In keeping with the decade, Blass’s designs for the 1980s were more ornate and luxurious than those of the past. He employed such materials as panne velvet, satin, taffeta, cashmere, and sable, and he beaded sashes, skirts, blouses, and evening jackets. Blazers were replaced by jackets typically mixed, in suits, with different materials. Twin cashmere sweater sets were paired with long matching skirts of silk satin or lace bouffant. Beaded and embroidered evening dresses, at $5,000, were among his best sellers in the early to mid-1980s. Asked by Daimonstein why his clothes were so expensive, Blass replied, “I’m an avid believer that we have to have clothes made in this country. Therefore we pay more money. … [The] cost of labor and fabrication is what makes the clothing expensive.”
Closing Time: The 1990s
Although now over 70, the indefatigable Blass was out on the road as always in 1993, when his couture “trunk show” traveled to 24 cities, with Blass himself accompanying it to Atlanta, Chicago, Nashville, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Washington, and Troy, Michigan. At Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City, he set a record for American designers by selling more than $500,000 worth of dresses. At this time Bill Blass Ltd. was licensing 56 products, including window shades. Bill Blass USA, a bridge line (between couture and ready-to-wear) was launched in 1995 and licensed to Augustus Clothiers.
- Blass becomes chief designer of Maurice Rentner Ltd.
- Bill Blass Inc. becomes a Rentner subsidiary for the designer’s licensed products, including a menswear line.
- Blass buys out his Rentner partners and renames the company Bill Blass Ltd.
- Annual sales of Blass-labeled goods reach $200 million.
- Bill Blass Ltd. is licensing 56 products.
- Blass sells the company.
Pennsylvania House introduced a Bill Blass furniture collection of 50 pieces in 1997. The following year Blass, who had been licensing fragrances to Revlon for almost 30 years, bought out his contract and assigned it to Five Star Fragrances. The women’s jeans license was awarded to The Resource Club Ltd., a private-label manufacturer. The Bill Blass USA line closed and was replaced by a better-than-bridge suit collection to be made and marketed by Zar alo.
Pared to 42, the Bill Blass licensees generated about $760 million in annual sales in 1998, and the designer collection was bringing in another $20 million to $25 million in retail. Blass hired George Ackerman, a former Donna Karan executive, to replace him as chief executive officer in March 1998. Shortly before year’s end, however, Ackerman left the company for reasons that were not disclosed, and Blass, who had recently suffered a minor stroke, resumed his former duties. He announced in February 1999 that he was planning to sell his firm.
Blass, in October 1999, concluded an agreement to sell his company to Haresh T. Tharani, chairman of The Resource Club, the firm’s largest licensee, and Michael Groveman, the firm’s chief financial officer, with the former becoming chairman and the latter chief executive officer. The purchase price was to be paid by issuing investment-grade bonds self-liquidating over ten years, based on the Blass trademarks, brand equity, and licensing revenues. The designer committed himself to maintaining an active role in the company through a long-term contract “with financial interest.” A new company, called Tharanco, was to be established to own and operate Bill Blass Ltd.
CAK Universal Credit Corp. financed the purchase by lending the new owners the money to buy the company. The loan was secured by the company’s trademarks and licenses, which were placed into an entity that would receive all the cash from the licenses. Robert D’Loren, cofounder of CAK, described the transaction as an alternative to going public, telling Lisa Lockwood of WWD that since the cyclical nature of the apparel business made Bill Blass Ltd. below investment-grade credit-worthiness, “What we do is structure a loan so credit becomes investment grade—triple B or better…. By creating investment grade asset-backed bonds, we have forged a vehicle that enables apparel industry leaders to leverage their assets at favorable terms, while allowing large financial institutions, which have strict investment requirements, to invest in these assets.”
Diamonstein, Barbaralee, Fashion: The Inside Story, New York: Rizzoli, 1985, pp. 46–52.
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Friedman, Arthur, “Ackerman Is 1st Blass CEO,” WWD/Women’s Wear Daily, April 2, 1998, p. 20.
Gross, Edith Law, “Bill Blass and Women: An American Affair,” Vogue, March 1981, pp. 339, 360–61.
Haber, Holly, “Bill Blass Gets Set to Call It a Career at the Millennium,” WWD/Women’s Wear Daily, February 16, 1999, p. 1ff.
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Sherrod, Patricia, “Models of Taste,” Chicago Tribune, September 14, 1997, Sec. 15, pp. 1, 8.
Wilson, Eric, “Ackerman Quits Blass,” WWD/Women’s Wear Daily, December 22, 1998, p. 6.
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.
Bender, Marilyn, The Beautiful People, New York, 1967.
