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