Bill Blass with Models at a Fashion Charity Event, 1980s. Photo by Ron DiRito.
Editor's note: One of my goals for 2016 was to continue to help spread and share our love and knowledge of why this little world of vintage loveliness that I have created amongst these web pages even exists. Beyond posting pretty pictures and editorials and sharing stories of days gone by, everything I do with my team really springs from my great love of the vintage that I source and find all around the world. It is at heart, all about vintage, and yet sometimes I feel that with all the other aspects that go into running this blog and the site that I can get caught up in so many things that take away from the simple act of my love of the great designers and their creations. To offset that, I have decided to highlight one of the designers whose work I love each week. This is not intended as a comprehensive biography but rather bits and pieces of what I have learned through my years in this business, along with some examples of the work and pieces I have in my shop. It is my little weekly love tribute to someone from the past and I hope you enjoy this new addition to our blog. xx Cherie
At fifteen he began selling dresses for $25 a piece and when he moved to New York at the age of 18, he spent his entire salary on clothing and going out. After a stint on the army, the first real job in fashion that Bill Blass had was for Anne Klein, who reputedly thought Blass had no talent. Way to call that one wrong. More importantly he became the protege of Baron de Gunzburg, who held editorships at Town & Country, Vogue & Harper’s Bazaar. In 1959 Blass began designing for the manufacturer Anna Miller, whose brother was Maurice Rentner - a label that all of us who collect vintage instantly recognizes. In 1960 Rentner died and those two companies merged leaving an opportunity for Blass to have his own first label—“Bill Blass for Maurice Rentner”. Ten years later Blass bought out the label and created Bill Blass Ltd in 1970 and by 1998 he was the head of a 700 million dollar empire.
William Ralph “Bill” Blass was a true American powerhouse. He won not one, but seven COTY Awards and the Fashion Institute of Technology’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Not bad for a boy from Indiana. He is often credited with bringing back the cocktail dress in 1975 and was known for his glamorous clothing whose emphasis was always on the fabric and the line.
In his personal life he was charming and was one of those people that knew everyone, or at least everyone that mattered. He was open about his attraction to both men and women in a time when that was just not talked about. He collected art and had an extensive collection of antiquities, most of which he donated to the Metropolitan Museum upon his death in 2002 from throat cancer. The label has struggled since his retirement and passing and has never quite hit its stride again. It's later years were rife with licensing and diffusion labels. It makes me utterly batty that the lesson that trading your creativity and control for mass market production and money rarely works out in the long run for a label regardless of the initial excitement and success. Death by the Dollar Syndrome I like to call it and that's why you see utter shit under the Blass diffusion labels in the thrift shops. Trust me - you want the early or mainline stuff.
As the designer of that main line, he is known as being one of the great Americans. Jacqueline Kennedy, Happy Rockefeller, Candice Bergen, Brooke Astor.and Marilyn Monroe, were all among his regular customers and he was a favorite among the social set. His tailoring was impeccable and his innovative combinations of textures and patterns, fabrics and embellishments was unparalleled. According to Ellin Saltzman in the New York Times, "He took American sportswear to its highest level giving it a clean, modern, impeccable style. He, probably more than any designer knew his customer and understood her."
I actively hunt for Blass pieces - especially those from his early days at Rentner and those through the seventies and early eighties when he began his own label. As with many vintage labels that later blossomed into huge global empires, I always get a greater sense of the designer in his earlier pieces and this holds true with Blass. These were made when he would have been more actively involved with the entire process. Less pieces were made as the demand was less and fewer stores would have carried the line. They are closer to demi-couture then ready-to-wear, interiors are often hand finished and you can easily make the leap and see Blass fitting a girl himself into a gown. Everything about them is better - they are better made, more unique, rare and you can see the essence of Blass as a young designer full of ideas and creativity bursting through them.
If you haven't already guessed by looking through the shop, I am a bit of a magpie and am always attracted to sequins and glitz. This too is something that Blass excelled at. He definitely produced amazing, proper day wear but in particular I look for his evening pieces. What is exciting about them is the sheer variety. Just look at the range in the photos below between what I have in the shop and photos from editorial of the past. There is color, lace, sequins, feathers (oh the feathers) and silk. The silhouettes range from full on ball gowns to slinky barely there jerseys. Before this current rage of peek-a-boo cuts out and exposed panels covered with sheer silks and fabrics, Blass had already done that years and years ago - best illustrated by the amazing black lace dress from my archives that Michelle Monaghan wore ever so beautifully to the Oscars this year (picture below). Blass would have loved that.
Below you will find some examples of his work and what we have in the shop now. It really gives you an idea of just how talented he was. We also included some amazing videos with Blass. Go grab a coffee and take a break in your day and indulge. Be forewarned though - you might just walk away with a heavy Blass addiction.
Welcome to the club.
(L) Aly Dunne in a Bill Blass Wedding Dress, 1990. (R) Rene Russo, July 1974 in Bill Blass by Francesco Scavullo.
(L-R) 1960s Feather & Metallic Silk & Velvet Bill Blass Dress / 1980s Bill Blass Sequin Dusty Rose & Gold Dress / Extravagant 1970s Bill Blass Gold Metallic Feather Dress — all available now at Shrimpton Couture
(L) Bill Blass & Diana Vreeland at Diana Vreeland's Costume Exhibition, December 8, 1980 (Getty Images) (R) Bill Blass was a favorite of fashion-plate socialite Nan Kempner (pictured with the designer in 1987).
Michelle Monaghan in Vintage Bill Blass from the Shrimpton Couture archives — Click here to see the original blog post featuring this image
Bill Blass by Francesco Scavullo, Town & Country September 1969 — Click here to see the original blog post featuring this image
(L) Candice Bergen in a Bill Blass Kimono by Bill Blass, Vogue, July 1970. (R) Anjelica Huston in Bill Blass, Vogue, 1971.
Jean Shrimpton in Bill Blass, 1962.
The House of Blass, Vogue US, August 1992 — Click here to see this full editorial
(L-R) 1980s Fine Sequin & Beaded Bill Blass Gown / 1960s Couture Sequin Feather Bill Blass / 1960s Sequin & Fringe Couture Bill Blass Tunic & Skirt — all available now at Shrimpton Couture
"Romantic Gestures" by Ellen Von Unwerth for Vogue US, December 1990
(L) Naomi Sims in Bill Blass, Harper's Bazaar Dec 1968. (R) Lauren Hutton in Bill Blass, photo Richard Avedon, Vogue US April 1971.