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"Like most people who seem to be most typically New York, Bill Blass comes from Indiana," wrote native Midwesterner Eleanor Lambert in an early press release for Blass when he worked at Maurice Rentner. Blass reigns as an American classic, the man who abidingly exemplifies high style because his work plays on the sharp edge of glamor but never falls into the abyss of indecency. Likewise, it defines sophisticated style because it has elements of the naive and the crude in impeccable balance. Blass is the perfect example of fashion's deconstructivist internal oppositions of real, hyper-glamor, and style synthesis.
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
Bill Blass (1922–2002), born William Ralph Blass in Fort Wayne, Indiana, is an icon of modern American fashion, famed as one of the most influential twentieth-century clothing designers. During his childhood he was charmed by such stylish 1930s Hollywood stars as Carole Lombard (1908–1942) and Marlene Dietrich (c. 1901–1992). He also was entranced by the glamorous world of New York society and expressed this fascination by drawing and sketching clothing designs. In 1940 he moved to New York to work in the city's Seventh Avenue fashion district.
Blass designed everything from sportswear to eveningwear, creating bouncy resort clothes and shapely evening gowns. While he dressed working women and housewives, his designs primarily appealed to style-conscious, upper-class American women, such as socialites, actresses, and first ladies. Nancy Reagan (1921–), wife of U.S. president Ronald Reagan (1911–), has often spoken highly of his clothes, describing them as comfortable, wearable, and pretty.
Blass favored a range of materials, including worsted woolens, a lightweight wool, crepe, cashmere, and satin. His clothes often united the traditionally masculine such as gray flannel and pinstripes, with ultrafeminine spangles and touches that conveyed 1930s glamour.
In 1967 Blass became the first American designer to create menswear along with women's clothes. His initial men's designs were on the outrageous side and even included kilts, knee-length pleated skirts. Eventually his men's creations became more conventional and more marketable.
Before Bill Blass most American fashion designers were anonymous. Manufacturer names appeared on clothing labels, rather than the individuals who created the designs. Blass changed all this. He was a charming, outgoing man and he promoted himself, circulating among and socializing with his clients and developing a public identity. Eventually, his name appeared on the labels of his clothes. This change helped to alter the identity of American fashion designers, allowing them to become brand names and celebrities in their own right. Blass, in addition, enjoyed attending the foremost New York social events. He appeared in person at stores across the country, and he offered his name and his designs to countless charities. He donated ten million dollars to the New York Public Library and actively funded AIDS-related programs.
In 1970 Blass established Bill Blass Limited, which marketed everything from perfume to chocolate, bed linen to furniture, sunglasses to shoes, American Airlines uniforms to the interiors of Lincoln Town Cars. By the 1990s Blass had entered into almost one hundred licensing contracts, which allowed another company to sell a product he designed. His fashion empire was earning seven hundred million dollars per year. He presented his last collection in September 1999, just prior to retiring and selling his company for a reported fifty million dollars. During his last years he worked with Indiana University on a retrospective of his career. The exhibit opened after his death in 2002.
Throughout his career Blass was much honored. He won the Coty American Fashion Critics Award in 1961, 1963, and 1970. He earned the Council of Fashion Designers of America Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987 and the Humanitarian Leadership Award nine years later.
William Ralph (Bill) Blass (1922–2002) was born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, in 1922. At the age of nineteen he left the Midwest and moved to New York City, where he studied briefly at Parsons School of Design. He worked as a sketch artist for a sportswear firm in 1940–1941, but his budding career was interrupted for military service in a counterintelligence unit in World
War II. After the war Blass began working as a fashion designer, mainly for the firm of Maurice Rentner, Ltd. In 1970 he purchased the Rentner firm, renamed it Bill Blass Ltd., and saw the company take off as one of the most successful American fashion houses of the late twentieth century.
Blass created a glamorous but restrained look that won him a faithful following among women of style, including Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Candice Bergen, and Barbara Walters. His day outfits drew heavily on tailoring and fabrics usually associated with menswear, including pinstriped gabardines, worsteds, and houndstooth checks. His eveningwear referenced Hollywood glamour. One of his most famous evening gowns consisted of a cashmere sweater top and a bouffant satin skirt.
Blass showed great business acumen in making Bill Blass Ltd. one of the leaders of the licensing boom that took off in the fashion industry in the 1980s. In rapid succession the firm concluded lucrative licensing deals for eyeglasses, executive gifts, fragrances, and a wide range of other fashion-related products. Blass retired from his business after suffering a stroke in 1998, and the company was sold to its backers in 1999. Blass died in 2002, but Bill Blass Ltd. continued to thrive, with Lars Nilsson as the founder's first successor. Michael Vollbracht replaced Nilsson as the firm's chief designer in 2003.
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