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Blass, Billfree

(22 June 1922–12 June 2002)
  • Daniel Delis Hill

Blass, Bill (22 June 1922–12 June 2002), fashion designer, branding innovator, and philanthropist, was born William Ralph Blass in Fort Wayne, Indiana. His father, Ralph Aldrich Blass, was a traveling hardware salesman, and his mother, Ethyl Keyser, was a dressmaker who worked from their home. Although his sister, Virginia (Gina), was just two years older than he, they were never close. When Blass was barely five years old, his father committed suicide at home, which Blass later assumed to be from manic-depression, although his mother never discussed the family trauma with her children. His mother did not remarry, and the family struggled during the Depression years on her income from a small annuity, rent from a lakeside cabin, and dressmaking.

From an early age Blass was interested in drawing and fashion. While in high school, he sold fashion sketches to a New York ready-to-wear maker at $25 each. Immediately after graduation from Southside High School in the summer of 1940, he went to New York. He worked for the dress manufacturer David Crystal as a sketch artist for $30 a week and attended classes at Parson’s School of Design and McDowell School of Costume Design and Fashion Illustration.

In the fall of 1942 Blass enlisted in the camouflage battalion of the US Army’s 603rd Combat Engineers, where he and his comrades used their artistic talents to paint trompe l’oeil details on inflatable rubber tanks and fake insignias on military vehicles to confuse and fool the enemy. During his years in the army, which included deployment to the European campaign in 1944, Blass filled notebooks with fashion sketches and even created the mirrored pair of capital B’s that eventually became his company logo.

Following the war Blass returned to New York’s fashion center, Seventh Avenue, working as a sketch artist for Varden sportswear, a division of Anne Klein. During the late 1940s Blass entered fashion design contests to establish his credentials as a women’s fashion designer. In 1948 he won the Chicago Tribune American Fashion Competition Award, and the following year the nationally prominent Dan River Cotton Award. At last, in 1951, he landed his first job as a designer with the women’s ready-to-wear maker Anna Miller.

Through the 1950s at Anna Miller Blass not only honed his technical skills as a designer, but also learned every aspect of the women’s wear business. Beginning in 1953 the firm sent Blass to the Paris fashion openings as their representative. At that time ready-to-wear manufacturers paid a fee to be among the first to view the new styles from the major houses such as Dior, Chanel, and Balenciaga, with an option to buy a limited number of originals, which Seventh Avenue makers then modified for the US market.

Until the 1960s American ready-to-wear designers were anonymous backroom work staff in what Blass referred to as a “grubby business.” Designers never interacted with the retail buyers or the press. Moreover, male fashion designers had a further social stigma of presumed homosexuality. When Blass was asked what he did for a living, he usually replied he worked in advertising. In his autobiography, Bare Blass (2002), he notes that he kept one part of himself “safely in the closet and the other out and up to all kinds of things” (p.36). For his closeted self he developed a masculine persona that even included a slight, clipped British accent. But as a handsome, trim young man with a ready, broad smile, he indulged his sexuality in gay enclaves such as Fire Island and later, in the male brothels of Cuba. For the most part, though, Blass kept his homosexuality private and never lived with a partner.

By the end of the 1950s Blass had worked his way up to second designer at Anna Miller. In 1959 the ready-to-wear maker merged her operation with that of her brother, Maurice Rentner, a manufacturer of upscale women’s wear. A year later Rentner died, and the company was sold. The new owners recognized Blass’s design talent and permitted his name to be added to the Rentner label. In 1961 Blass won his first of seven Coty American Fashion Critics’ Awards.

Blass became the chief designer at Maurice Rentner and persuaded the business office to begin exploring licensing. Throughout the 1960s Blass expanded his brand with licenses for children’s wear, women’s swimwear, and even a designer edition of the Lincoln Continental. By the time he retired and sold his company in 1999, he had more than forty licenses with annual sales of over $750 million. Products bearing the Bill Blass logo included furs, luggage, bed linens, men’s and women’s footwear and accessories, and even chocolates.

