New York Bill Blass, the fashion designer whose signature designs broke fashion molds and set standards for casual American style, died Wednesday. He was 79.
Blass died at his home in Washington, Conn., according to Joe Lillis of Lillis Funeral Home in New Milford, Conn. A friend of the designer, Helen O'Hagan, said Blass died of cancer.
Blass' sense of line, color and style took him from a sketcher's desk to the helm of his own $700-million-a-year company in a career that spanned six decades.
"It's a great loss. He was an extraordinary man and a great designer," said Fern Mallis, the director of 7th on 6th, a fashion organization that produces Fashion Week in New York's Bryant Park.
Blass won global attention in the 1960s, when he shattered the Paris-centric fashion world with youthful creations that mixed-and-matched chic with casual a technique that soon came to define American style.
He designed clothes for a host of famous women, including first ladies Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush, and Candice Bergen, Barbra Streisand and Barbara Walters. His clients paid from $800 for a sweater to thousands of dollars for an evening gown.
Blass said he designed for the woman "not obsessed with fashion," who cares about clothes, but has a career, a family, a home and other interests.
"I love his clothes, because they are comfortable, wearable and pretty," Nancy Reagan once said.
Blass, who never married, won women over with his designs and his charm. He had been listed as one of the best-dressed men in the country. New York fashion guru Nan Kempner once said, "I fell in love with him, like every woman. He was as warm, friendly, intelligent and talented as he was good-looking."
For the past 20 years, Blass lived in the small western Connecticut community of New Preston atop a hill on property he helped protect through preservation efforts, said a local official, Selectman Nicholas Solley.
William Blass was born June 22, 1922, in Fort Wayne, Ind., the only child of Ralph Blass, the owner of a hardware store, and Ethyl Blass, a dressmaker. Blass played football, worked on the school paper and studied art at South Side High School in Fort Wayne, where he graduated in 1939.
Blass started sketching designs when he was 17, and sold some to New York designers for $25 each.
"Something about glamour interested me," he told People magazine in 1999. "All my schoolbooks had drawings of women on terraces with a cocktail and a cigarette."
He moved to New York to study fashion at the Parsons School of Design, and worked as a sketch artist for a sportswear company before he resigned to enlist in the Army during World War II. After serving for 3 1/2 years, Blass was hired as a designer for the Manhattan firm of Anna Miller and Co.
Blass joined Maurice Rentner Ltd. in 1959 and two years later was made vice president of the company, which was renamed Bill Blass Ltd. in 1970. Blass sold the company in 1999 to two fashion executives for $50 million.
During his career, Blass expanded to design men's wear, swimwear, children's clothing, shoes, jewelry and furs. His designs were known for crisp elegance and simplicity, made from beautiful fabrics with sophisticated style.
Blass would sketch a new collection nearly four months before showing it to buyers and the press. He often sketched at home, saying there wasn't enough time to create during office hours.
He received numerous awards, including the Coty American Fashion Critics Award in 1961, 1963 and 1970, as well as the Council of Fashion Designers of America Award in 1986.
Stan Herman, president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, said Blass' last fashion show in September 1999 in New York, which was almost canceled because of a terrible storm, exemplified the designer's spirit.
"I remember his face vividly when he made the decision to go on," Herman said. "It was the great Blass 'Wow, this is life, I'll do the best I can,"'
At the show, the audience stood as Blass emerged when the last model finished.
"There are not many standing ovations in fashion," Patrick McCarthy, chairman of Women's Wear Daily, told People magazine. "Bill just gave a little wave, barely perceptible, but it was a wave goodbye."