When asked to describe his style, Bill Blass replied; “Classic, timeless, clean cut, and I’d like to think it looks American”
When someone mentions American design, we all have certain have images that come to mind. Some think of Claire McCardell's practical day dresses and sportswear, others think of Bonnie Cashin's coats with their iconic toggle closures, and for some, Ralph Lauren's ode to the American West or Halston's simple yet sophisticated evening gowns are synonymous with American fashion. But it might surprise you to know that one of the most influential pioneers of American design was Bill Blass.
Bill Blass first came to New York in 1940 to study fashion. After leaving NY to fight in WWII, he returned to the city and got a job designing for Anne Klein, who eventually fired him, calling him "talentless." By 1959, he had established himself as a society column regular, and he then became the chief designer for Maurice Rentner, Ltd. Blass won global attention in the 1960s, when he became known for his youthful creations that mixed and matched chic with casual, a look that soon became one of the recognizable techniques of American style.
"A certain nonchalance is always a constant in American clothes. Having the confidence to mix things up is very American." Bill Blass
In 1970, in a move very unusual at the time, Bill Blass bought the business from Maurice Rentner and changed the name of the company to Bill Blass Ltd.
But the thing that really put Bill Blass on the map and made him a household name for women everywhere, was his determination to take his clothing on the road. Blass traveled thousands of miles every year, making personal appearances in department stores and boutiques. He got to know the women who defined the social life in cities like Denver and Phoenix. He understood what women wanted and made flattering clothing for them and not for his own ego.
"Those trips taught me about what works. Black is a New York invention. But in bright, sunny cities like Houston and Los Angeles, black looks terrible.I can’t imagine being in any other business. I wanted to go out and meet the customer, and I have.” Bill Blass
In 1962, Eleanor Lambert formed the CFDA. Bill Blass with Norman Norell along with 50 other designers became the first members. Most of us today are used to the cult of celebrity that surrounds fashion designers. But, until the 1960's, before the creation of the CFDA, fashion designers were basically faceless worker bees who disappeared under the umbrella of the manufacturing company for whom they worked. Supposedly, the designers weren't even allowed to ride up in the same elevator with their bosses!
''Basically, you've got to thank Bill Blass for making American fashion respectable. In the old days, the fashion designers were chained to their back desks on Seventh Avenue. They never came out, never were seen or heard from. They were just little characters who did the work and Bill made them respectable and powerful. I mean, if you want to talk about Claire McCardell or Bonnie Cashin -- fine, but they never really caught on the way Bill did. He did create American style. Norman Norell was a copy of Chanel or Saint Laurent, and Galanos was pure European copy. But Bill absolutely created a look that was strictly American.''John Fairchild, the former chairman of Women's Wear Daily.
Referring to Norman Norell, Halston, and Mainbocher, Bill Blass once said; “We all had something in common. We had to get the hell out of Indiana.” Perhaps nothing shaped Bill Blass more than his simple,yet emotionally complicated Indiana childhood.
The midwestern town of Fort Wayne, Indiana, is proud to be the home of baking powder, juke boxes, parking meters and Bill Blass. Born there the son of a hardware salesman, Blass had only one reprieve from the ordinary life surrounding him; movie houses. There, he could watch Carole Lombard, Marlene Dietrich, and Carole Lombard on the big screen wearing bias-cut evening gowns designed by Gilbert Adrian surrounded by the glamor of a New York penthouse.
"I think it bored me even as a child, although I am certainly aware that had it not been for the joylessness, colorlessness, and fatherlessness of my small-town Indiana childhood I might not have gone anywhere. People today speak about the character-building qualities of the miserable childhood, but I can tell you from experience: there is nothing like the dull, unattractive childhood to give a bedazzled boy the right push.” Bare Blass, by Bill Blass, edited by Cathy Horyn
Nina Griscom in a dress designed for her by Bill Blass from our Sold Archive
His customer list read like a who's who of American society; Nina Griscom, Pat Buckley, Brooke Astor, Slim Keith, Babe Paley, Chessy Rayner, Nan Kempner, Nancy Kissinger, Happy Rockefeller, Gloria Vanderbilt, Barbara Bush, Barbra Streisand and Barbara Walters, to name a few. Many were lucky to be invited to his Connecticut home for his famous home cooked meatloaf!
''Bill is a cult figure,'' Nan Kempner said. ''There is the cult of Bill Blass from one end of this country to the other.''
''He made sportswear couture. He took American sportswear to its highest level and combined it with sexy menswear touches, giving it new, clean, modern, impeccable style. He, probably better than any other designer, knew his customer and understood her.'' Ellin Saltzman, a former senior vice president and fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman.
Katie and I love that he had a strong commitment to American made products. Blass was adamant about having his clothes made in the United States. In the 1980’s he said; “I’m an avid believer that we have to have clothes made in this country.”
“Style is primarily a matter of instinct.” Bill Blass
Bill Blass was one of the five American fashion designers in 1973 selected to represent America at the now famous Battle of Versailles fashion show. Oscar de la Renta, Anne Klein, Halston, and Stephen Burrows were the other participants.
Bill Blass died on June 12, 2002 at his home in New Preston, Connecticut just before his 80th birthday.The signature cigarette that hung from his mouth in almost every photo would eventually be to blame for the throat cancer that took his life. He leaves behind a fashion legacy that should never be forgotten and he will always be credited with defining the quintessential American style.
"The secret of living is not staying too long. I have learned when to leave the party." Bill Blass
Browse our entire Bill Blass Collection.