550 Seventh Avenue
New York, New York 10018
Telephone: (212) 221-6660
Fax: (212) 302-5166
Incorporated: 1968 as Bill Blass Inc.
Sales: $50 million (1998 est.)
NAIC: 315222 Men and Boys' Cut and Sew Suit, Coat and Overcoat Manufacturing; 315233 Women's and Girls' Cut and Sew Dress Manufacturing; 315234 Women's and Girls' Cut and Sew Suit, Coat, Tailored Jacket and Skirt Manufacturing; 54149 Other Speicalized Design Services
1960: Blass becomes chief designer of Maurice Rentner Ltd.
1968: Bill Blass Inc. becomes a Rentner subsidiary for the designer's licensed products, including a menswear line.
1970: Blass buys out his Rentner partners and renames the company Bill Blass Ltd.
1980: Annual sales of Blass-labeled goods reach $200 million.
1993: Bill Blass Ltd. is licensing 56 products.
1999: Blass sells the company.
Bill Blass Ltd. produces clothing collections by the designer Bill Blass and licenses an array of products that bear his name or initials. Blass's fashions have long been a favorite of wealthy and prominent women, including several presidents' wives. His clothes 'are rarely thought of as artistic or trendsetting or remarkable,' according to Susan Orlean of the New Yorker; rather, writes Holly Haber of WWD, he is 'the quintessential designer for `ladies who lunch.' Bill Blass Ltd., which is also prominent in menswear and men's accessories (accounting for about 40 percent of its revenue) and licenses products that include fragrances and furniture, ranked as the fourth most recognized American designer in a 1999 survey. The 77-year-old Blass sold his business in 1999.
'Overnight' Stardom in the 1960s
Born in 1922 in Fort Wayne, Indiana (which he told Leila E.B. Hadley of the Saturday Evening Post was 'a miserable place to grow up in'), Blass knew he wanted to design clothing at a very early age, and in his teens he was already selling sketches to firms in Manhattan's Seventh Avenue garment district. He left for New York City immediately after graduation from high school, soon finding a job as a $35-a-week sketch artist for a sportswear firm. After service in World War II, he became a designer for the Manhattan firm of Anna Miller and Co., Ltd. In the late 1950s Anna Miller merged her company with her brother's firm, Maurice Rentner Ltd.
Rentner, a manufacturer of high-priced clothing, was noted for catering to the 'amply proportioned' woman. 'Our 1959 collection was quite a shock to the buyers,' Rentner's chairman recalled when later interviewed for the New York Times by Nora Ephron. 'They came in looking for matronly stuff and we gave them Bill's young look. ... They ate it up.' Blass quickly rose in the firm to head designer, vice-president, and partner.
By 1963 Blass was a celebrated designer, having received the Coty American Fashion Critics' Award for the second time. His designs were known for quality fabric, simple lines, mix-and-match combinations of fabrics and patterns, impeccable tailoring, and brilliant colors. His customers included Jacqueline Kennedy, Happy Rockefeller, and Marilyn Monroe. The beige chantilly-lace dress in which he clad model Jean Shrimpton for a Revlon lipstick ad proved a sensation. Put into production by instant demand, it achieved unprecedented sales in such stores as Bonwit Teller, Lord and Taylor, and Neiman-Marcus. Blass was also designing furs, swimsuits, rainwear, and children's wear for other companies, plus accessories such as shoes, hosiery, scarves, gloves, luggage, jewelry, and wristwatches. He was even asked to design a tire. The designer established a Rentner licensing and franchising subsidiary, Bill Blass Inc., in 1968.
Blass claimed to be the first American designer of women's apparel to enter the menswear field. He told Barbaralee Diamonstein that he designed for the man over 35 who wanted to look 'with it, but not ridiculous. ... It was a terribly silly period. Grown men looked like their own sons, with long sideburns and bell-bottomed pants and body jewelry.' Pincus Brothers-Maxwell began manufacturing, distributing, and marketing Bill Blass menswear, including suits, shirts, ties, shoes--and even a kilt--in 1967. A Life article called the line 'a blend of Damon Runyon and the Duke of Windsor.' 'The man over 40 needs help,' Blass explained to the magazine. 'My [suit] jackets are more fitted and cut higher in the arm hole to make him look thinner and stay thinner.' The designer was a recipient of the first Coty Award for Menswear in 1968.
