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An American Classic

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Rhymes with Class: With Chessy Rayner and Nan Kempner in 1970.  

Pat Buckley
socialite
We used to go twice a year to five movies in a day. It took more arranging than D day. We'd start at 10 a.m., and we'd have my car waiting at one theater and his at another. We'd eat from one of those things with the umbrellas -- what are they called? -- hot-dog vendors. It went like clockwork, and at 11 p.m. we'd end up utterly exhausted. If either one of us didn't like a movie, we'd try to get the other to leave. But if I liked something and he didn't, he'd usually win out and we'd leave because he'd make such a noise. You have no idea what goes into planning five movies in a day. It's harder than a benefit. I don't remember any of the benefits that I attended with him. They're a total blur.

Diana Knowles
socialite, San Francisco
One time, I wore a dress by Yves Saint Laurent for a huge party in New York. He called the next day and said, "Diana, they don't dress up that much in New York anymore." I said, "Oh, really, Bill? Thank you." He always had something to say.

Carrie Donovan
I once had an oversize beret in cashmere. It was about the time that Mrs. Onassis wasn't so well, but there were all these pictures of her looking so chic with her head covered. I suggested to Bill that I was trying to look like Jackie O. He said, "Well, you don't." He used to holler at me about not wearing color, too.

Ellin Saltzman
former fashion executive
He could tell you off in the funniest way. Instead of telling you something you were wearing was awful, he'd say, "Where did you get that?" or "I know how old that is."

Blaine Trump
vice-chair, God's Love We Deliver
I always went to him for advice. He'd tell you the absolute truth. If he didn't approve of what you were wearing, he'd say, "What are you thinking?" He thought things were either ghastly or wonderful. I gave a dinner at Swifty's last year. Now, his idea of hell was being at a party in a restaurant in New York. But Cal Ripken was there, and he found that very interesting. When I asked if he had had a nice time, he said he did. I said I was stunned.

Michael Kors
fashion designer
Bill knew how to be elegant and uncompromising. He was the quintessential straight-talking American guy, who happened to be a fashion icon.

Craig Natiello
It was almost like having an uncle. When we were in Tokyo, he had a gall-bladder attack and was in the hospital. Tom Fallon and Gail Levenstein and I were working for him and were so desperate to go to Kyoto for one night that we told him we were leaving him there alone. Tom said to him, "You know what? You would do the same thing to us." He said: "You know what? You're right."

Nan Kempner
One time, I was at dinner with him and Princess Margaret at a restaurant in New York. Our hosts arranged for us to go out the back door so the princess wouldn't be disturbed by the public. We ended up going out the front door, and everyone on the street made a bigger fuss about him than for her. People in New York couldn't have cared less about Princess Margaret. They cared about Bill Blass.

Mario Buatta
interior designer
When I appeared on the cover of Manhattan Inc. in a chintz suit and was dubbed "the Prince of Chintz," he couldn't believe I would do such a thing. In the article, someone was quoted as saying I was going to be "the Bill Blass of home-design licensing." Bill said to me, "Why did you do that?" I sent him a letter of apology. I didn't want to offend him. In the business, he was one of the nicest guys. But when you're successful, it's easy to be nice. If you aren't nice when you're successful, when else are you going to be nice?

Helen O'Hagan
You knew he cared about you if you had a nickname and if he gave you a hard time. And you would never open your mouth about something in a store with him because you'd own it. He was the most generous man. We were in Boston once in the Hermès store and I saw this Mackintosh coat and said it was divine. Next thing I knew, it was mine.

Fern Mallis
executive director, 7th on 6th
Early on at a CFDA board meeting, we were discussing new members who were late paying dues. One of the people who hadn't paid his dues was the young designer Christian Francis Roth. The next day, a check came from Bill Blass on his behalf. That kind of thing is lovely when it happens.

