Fashion designer Bill Blass dies at 79


Bill Blass, the American designer who built a multimillion-dollar business on understated clothes and a keen perception of the taste of upper-income American woman, died last night at his home in New Preston, Conn. He was 79.

The cause was cancer, said his friend Helen O'Hagan.

Mr. Blass was the first to say he was the kind of designer who was rediscovered every few years, but although his star burned more brightly in some seasons than in others, he remained in the forefront of fashion for more than three decades. His designs, blending classic and current fashions, were conservative but not dull.

Ellin Saltzman, a former senior vice president and fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue and Bergdorf Goodman, said: "He made sportswear couture. He took American sportswear to its highest level and combined it with sexy menswear touches, giving it new, clean, modern, impeccable style. He, probably better than any other designer, knew his customer and understood her."

Bill Blass clothes had a jazzy sportswear look, blending such masculine elements as pinstripes and gray flannel with ultrafeminine sequins and fur. He loved the racy elegance of the 1930s - the era of Carole Lombard and Cole Porter - and it often showed in his fashion.

Mr. Blass was widely considered one of the most charismatic and generous men in his profession, one whose social and business skills mingled adeptly.

He was once described as able to "charm the clothes right onto a woman's back."

Mr. Blass was one of the first designers to become part of the world of the women who wore his clothes, a group that included Pat Buckley, Brooke Astor, Nancy Kissinger, Happy Rockefeller, Chessy Rayner, Jessye Norman and Gloria Vanderbilt. He got to know society figures in other cities, too.

He never lost his wonder at what he had achieved. After donating $10 million to the New York Public Library in 1994, he told a friend his greatest thrill was that he had made all that money himself.

Later in his career, his menswear - by then more conservative than his earlier designs - was made by 18 licensees, which manufactured everything from evening clothes, sportswear and tailored clothes to ties, socks and belts. His own wardrobe also became more conservative, and he was known for his impeccable tailoring.

Mr. Blass always wore the best that he could afford - blazers by Brooks Brothers and the custom tailor Lord when he was first starting out in the 1940s, and later, with a little more money, bespoke suits from Huntsman in London.

A handsome man who favored jeans and Shetland sweaters in the country, Mr. Blass appeared on many best-dressed lists.

"Fashion can be bought by anybody; style takes discernment," he once said in discussing women's clothes, but it could as easily have applied to him. "It has to do with individuality."

Mr. Blass was a three-time winner of the Coty American Fashion Critics Award and in 1968 was given the first Coty Award for menswear. He received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 1987, and in 1996 was the first recipient of its Humanitarian Leadership Award.

In 1973, he was one of five American designers invited to participate with five French designers in a fashion show at the Palace of Versailles, one of the first events in which American design was internationally recognized.

In addition to his large donation to the New York Public Library, Mr. Blass contributed and worked for other causes. He was an early supporter of AIDS programs and was a prime mover in organizing benefits for AIDS care at New York Hospital-Cornell Medical Center.

William Ralph Blass was born in Fort Wayne, Ind., on June 22, 1922, the only son of Ralph Aldrich Blass, a traveling hardware salesman, and Ethyl Keyser Blass. As a youngster, breathing in the glamour of Marlene Dietrich and Carole Lombard at Saturday movie matinees, he had no doubt that he was destined for a bigger landscape than his home state.

"Those women inspired me, and I had to get out," he said years later.

The opportunity to leave Indiana came after graduation from South Side High School, when he won second prize in a design contest sponsored by The Chicago Tribune.

He went to New York in the summer of 1940, studied for a short time at the McDowell School of Fashion, and went to work as a $35-a-week sketch artist for David Crystal, a manufacturer of moderate-priced clothes on Seventh Avenue.

In 1943, he enlisted in the Army. Because of his high IQ and artistic ability, he was assigned to a specialized counterintelligence unit, the 603rd Camouflage Battalion.

Its mission was to fool the enemy by impersonating other Allied troops in battle, and Mr. Blass spent much of his war inflating rubber tanks that served as decoys.

He landed in France about a month after D-Day and participated in 21 engagements, including the Battle of the Bulge and the crossing of the Rhine.

While in the Army, Mr. Blass acquired the polish of a slight British accent.

He returned to New York after the war and joined Anne Klein as an assistant. But he was soon dismissed. "She said I had good manners but no talent," Mr. Blass once recalled, gleefully.

He then landed a job as a low man on the totem pole at a manufacturer named Anna Miller. When Ms. Miller retired in 1959, her business was merged with that of her brother, Maurice Rentner, then a well-regarded fashion house.

Mr. Blass' designs gradually became recognized, he became an influence in the business, and when Mr. Rentner died in 1960, he got his name on the label. In 1970, he bought out the Rentner firm and changed the name to Bill Blass Ltd.

Two years ago, Mr. Blass, who rarely appeared without a cigarette, was treated for throat cancer.

At the same time, he began working on his memoir, Bare Blass, as well as a catalog for a retrospective exhibition of his fashions at Indiana University in Bloomington.

Those projects, which all come to fruition last fall, kept him occupied. In his personal life, as in fashion, Blass believed that timing was everything. "The secret of living is not staying too long," he once said. "I have learned when to leave the party."

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