In 1970 Blass bought the Maurice Rentner company and renamed it Bill Blass, Ltd. Despite his numerous awards for fashion design and his tremendous success at branding his name, Blass never considered himself a fashion innovator. He regarded himself as an apparel craftsman, not a couturier, and looked to Paris for fashion leadership. For example, when Nancy Reagan wore one of his gowns at an inaugural ball in 1981, the fashion press hastened to point out that the design was a knock-off of one created by Yves St. Laurent. Blass confirmed that was true.

Instead of fashion innovation, Blass set his goals to produce the ultimate in ready-to-wear. He chose exquisite, high-quality fabrics, many of which he advertised as exclusive to his label. He particularly liked the endless design possibilities of plaids and was intrigued by the visual effects of pattern mixing and how those juxtapositions could emphasize the structural elements of clothing. He also adopted many of the hand-tailoring construction techniques of couture to ready-to-wear production. Blass was especially skilled at the bias cut, which he used for fluidly shaped dresses and gowns that were a recurring style in collections across the decades.

Of special interest to Blass was creating a menswear line. In the 1960s the “Peacock Revolution” in men’s clothing arrived in America from Mod London, along with the Beatles, Rolling Stones, and other British pop culture invaders. Suddenly the idea of fashion for men revolutionized the apparel industry. Women’s designers from Paris, London, and New York began to create menswear collections, including Pierre Cardin, Hubert de Givenchy, Oleg Cassini, and Yves St. Laurent, among others. In 1967 Blass was invited to develop a line of branded menswear for Pincus Brothers-Maxwell of Philadelphia. For the suits he bought high quality worsteds from England and had the garments produced in Italy. This first Blass menswear collection was critically acclaimed and won him the industry’s first Coty Award for Menswear in 1968. In the disco era of the late 1970s and early 1980s, Blass also joined the many fashion designers who added their name or logo to the back patch pockets of jeans. He even designed a kilt for men. For the most part, though, Blass-branded menswear was classic in style and high quality in materials and construction.

Because of the great success of his menswear, Blass was contacted in 1970 by Charles Revson of Revlon to license the Bill Blass brand and logo for a men’s fragrance and a line of men’s toiletries. The cologne was named Bill Blass for Men, and soon had twenty related products manufactured by Revlon, including deodorant, soap, after-shave, conditioners, and a bronzer.

In 1998 the seventy-six-year-old Blass suffered a minor heart attack and decided to retire. The following year he sold the business to a partnership of Michael Groveman, his chief financial officer, and a licensor, Haresh Tharani, for $50 million. During his retirement, he wrote his autobiography Bare Blass. At the end of the book, he concluded, “All my experiences, all my yearnings, have been those of a typical American boy becoming a typical American man, except that my focus was on clothes rather than on oil drilling or banking or some other great commodity… So this is how I think I will be remembered” (p. 167). In 2000 Blass was diagnosed with throat cancer, having been a chain smoker since his early teens, and died two years later at his home in Preston, Connecticut.

Bibliography

Many of the drawings, personal papers, photographs, and company ads of Bill Blass are housed at the Bill Blass, Ltd. Archive in New York City. Insights into Blass’s place in American fashion by decade can be found in various omnibus books such as Bernadine Morris, The Fashion Makers: An Inside Look at America’s Leading Designers (1978); Caroline Rennolds Milbank, New York Fashion: The Evolution of American Style (1989); and Charlotte Seeling, Fashion: The Century of the Designer 1900–1999 (2000). In 2002 Indiana University presented a retrospective showing of Bill Blass fashions and artifacts at the Elizabeth Sage Historic Costume Collection Museum in Bloomington. The accompanying illustrated catalog, titled Bill Blass: An American Designer (2002), featured personal photos, vintage ads, and fashion drawings and clothing by the designer with contributing text by Helen O’Hagan, Kathleen Rowold, and Michael Vollbracht. An obituary appeared in the New York Times on 13 June 2002