Essentially traditional in taste, Blass, despite his commercial and critical success, also found designing women's apparel to be a challenge in this decade. 'The single most difficult period for me was the `sixties,' he recalled for a 1981 Vogue article by Edith Law Gross. 'For the first time, clothes came from the street. ... Overnight, you had to make clothes that were cut off to here, that were amusing, bizarre, but above all young. I survived by making crisp, attractive clothes that my customer also could relate to.' In 1970 Blass won a third Coty American Fashion Critics' Award and, with it, lifetime membership in the Coty Hall of Fame. Also in 1970, he bought out his Rentner partners and renamed the company Bill Blass Ltd.
The 1960s were the first time that fashion designers became celebrities in their own right, worthy of hobnobbing with their wealthy and socially prominent customers. Before, Blass told Diamonstein, 'The designers were anonymous, they weren't interviewed. They never talked to the press, and they rarely saw the buyers.' A handsome and charming bachelor, the sophisticated Blass was perfectly placed to profit from the decade's relaxed social mores. He advanced his career by cultivating the right women, establishing precedent by inviting them to his shows and seating them in the front row. He was not, Cathy Horyn of the New York Times wrote in 1999, 'at the intersection of American fashion and society. He was the intersection.'
Blass was also making public appearances around the country, averaging more than 30,000 miles of travel a year, with models wearing his designs in tow. A fashion editor described him to Ephron as 'a super-businessman [who] ... can sell the eyelashes off a hog.' But he also knew when not to sell, having learned, he later told Gross, 'one key thing: never sell anybody anything that isn't attractive on her.'
Tending to Business: 1970-90
The mainstay of Blass's clothing for women in the 1970s was the blazer. Trousers were prominent, and were dressed up with fur-trimmed wrap coats and cardigan sweaters. The designer introduced his Blassport ready-to-wear sportswear division in 1972. Three years later he revived the cocktail dress and, in 1978, added a signature perfume.
The total volume of Bill Blass sales by all licensees reached the $200-million level in 1980. By the early 1980s Blass's roster of licensees came to 30 in the United States alone. His name was now on perfumes and colognes, bed linen, towels, glassware, eyeglasses, Lincoln Continental automobiles, and even backgammon sets and a box of chocolates. Jeans were added in 1987, and the total worldwide sales volume of Blass-labeled goods reached $450 million in 1989. But Blass was taking great care to make sure his name was not being used inappropriately, vetoing such propositions as Blass-designed stoves, refrigerators, orthodontic braces, and fabric-lined coffins.
The licensed revenues depended ultimately on the prestige of Bill Blass Ltd.'s own collections, whether these expensive productions made money or not. Blass's strength, he told Gross, was 'making the sketch, and then I'm best at fitting. Because then I can spot absolutely what I want and what's wrong. ... I'll tell you the secret of a great dress: it looks as though human hands hadn't touched it.' Blass expanded his list of celebrity clients, which now included politically prominent women such as Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Nancy Kissinger, and Pamela Harriman; media presences such as Katharine Graham and Barbara Walters; and performers such as Candice Bergen, Anjelica Huston, Mary Tyler Moore, Jessye Norman, and Barbra Streisand.
In keeping with the decade, Blass's designs for the 1980s were more ornate and luxurious than those of the past. He employed such materials as panne velvet, satin, taffeta, cashmere, and sable, and he beaded sashes, skirts, blouses, and evening jackets. Blazers were replaced by jackets typically mixed, in suits, with different materials. Twin cashmere sweater sets were paired with long matching skirts of silk satin or lace bouffant. Beaded and embroidered evening dresses, at $5,000, were among his best sellers in the early to mid-1980s. Asked by Daimonstein why his clothes were so expensive, Blass replied, 'I'm an avid believer that we have to have clothes made in this country. Therefore we pay more money. ... [The] cost of labor and fabrication is what makes the clothing expensive.'
Closing Time: The 1990s
Although now over 70, the indefatigable Blass was out on the road as always in 1993, when his couture 'trunk show' traveled to 24 cities, with Blass himself accompanying it to Atlanta, Chicago, Nashville, Philadelphia, San Francisco, Washington, and Troy, Michigan. At Saks Fifth Avenue in New York City, he set a record for American designers by selling more than $500,000 worth of dresses. At this time Bill Blass Ltd. was licensing 56 products, including window shades. Bill Blass USA, a bridge line (between couture and ready-to-wear) was launched in 1995 and licensed to Augustus Clothiers.
