Not Your Mother’s Bill Blass

  Arriving on time for the reception at Space 530 in the Garment Center was probably a mistake as I had time to drink a glass and a half of wine before settling into my front row seat just inches away from the featured speaker. Hoping I would not pull a Kanye at his daughter’s Disneyland birthday party (he dozed while Elsa from Frozen sang!) I sat bolt upright when the program began 45 minutes later as Director of Special Events Maryanne Grisz informed us that this was Fashion Group International’s 85th year (who knew)? In fact, when the organization began in war time 1928, it had 17 female members, including Eleanor Roosevelt and Edith Head. Now there are 25 regions globally which include males as well. Grisz then introduced the man-of-the-hour Chris Benz to the crowd.

When a heritage designer name is so evocative to a market segment outside of your repositioned demographic (boomers) what makes it relevant to your core target consumer (Millennials)? That is the question many seemed to struggle with last night at FGI’s Frontliners event, “Reimagining Bill Blass with Chris Benz, Creative Director.” Designer Benz was on hand to discuss his imminent reintroducing of the Blass name as an online bridge sportswear collection debuting November 2. Clearly this is not your mother’s–or family friend’s Bill Blass (more on that later) although Benz made a point of saying that the titular word “reimagining” was incorrect; he prefers the word “renovating.”

Cocktail reception

“The House of Blass has great bones. It’s a great American sportswear brand,” Benz explained. “We are renovating the house and thinking of it in a totally new way.” With a nod to the company’s president and COO Stuart M. Greenblatt, the 32-year-old Benz acknowledged the man who gave him the brand’s helm. Benz, in an unpressed collared shirt and blazer, rolled up Nantucket red pants, navy tie bearing the likeness of West Virginia complete with tie clip, white Converse sneakers and an Apple Watch, is designing for a legacy which had its heyday before he was even self-aware. The adorably boyish and spiky haired Benz came up by way of Parsons (1989), interned at Marc Jacobs and then took a job designing at J.Crew just as Mickey Drexler arrived on the scene, (“Mickey’s graduate school,” he quips). Winning a CFDA award for emerging designer spurred him on and in 2007 he launched his own line–“Five fabulous years of doing whatever I wanted,” adding that he had a great following on social media, “just not necessarily people who bought clothes.”

When he was “called out of the blue” for his current position he was initially unsure. “BILL BLASS?!? This is exactly what I don’t want to do in fashion,” he thought. But something changed his mind. “We’re creating an entirely new company called Bill Blass,” he intoned. It is to be direct to the consumer and a strictly e-commerce launch as this is “how people shop today: with their phones in the back of a taxi, on their tablets in bed on Sunday morning.” Benz is convinced that if Bill Blass was around today he’d be quite vocal on Twitter with things he liked and didn’t like. “Mr. Blass always had an ongoing dialogue with the consumer,” he said. To that end, social media video guides spotlighting new ways to style items will be featured.

When asked to talk more about the future product, Benz alluded to a “high-low sensibility” assuming the customer will mix the product with a Zara pant or other fast fashion items rather than adopt a head-to-toe BB approach. There will be a focus on more special items: a sequin cardigan as opposed to a basic “Loro Piana navy cashmere;” embroidery out of India; printed pieces that will “speak to the inspirational,” as well as handbags, shoes and fashion jewelry. Benz invoked Bill Blass’ disdain for the seasonal push remarking that “Seasons felt ridiculous to him” and therefore furs will not be sold in the summer. “Collections are not interesting to me,” said Benz, who said they will feature ongoing delivery of their capsule product so that there’s always something new on the site. The consumer doesn’t care if it’s from Resort or Spring, “they just want something to wear to the party this weekend,” he explained.

As for prices, the plan is to democratize the line by making something affordable for everyone. Most items will be comparable to bridge brands such as Acne or Phillip Lim with some “halo” items at a much higher price point which he predicted would be the first to sellout. As far as being able to see and touch the clothes in person, trunk shows are in the works. (To note: at just about this juncture, I dropped my pen, which fell as if in a game of Mousetrap, knocking over my half-filled plastic glass of white wine, which I hadn’t finished at the risk of falling asleep. I watched it pool out on the floor. “Man down!” quipped Benz).

As for the consumer: “She’s a casual American girl in flats. We want her to feel like she’s in jeans and a T-shirt even if she’s in a long floral dress. We’re not for the red carpet…our customer is more of a mobile, traveling, professional woman with a specific point of view,” he added. Audience member and man-about-town Robert diMauro quoted Blass as once saying that his ” ideal woman is a woman with style who can go out and whistle for a cab.” Benz countered with another Blass bon-mot: his ideal woman was never fussy because you can’t ride a bicycle in a ballgown.

Benz also mentioned the great amount of archival references the company retains with over 2,500 pieces, although don’t expect to see them brought back in a retrospective anytime soon. “It’s a slippery slope to rely on past archives,” he said. And what of those now gone mainstays of society who are so inextricably linked with the Bill Blass brand such as Nan Kempner or Pat Buckley? Someone suggested that they could be featured in social media TBT’s (Throwback Thursdays). Asked for a show of hands on how many of the audience members are “ladies who lunch” and getting a smattering of laughter as response, Benz remarked that we’re all women-on- the-go now and that anyone under 40 has no idea who those iconic ladies are. “Our audience is so specific and narrow that we really have to use it the right way.”

Was there anything that surprised Benz when going through the archives? Apparently he was shocked to see such exuberance. “You think of Bill Blass as tailored suits with a level of restraint but what we found were feathers shooting out of everywhere; embellishments; color; levity,” he said. I had a sudden flashback to one such Bill Blass outfit that I had seen at Nan Duskin in Philly back in the early ’80s. Needless to say, it left an indelible mark on me with its fuchsia pink sequin pencil skirt, fuchsia satin draped halter top and matching fuchsia feathered chubby jacket; definitely one of the most TDF ensembles that I had ever seen. A good friend of the family bought it and I remembered seeing her wear it to a party. After the event last night I called her to reminisce and asked about that timeless, show-stopping outfit; something you could wear to this day. She informed me that it had long ago been lent to and ruined by a friend’s daughter who tried to iron the sequins. I feel fairly sure that the new sequin cardigans will not meet a similar fate. After all, what Millennial owns an iron?

Laurel Marcus

OG journo major who thought Strunk & White's "The Elements of Style" was a fashion guide. Desktop comedienne -- the world of fashion gives me no shortage of material.

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