Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta, the ambassadors of American fashion, are always ready to charm.
Since Mr. de la Renta, now 61, showed his first collection in 1965 for Jane Derby, and Mr. Blass brought his boyhood visions of 1930s glamour from Fort Wayne, Ind., to New York 50 years ago, they both have slowly and methodically built their careers by dressing the affluent.
The formula has paid off handsomely for the two designers.
Mr. Blass, 71, has 50 worldwide licensees which reportedly generate retail sales in excess of $700,000,000. The ready-to-wear company he owns and runs accounts for another $20,000,000 retail.
Mr. de la Renta claims his ready-to-wear and 49 licensees (soon to be 54) rack up retail sales of $500,000,000, with $125,000,000 in fragrances alone. He also draws a hefty salary from Pierre Balmain in Paris to design its couture and ready-to-wear collections.
The "old boys" -- to borrow one of Mr. Blass' favorite phrases -- are at the top of their game. Here's what they had to say
about everything from nudity and the press to what it takes to be well-dressed.
Q: How do you feel about the general direction of fashion?
Blass: Well, that could take easily three hours! But it does seem to me that here we are in the most conservative nation in the world, and fashion has lately gone off on a tangent that certainly is not representa
tive of the country as a whole. I mean, it seems to focus on a very small area of New York and that's the news and the publicity that fashion gets.
De La Renta: You know, as there is more and more a female working force, you see that a woman dresses in a manner that is far more conservative than the woman of leisure dressed before.
I don't think that our industry is catering to that woman, to that big working force that is today the most powerful buying force in America.
Q: Do you think too many designers are catering to the young downtown crowd?
De La Renta: What we are seeing today in fashion are the extremes. But the real woman doesn't relate to those clothes, and I think there are problems today at the retail level because there is not that enticement in the stores for people to buy.
A few months ago I was discussing the validity of the megashows and the clothes being shown on the runway that never reach a store. You see clothes in magazines, and when you read where you can get them, it says "to order at . . ."
Those clothes were never bought by the store that graciously accepted the credit. So where is the credibility? Go into a designer boutique and tell me if what you see in the store now is what you saw on the runway. The fact is that the funkiness you were so crazy about is nowhere to be seen.
Blass: Look at the contradictions of pictures of women at social occasions when magazines cover events. They have very little to do with the clothes that are shown in editorials.
I do think the press with its desire for news -- and God knows, we certainly need news -- probably is guilty to a large extent of exaggeration of what they see.
Blass: Is it being creative for us to make funky clothes, putting odd combinations together? Is nudity creative? I don't know. I would suspect that the real creators today are the ones that have been around for a long time.
De La Renta: In my book, there are only two good designers, Bill Blass and me. And that's because he's present here.
Q: There must be other designers whose work you admire.
Blass: I think Giorgio Armani is wonderful. He's also probably the most contemporary designer, inventive, and I suppose he comes to mind as the world-class designer.
De La Renta: Absolutely, I agree . . . But the American designer who I have the most admiration for, the one who has succeeded on the scale I would like to succeed on, is Ralph Lauren. His vision, his perception of people's lifestyles -- he has done that in a brilliant manner. He has taken the best, what is really, purely American, and sold it to the world. He reaches, more than any one of us, large masses of the population.
I think that Calvin [Klein] does his thing, and it all has to do with youth and nudity. But it doesn't really reach all the stratas.
Donna [Karan] is sort of the working girl. You know, the Lycra and all that, and I think she certainly has done it very well.
But to me, there is more purity in what Ralph has done.
I love Bill because Bill has never deviated. He has had a very clear vision through the many years he has been in the business, and he has focus.
Bill and I sell to a very, very small segment of the population. We are both well known because I, certainly, have spent millions of dollars advertising my name and my perfumes, and we have crossed this country for many many years.
I have a very strong name because I have worked for it. But, nevertheless, there are not millions of women wearing Oscar de la Renta dresses.
Blass: To me, Yves St. Laurent and Armani have been the two great influences of our time, Armani being unique in the sense that he started as a men's-wear designer and then created a look for women. That was indeed different, original and very correct for his moment.
You need to be in the right place at the right time, which is what happened to Dior after World War II. If one looks through the boutiques, one can always single out wonderful things from Ungaro, Lacroix and Valentino.
In America, I think both Carolyne Roehm and Carolina [Herrera] have great personal style. They have a great way of expanding their own personal look to what they make, as Jacqueline de Ribes did in her time.
De La Renta: In the last five or 10 years, Karl Lagerfeld certainly has
created tremendous impact. He has done it by bulldozing the ladies of the press into believing that what he does is wonderful.
When you look at the numbers, the sales are not so big. But it is so extraordinary that he has made everybody believe he is the best.
I think that under his own label or under Chloe, right now, he is non-existent. I think the sales are minimal.
Chanel is a different story. Chanel is a worldwide name, and though he has done fabulously well for Chanel, Chanel has served him fantastically as well. Because without the millions of Chanel, he would never have been able to accomplish what he has accomplished.
Q: Who is the most overrated designer today?
Blass: I have no idea.
De La Renta: I think that a lot of the very, very young talent has been overrated, and it has a negative result. I've never seen anybody get as much publicity as Isaac Mizrahi for so little clothes in the stores. I prefer the old-fashioned process of doing business, where the designer became famous because he sold clothes and people were talking about it, and then the press caught up with it.
Q: What is the role of fashion magazines?
Blass: It's still to inform.
De la Renta: I think that a lot of the magazines are not really trying to reach a consumer. Just to amuse or to divert -- that's not the purpose of the magazine.
Blass: I also think they focus too closely on New York and Paris. They really and truly ignore this vast country.
Q: Are there any really chic women today?
Blass: There's certainly a lot of well-dressed women, but they're not necessarily the people who are photographed.
I'm always amazed when I go out of town and see some remarkably well-dressed, attractively put-together women who never appear in papers or magazines.
De La Renta: Women today dress in a more conservative manner than they have ever dressed, because their role in society has evolved tremendously in the last 20 or 30 years.
When I started in business 25 years ago, the woman I dressed was what I called a woman of leisure, whose first preoccupation of the day was to dress for lunch with a friend. That woman seems to have disappeared. Today, there is this professional woman who is far, much more conservative.
Q: Is there too much vulgarity in fashion now?
Blass: There has always been a certain amount of vulgarity in fashion from early Hollywood days to now.
De La Renta: It's much more blatant today.
Blass: There's not necessarily any more nudity than there was in Jean Harlow's time. She didn't wear anything under her clothes, either.
Q: What do you think is the reason for all this nudity?
De La Renta: I like the idea of a certain transparency. When one becomes vulgar, however, I think it's terrible. But then there are a lot of vulgar people around who might love it.
Blass: Nudity is absolutely glorious on the young. I'm all for it.
Q: What do you think were your best contributions to fashion?
Blass: Let me answer that one for Oscar.
The very name Oscar de la Renta meant tremendous glamour and a kind of romance, sadly lacking in clothes until he came along.
De La Renta: Bill has an extraordinary blend of the best of American sportswear and luxury, a luxurious way of dressing that so many women identify with.
Q: Do you have any regrets?
Blass: Yes. I think that all the things I am trying to do now, I wish I had started years ago. But I still have plenty of time.
De La Renta: The one regret I have is that, after the war, there were many young people like myself going to Paris to apprentice with big houses. And while I had the opportunity, I didn't go, because I had to work and make money.
I miss the fact that I didn't have the training of a French couture house. You can't ever negate that.