Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Always Imitated, Never Duplicated: A ‘Blass’ from the Past

To say that Bill Blass is a hard act to follow is an understatement. In fact, those who have tried to fill the late BB’s formidable, perfectly polished, wing tipped shoes, have been unable to successfully continue on the tradition of an iconic design house predicated on luxurious American sportswear while making it their own.

The announcement that after 5 years, Michael Vollbracht was terminating his position as creative director for Bill Blass, should not have come as too much of a surprise, even though the artistic designer (considered to be a "Renaissance Man") came the closest with his last collection for fall 2007, shown this past February. But even by Michael’s admission, it was more of an homage to the archives of both Bill Blass and Norman Norell, than an original interpretation or a major step forward.

Although Michael was a close personal friend of Bill’s, working with his mentor on “Bill Blass: An American Designer” by Helen O’Hagan and Kathleen Rowold as well as the retrospective exhibition of Blass’ career at Indiana University’s art museum (which led to his being named creative director of Bill Blass LTD in 2003), many thought this was a strange ‘fit’ even from the beginning. After all, Michael was known for his exuberant flowing designs which were more like paintings (and decidedly untailored), rather than for his tailoring, which was a hallmark of the house of Blass. And sometimes, let’s face it, such ‘odd couplings’ do work.

But even beyond that, there has always been something lacking: Bill himself, the most important ingredient which contributed in making the house of Bill Blass what it was. The likes of him are long past (unfortunately). He was the essence of a gentleman: debonair, refined, polite, and so confident with his own self and his talent, that he made everyone around feel great. Even me…a young, wet behind the ears fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar.

In the 70’s, after having been given the designer market by the late Carrie Donovan (who was then the Senior Fashion Editor), I routinely met with iconic names like James Galanos, Oscar de la Renta, Arnold Scaasi, the late Pauline Trigere and of course, the late Bill Blass. While they could all be described as class acts, it was the latter especially, who made me feel as important as the top editor. He would not relegate me to assistants or PR people but would always come out and work with me personally. And he was so down to earth and loved to laugh.

Certain things still stick in my mind decades later. I recall how he would examine some of his designs in their early stages…showing them to me long before his formal runway shows (obviously because of who I worked for than because of who I was at that moment). With his trademark suntanned face, elegant bespoke pinstriped suit, and dashing good looks, he was quite a presence. I still remember how he would look at something he liked on one of his favorite fitting models, with that twinkle in his beautiful blue eyes, and exclaim, “Pretty snappy, no?”

Well, suffice it to say, this “snappiness” is precisely what has been missing from collections ‘Post BB’. It was his personal hand in every detail, his love of American classics (often with a surprise ‘twist’), his impeccable taste, his intimate relationship with customers (whether celebrated or private), and his rather humble appreciation of the press. Need I go on? As they say, “Always imitated, never duplicated” indeed!

-Marilyn Kirschner

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