This Week's Wow: Are We About to Witness the Second Coming of Bill Blass?
In this weekly feature, InStyle’s Fashion News Director Eric Wilson shares his favorite fashion moment of the week, and explains how it could shape styles to come. Look for it on What’s Right Now every Friday.
The Moment: This week in fashion, everything old is new again.
On Thursday, Bill Blass, a stalwart of American sportswear since the 1970s, announced a new creative director. Chris Benz will become the first designer to bring some pizzazz back to the house since an ill-fated venture with Jeffrey Monteiro folded two years ago, capping a long and sometimes torturous slide into fashion oblivion since Blass died in 2002 (pictured, top, in 1976).
And this is one of many examples of old names that are suddenly being revived in a curiously newsy moment for heritage brands. Also announced this week, Paul Poiret, a French couture house that closed in 1929, will be auctioned by a Luxembourg investment company called Luvanis, which specializes in bringing back the dead. Meanwhile, the new owners of Courrèges opened a pop-up store in Paris this month to show off the label’s revitalized 1960s looks, which are really swinging, and we’re waiting anxiously to see what future is in store for Charles James ever since that Metropolitan Museum of Art-honored label was recently licensed by Harvey Weinstein, who previously worked on the Halston relaunch.
All this action goes to show that there is enormous interest in fashion with a history. Even Halle Berry’s new lingerie collection, Scandale, comes with a backstory, as an 80-year-old label she discovered in Paris. As many young designers will attest, it takes years to develop a brand’s image and signatures, so starting with a label that has a built-in pedigree holds a special appeal, particularly for American designers in the case of Bill Blass. And Benz (pictured, above) is a fun choice, a personality-rich designer who manages to blend the playful and serious in a nicely digestible package.
Why It’s a Wow: Blass was adored on Seventh Avenue, the Noël Coward of fashion, one of the pioneering designer personalities who dressed scads of society dames in ballgowns and pinstripe suits. He was one of the first to become famous under his own name in this country, and eventually licensed his name on so many products, from obvious categories like fragrance and lower-priced sportswear to oddities such as cars and chocolates, that his name, for decades, was unavoidable. But what happened to the Bill Blass label following his retirement in 1999 became a cautionary tale of how not to run a business. The company changed designers almost with the seasons: Steven Slowik, Lars Nilsson, Michael Vollbracht, Peter Som, and, after a closing for two years, Monteiro; and the core customers vanished.
Bill Blass became a test case for the longevity of American fashion brands, and unlike their European counterparts, like Chanel, Dior or Yves Saint Laurent, the prognosis, unfortunately, was not good. Other old American labels, Anne Klein and Halston, for instance, have also faltered after attempts to remake them for a younger audience. For this reason, people might wonder what will become of Oscar de la Renta in the future, but that company is in a much better position to move forward, given the strong management structure there and a long-running corporate philosophy of maintaining tight controls on production, licensing and retail. It’s also easy to forget how many Parisian brands have been revived over the years only to fall flat again, so it’s a little shortsighted to assume American brands are less likely to succeed.
Who knows? If Oscar fares well (who isn’t rooting for its new creative director, Peter Copping?) and Blass manages to make a hit with Chris Benz, just think of the possibilities. Let’s bring back Bonnie Cashin, Claire McCardell and Pauline Trigère, while we’re at it.