If 10021 were an autonomous nation, then the retirement of the 78-year-old designer Bill Blass last year would be nothing short of a state of emergency.
More than the court designer to a certain set of Park Avenue ladies, Bill Blass was the token gentleman of the gang: Nina Griscom, Anne Bass, Nan Kempner, Judy Peabody, Carolyne Roehm. He was the maker of the perfect $4,000 I-have-a-lunch suit, and a healthy diet of timeless evening gowns for incessant benefit-going. He was never cutting edge. He was all American. He was the name sewn into Nancy Reagan’s neckline.
“Bill’s just marvelous,” said Anne Slater, a longtime customer and friend. “God really did a dance around him! He’s a major delight! He’s a blissful Blass!”
That must explain why Mr. Blass’ hand-picked replacement, a 40-year-old from Detroit named Steven Slowik, has the tenuously eager air of a man who might at any moment burst into tears-despite the fact that he smiles a lot. In December, Mr. Slowik was hired to assume another man’s name and seduce away all of his ladies. With everyone watching!
Mr. Slowik’s first rendezvous was on Feb. 16, at a dinner at the Waldorf-Astoria honoring Mr. Blass for his work for the Lighthouse Foundation, a charity serving the blind. In a ballroom, the ex-designer introduced his successor to his harem. But the chemistry was lacking, what with the other man right in the same room plying everyone with meatloaf and oatmeal cookies from his own recipes.
” Judy Peabody !” said Mr. Slowik a few weeks later. “I’ve admired her for so long. It was amazing to meet everyone.”
“He seemed like a most attractive young man,” said Ms. Peabody. “And I was very pleased to meet him. But I can’t believe that Mr. Blass isn’t going to have a finger in the pie. His presence is so powerful, his personality, I mean. But I’m sure Mr. Slovak will bring his own talent and creativity.”
The name’s Slowik.
“I certainly don’t know who Steven Floric is,” said long-time Blass buddy Peter Duchin. “I’ve never heard his name in my life. What is he, of Polish descent? Now that’s a great idea: a Polish designer! … What is it again?”
“Having the name Bill Blass remain makes it very hard,” said Nina Griscom.
“Tough act to follow!” said Nan Kempner.
“Big shoes to fill!” said Aileen Mehle.
Somewhat sympathetically-somewhat sadistically-Mr. Blass has been otherwise out of the picture for several months, relaxing in Litchfield County, Conn. “I love not working!” he said.
When he sold his company for an estimated $50 million in October to his largest licensee and his chief financial officer, it was understood that he would find an appropriate match for the faithful women he dresses. Mr. Blass did his homework. For the past several seasons, Michael Kors has been behaving like a new Bill Blass for the junior society set-the Lauders, Millers and Boardmans-much to the dismay of many critics who find his look recycled. So what was in order was not a next-generation Bill Blass, it was more of what women love most about Blass-that they can wear the gowns again and not feel dated and that though the clothes are not particularly ambitious from a design perspective, they will certainly flatter.
Randolph Duke was recently out of a job at Halston, and quickly became a front-runner. But Mr. Slowik had a quieter thing happening, which Mr. Blass admired, though the two had never met. “I kind of like the idea that he’s not generally known,” said Mr. Blass. “It gives him a sleeper quality when he does arrive.”
Mr. Slowik, like Madonna, grew up in Detroit, where, as a boy, he would read fashion magazines, get decked out in hip-huggers and platform shoes and dream of meeting the likes of the Great Mister Blass. “He was amazing!”
It was a cold March afternoon and Mr. Slowik, boyish, tall and sort of strapping, with fluffy highlighted hair, bushy eyebrows and deep laugh lines, was standing in the Seventh Avenue office where Mr. Blass designed his line for 40 years. “Mr. Blass left all of his books for me,” he said. He was wearing pressed black pants and a white oxford shirt unbuttoned enough to reveal a white V-neck T-shirt underneath. He surveyed the shelves of bound Vogue s and Harper’s Bazaar s. “Wasn’t that nice?”
A loud remix from a fashion shoot in the next room bounced around his office. Mr. Slowik said he likes opera and club music. “The clubs in New York?” he said. “Forget it. London is so much fun.”
Mr. Slowik first came to New York in the 80′s to learn his trade at Parsons School of Design. There were stints as an assistant at Albert Nippon, and then at Calvin Klein. He interviewed once to work at Blass Sport, but he didn’t get the job. “I sat in here,” he said, “on the other side of the desk, and I couldn’t believe I was actually meeting him.”
In 1986, he was lured to Europe as head designer at Ferragamo, maker of horsy clothes and scarves for bleached Italian matrons. His designs there were consistently solid, if not ground-breaking. Conservative, classic, well constructed, certainly adhering to the Blass ethos that traveled right through the whole deconstructionist trend without batting an eyelash.
Mr. Slowik chose to live in Paris, rather than in Milan, and it was from there that he launched his own, private label. It was small, and financing came in the form of pockets emptied on the kitchen table. He made suits and mix-and-match separates. “I had a lot of support emotionally,” he said. In New York, Barneys, Saks, Henri Bendel and Bergdorf Goodman carried the collection, and his customers tended to be “more professional women”: doctors and lawyers.
Mr. Blass admired Mr. Slowik’s connections in Europe, where Bill Blass is almost unknown. Expanding in Europe certainly seems on the agenda, since Mr. Slowik is keeping his place in Paris as well as closing a deal on an apartment in the West Village. Before his new office furniture had arrived, he was already packing for the European fabric shows where he would select materials for the spring collection, to be shown in Bryant Park in September.
Relax. Mr. Slowik does not plan any drastic changes. “I mean, some people do crazy, out-there things, and, well, I’m so glad they’re doing it, but that’s not me,” he said. “Mr. Blass always did beautiful, wearable clothes and I don’t want to change that.” Then his face became serious. “I have a very good sense of color.”
“I’m pretty intuitive as a rule,” Mr. Blass said. “I felt strongly he’d be a good guy for the job. A person who’s clever and can adjust to the situation he’s put in.”
As for his luck with the ladies?
“My ladies?” said Mr. Slowik. “Are my friends, I guess.”