Craig Natiello
He was famous for giving $10 million to the New York Public Library. But he was quietly charitable, too. He would send flowers weekly to the Glenn Bernbaum wing for people with HIV and AIDS at New York Presbyterian Hospital. He did many other charitable things anonymously, too. He insisted on that.

Eleanor Lambert
He was always good-natured and thoughtful. When my husband died and I was terribly upset, he and Geraldine Stutz, the president of Henri Bendel, were my biggest support. He came around all the time to make sure I was all right.

Bernadine Morris
He did have some kind of a pseudo-British accent, although I can't really place it. It was an accent from the past and a total effect he wanted to create. Ralph Lauren is also a practitioner, but he isn't tall enough to pull it off. Michael Kors has got the right vision, but he's a Jewish boy from Long Island, not a Waspy boy from the Midwest.

Michael Kors
Five years ago, I told Bill the story of having my first set of Bill Blass sheets from when I was 14 years old, and how divine I thought they were. Blass, in his no-nonsense, unpretentious way, turned to me in his droll voice and said, "But they really weren't that fabulous, were they?"

Mary Tojay
office assistant, 1982–2001
He liked peanut-butter-and-mayo and sliced-stuffed-olive sandwiches. He used to say he preferred having my lunches in the office more than anywhere else, and that was a real compliment, considering he'd eaten all over the world.

Lynn Wyatt
I've gone antiquing with him in London. He could walk into a shop and zero in with laser-beam focus on the most outstanding piece. With all his fabulous taste, he had this throwaway chic that was both innate and learned. Not too much, but not too minimalist either. In Connecticut, we'd go for long walks with his dogs. He was the best company in the world. He was so well read that we never even mentioned clothes. There were just too many other things to talk about.

Samantha Boardman
socialite
I only met him once, a few years ago, and thought he was larger than life, with those blue eyes that seemed to flash when he liked something. But my sister Serena and I just loved his clothes. He used great fabrics that were the opposite of clingy. You felt really good in his clothes, because they had weight and structure and were really flattering. We wouldn't wear his suits, but we'd wear his things in bits and pieces with jeans. His stuff was just so cool and sculptural and timeless.

Fern Mallis
His final runway show was the year of Hurricane Floyd. That morning, the rain was torrential, the winds were getting strong, and all of his ladies were blowing in from everywhere. The mayor was putting out edicts for nonessential businesses to close. We were totally frayed, and Bill was totally calm. He told me it was fine to cancel the show. He was happy to just walk away from it, and he was so pleasant about it. You can imagine how hysterical some designers would be in that situation. We got through the show without incident. There were some minor leaks from the roof, but they looked like crystal in the runway lights. After the finale, he walked out, got a standing ovation, and then we closed down the tents for the day. The rest was nonessential business.

Louise Grunwald
When he went to Memorial Sloan-Kettering for his cancer and was told about the ramifications of his treatment, his doctors told him he was probably going to lose a tremendous amount of weight. He told them, "For God's sake, that's why I'm here." He lost 60 pounds.

Lars Nilsson
creative director, Bill Blass
He came to my first trunk shows at Saks in April 2001. A lot of the ladies he dressed have been coming in and talking and shopping. They know what they look good in and what they like to wear. Mr. Blass taught them that, I guess.

Louise Grunwald
They say about ambassadors that you don't like your predecessor or your successor. But he was happy to see his new designer succeed. Bill was kind-spirited.

Craig Natiello
The late Mildred Hilson, best friend of Mrs. Douglas MacArthur, once ordered a red crêpe gown with a portrait collar of tulle. She was about 90, and when she was trying on the sample, she said, "Bill, I hope you can get this dress delivered to me before I die." He said, "I can't guarantee it," and walked away laughing.

Yvonne Miller
public-relations director and former house model for Bill Blass
One day he needed $1,000 in cash. I said, "How do you want it?" He said in $50 bills. I asked, "Is that how you want all of it?" He said, "Is there anything less?"


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