Pennsylvania House introduced a Bill Blass furniture collection of 50 pieces in 1997. The following year Blass, who had been licensing fragrances to Revlon for almost 30 years, bought out his contract and assigned it to Five Star Fragrances. The women's jeans license was awarded to The Resource Club Ltd., a private-label manufacturer. The Bill Blass USA line closed and was replaced by a better-than-bridge suit collection to be made and marketed by Zaralo.
Pared to 42, the Bill Blass licensees generated about $760 million in annual sales in 1998, and the designer collection was bringing in another $20 million to $25 million in retail. Blass hired George Ackerman, a former Donna Karan executive, to replace him as chief executive officer in March 1998. Shortly before year's end, however, Ackerman left the company for reasons that were not disclosed, and Blass, who had recently suffered a minor stroke, resumed his former duties. He announced in February 1999 that he was planning to sell his firm.
Blass, in October 1999, concluded an agreement to sell his company to Haresh T. Tharani, chairman of The Resource Club, the firm's largest licensee, and Michael Groveman, the firm's chief financial officer, with the former becoming chairman and the latter chief executive officer. The purchase price was to be paid by issuing investment-grade bonds self-liquidating over ten years, based on the Blass trademarks, brand equity, and licensing revenues. The designer committed himself to maintaining an active role in the company through a long-term contract 'with financial interest.' A new company, called Tharanco, was to be established to own and operate Bill Blass Ltd.
CAK Universal Credit Corp. financed the purchase by lending the new owners the money to buy the company. The loan was secured by the company's trademarks and licenses, which were placed into an entity that would receive all the cash from the licenses. Robert D'Loren, cofounder of CAK, described the transaction as an alternative to going public, telling Lisa Lockwood of WWD that since the cyclical nature of the apparel business made Bill Blass Ltd. below investment-grade creditworthiness, 'What we do is structure a loan so credit becomes investment grade--triple B or better. ... By creating investment grade asset-backed bonds, we have forged a vehicle that enables apparel industry leaders to leverage their assets at favorable terms, while allowing large financial institutions, which have strict investment requirements, to invest in these assets.'
Principal Competitors:Calvin Klein Inc.; Polo/Ralph Lauren Corporation; Tommy Hilfiger Corporation.
Diamonstein, Barbaralee, Fashion: The Inside Story, New York: Rizzoli, 1985, pp. 46-52.
Ephron, Nora, 'The Man in the Bill Blass Suit,' New York Times Magazine, December 8, 1968, pp. 52, 182, 184-85, 187, 191-92, 195.
'The Fairchild 100,' WWD/Women's Wear Daily, November 1999, pp. 60, 75-76.
Friedman, Arthur, 'Ackerman Is 1st Blass CEO,' WWD/Women's Wear Daily, April 2, 1998, p. 20.
Gross, Edith Law, 'Bill Blass and Women: An American Affair,' Vogue, March 1981, pp. 339, 360-61.
Haber, Holly, 'Bill Blass Gets Set to Call It a Career at the Millennium,' WWD/Women's Wear Daily, February 16, 1999, p. 1ff.
Hadley, Leila E.B., 'Man a la Mode,' Saturday Evening Post, April 6, 1968, pp. 30-31.
Horyn, Cathy, 'Blass: An American Original, Seen Only in Silhouette,' New York Times, August 24, 1999, p. B12.
Lockwood, Lisa, 'Bill Blass Goes the Bond Route,' WWD/Women's Wear Daily, October 28, 1999, p. 1ff.
'The Man Who Made the `Scarsdale Mafia' Suit,' Life, June 13, 1969, p. 67.
Martin, Richard, Contemporary Fashion, Detroit: St. James Press, 1994, pp. 62-63.
Milbank, Caroline Rennolds, New York Fashion, New York: Abrams, 1989, pp. 218-19.
Orlean, Susan, 'King of the Road,' New Yorker, December 20, 1993, pp. 86-92.
Reed, Julia, 'Million Dollar Bill,' Vogue, January 1990, pp. 200-07, 241.
Sherrod, Patricia, 'Models of Taste,' Chicago Tribune, September 14, 1997, Sec. 15, pp. 1, 8.
Wilson, Eric, 'Ackerman Quits Blass,' WWD/Women's Wear Daily, December 22, 1998, p. 6.
Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 32. St. James Press, 2000.