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An American Classic

Bill Blass was more than just a world-class couturier -- he was the quintessential New Yorker: man-about-town, entrepreneur, and confidant to some of the city's most glamorous women. Here, he is remembered by his friends and associates, in their own words.

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A Gentleman of Fashion: Bill Blass in 1966.  

When E. B. White wrote about the kind of New Yorker who was born somewhere else and came here in quest of something, making Manhattan "the city of final destination, the city that is a goal," he might have been describing Bill Blass. The fashion designer, who died on June 12 from throat cancer, seemed to fit everyone's image of the strapping midwestern boy who comes to New York in pursuit of the high life and then finds it.

In his hometown of Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he was born in 1922 as the only son of a traveling hardware salesman and a dressmaker, Blass was inspired by the urbane women he saw in the movies. Between playing on the school football team and working at the school newspaper, he'd sketch dresses and send them off to Seventh Avenue designers. At 18, he was the first man to win Mademoiselle's Design for Living Award.

He came to New York in 1940 and studied fashion here briefly, then left to fight in World War II. On his return, he got a job designing for Anne Klein, who eventually fired him. In 1959, already an extra-man-about-town who appeared regularly in the society columns, he became chief designer to Maurice Rentner, Ltd., where his brightly colored day looks and baby-doll evening dresses burnished his reputation. When he bought out the business from Rentner and changed the name to make it his own company in 1970, it boomed.

Blass once told Vogue that he believed in "out-and-out glamour," but that wasn't quite the case. His signature look was as sporty as it was luxurious, with an emphasis on fabrics and structure. With a strong feeling for the well-to-do women he'd see at his trunk shows across the country, he knew that black might sell in Europe and New York, but everywhere else it was about bold prints and bolder colors. "You have to understand people to make clothes for them," he said.

His life in public was all about print and color, too, and he was often seen on the arms of his clients: Nancy Kissinger, Happy Rockefeller, Brooke Astor, Chessy Rayner, Gloria Vanderbilt. And as one of the first designers to work his celebrity, Blass put his name on everything from sheets, perfume, and sunglasses to Lincoln Continentals. His generosity of humor was matched by his generosity to charity, in particular as a contributor to the New York Public Library and to AIDS programs at New York Hospital–Cornell Medical Center.

He had a flair for the outsize declaration -- "The little black dress always looks better in white" -- and his irrepressibility continued even after his initial bout with cancer two years ago. "Laughter," he once said, "is very important in the scheme of things, don't you think?" It seems many of his biggest admirers -- in the intersecting worlds of fashion and society -- would agree.

Carrie Donovan
style editor, The New York Times Magazine, 1977–1995
Bill offered me my first job as an assistant at Anna Miller in the fifties. I watched him become himself back then. He made himself up, and he'd tell you that in a minute.

Stan Herman
president, CFDA
Bill built his own world early on and didn't deviate from it. His tent shows were magnificent for that reason. When I'd go sit and talk with him in his office, he would always be sketching these beautiful, glamorous ladies.

Craig Natiello
assistant designer to Bill Blass, 1989–99
He loved being around the glamorous people in New York whom he admired as a boy in Indiana. When he went to El Morocco, he would tell people he was in advertising, because you never said you were designing dresses for a living back then. Eugenia Sheppard, the New York Post columnist, used to write him up as a man-about-town, not a designer, and as a result, he had the most exquisite people walking through his showroom later on in life.

Bernadine Morris
fashion critic, the New York Times, 1964–95
When he started out, he was one of the boys in the back room -- that's what they called the designers in those days. They had very little power, and if a collection didn't work, they'd be fired. But the dames all loved him. He specialized in that. "I could always talk to women," he said, "even as a G.I."

Helen O'Hagan
vice-president of Saks Fifth Avenue, 1955–94
We met in 1959, smoking outside some industry event at the Waldorf. I produced the big trunk shows with him across America for Saks for 40 years. We had a ball on the road. Driving from Lake Tahoe to San Francisco, we'd stop at every produce stand. In Naples and Palm Beach, we'd always rent convertibles. In Beverly Hills, we'd stay at the Bel-Air. Somewhere near La Jolla once, we decided to go to a supermarket to get food to make breakfast at our hotel. He claimed it was the first time he'd been in a supermarket, and he got lost in the ice-cream aisle.

Louise Grunwald
socialite
In the days when American designers bought model numbers in Paris, Bill took me to an early Yves Saint Laurent collection. In the front row were the ladies of Paris and the prominent editors, and others were carefully seated behind them. In the fourth row, ringing the walls in the back, were all these incredibly beautiful boys. I asked him, "Who are all the beautiful boys?" He told me: "Shut up -- they're boyfriends of the house," and that was the end of the discussion.

Bernadine Morris
You could never tell he was gay, because although he had good manners, he was not effete, and if he ever had lovers, it wasn't anything anyone knew about.

Lynn Wyatt
socialite, Houston
He was at a benefit in Houston and I was wearing one of his geometric dresses with a low neck, but I had turned it around and put it on backward because it was more flattering that way. The first thing he said to me that night was, "I love your dress." I said, "I thought you might." He said, "But you've got it on backward." I said, "I know," and looked at him, terrified. He looked me up and down and said, "Looks great, babe." He liked calling people babe.

Nan Kempner
socialite
Bill and I had been going out for a show for the League to Save Lake Tahoe since the sixties. He usually arrived on a boat. It's a picnic lunch on the beach with a marvelous red runway and there are flags waving and ladies in big hats and everybody would get his sunglasses or perfume and he would stand on a ladder and call the show with his usual flair. He was beloved by the people in Lake Tahoe.

Carmine Porcelli
former business consultant to Bill Blass
Around 1972 or 1973, there was an international fashion-show benefit at Versailles, organized by Marie-Helene de Rothschild. Five Americans were chosen, and it was big news. Kay Thompson was directing the American segment, and Joe Eula was doing the sets. Halston got Liza Minnelli to perform a number about Paris from Funny Face. I was there working for Oscar de la Renta, and I ended up being on my own a lot. I was just a kid. Bill saw how hard I was working and that I was alone, and invited me to lunch with his people. The night of the ball, he made sure I was invited. He wasn't courting me. He was just being very kind.

Eleanor Lambert
publicity doyenne
That Versailles show had moments of tension, but Bill was such a good sport about everything. Anne Klein, who was dying of cancer at the time, was terribly nervous about her presentation because she made very simple clothes and thought they wouldn't work in a big show like that. He spent a lot of time comforting her and helping her regain her self-confidence.

Diane von Furstenberg
fashion designer
When I first came to New York, he was very generous in introducing me to people. He spread his elegance all around. It's not an accident that class rhymes with Blass.


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