During a 60-year career, Blass, 79, who died at his New Preston, Conn., home on June 12 from throat cancer, shook up the status quo in other ways as well. One of the first designers to travel the country showing his creations to clients, Blass "understood how women dressed and that tastes were different outside New York," says New York Times fashion critic Cathy Horyn. His flair for laid-back luxury—tailored flannel pants paired with sequined blouses, satin ball gowns topped with cashmere sweaters—earned him seven Coty awards (fashion's highest honor), a following that included Nancy Reagan and Barbara Walters and the nickname Mr. Right. The first designer to expand successfully from women's couture to menswear, Blass was among an innovative few who, in the late '60s and early '70s, began licensing their names on products from linens to luggage. But his charm, friends say, made the man as adored as his clothes. "The best seat at any dinner," says fellow designer Carolina Herrera, "was next to Bill."
Growing up—in Fort Wayne, Ind.—he had dreamed of those invitations. His mother, Ethyl, was a dressmaker; his father, Ralph, a hardware store owner, committed suicide when Blass was 5. Lured by the promise of big city glamor ("All my schoolbooks had drawings of women on terraces with a cocktail and cigarettes," he said), Blass headed to New York City after graduation from high school in 1939 and landed a job as a sketcher for the David Crystal sportswear house. Blass served in the Army in World War II, mostly with a camouflage battalion that deployed inflatable rubber tanks to mislead the enemy. He then spent several years as a design assistant in Manhattan, getting fired by Anne Klein ("She said I had good manners, but I had no talent," Blass recalled) before being named head designer at the manufacturing firm Maurice Rentner Ltd. in 1959. There, Blass honed what Herrera calls his "timeless and snappy" style—ruffled dresses, camel hair coats over sequined dresses, and boldly colored evening gowns—before buying the company in 1970 and renaming it Bill Blass Ltd.
Never married, Blass shared his 22-acre estate with Barnaby, a yellow Labrador that, says pal Nancy Kissinger, "never left Bill's side." In 1999 he retired, selling his company for $50 million, and spent his last years writing his memoirs (due in August). His epitaph was easy. Asked on the Today show in 2000 how he would like to be remembered, Blass replied, in characteristically understated style: "As an American designer who fulfilled his American dream."
Liza Hamm in New York City
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