With the distinctive click-click of fashionland’s highest heels, Anna Wintour had left the building. The Vogue editor and a sun-kissed crew had just vacated the office of Bill Blass, 550 Seventh Avenue, this molting gray day. “Only in Europe do designers come to a halt in August,” Mr. Blass told his next guest rather matter-of-factly about being stuck in New York.
While a posse of models swirled in front of photographers in the next room, Mr. Blass sat in a perfectly straight chair upholstered in charcoal wool pinstripes, behind a desk stacked with reading material and the colored drawing pens he uses to sketch ideas. An unconquered kaiser roll, the last bit of a quick lunch, was taken away by the designer’s assistant.
“I’ve never been convinced about fashion,” remarked the designer. “To me, fashion is something anyone can acquire. Style is something else again. And that distinction is what we tried to convey.”
Mr. Blass was referring to the August-September issue of the Library of Congress magazine Civilization , of which he was the guest editor. (Martin Scorsese, Vaclav Havel and Jules Feiffer have each done issues.) The idea was to define fashion by examining style–who has it, who expresses it best. On Sept.17, the editors of Civilization will honor Mr. Blass at the Four Seasons restaurant. And Saks Fifth Avenue unveiled several streetfront windows in homage to Mr. Blass and his special issue on Aug. 17. After all, Saks owes him its sworn allegiance. The designer’s last trunk show broke all records, selling $1 million worth of frocks, more than twice the average show.
Mr. Blass opened the magazine and ran down the lineup of stories. Stephen Fry on Oscar Wilde’s tour of America in 1882, a report loaded with Wilde remarks, such as the reply to the woman who asked his advice on how to arrange some decorative screens. “Why arrange them at all?” Wilde responded. “Why not let them occur?” Writer Wendy Goodman takes up the topic of today’s chic, inexpensive home furnishings and how they have revolutionized the accessibility of style. Susanna Moore explains why she fancies vintage clothing. Publisher John Fairchild on the sport of people watching in posh watering holes. A portfolio of fashion illustrations from Mr. Blass’ private collection. The Washington Post fashion reporter Robin Givhan decodes the phenomenon of community fashion shows.
There’s an intriguing dialogue between Mr. Blass and style czar André Leon Talley. “I think some of André’s comments are kind of earth-shattering, in terms of what he is saying about fashion today,” said Mr. Blass. In the dialogue, Mr. Talley defines today’s fashion as “dull correctness … a statement of simplicity with an edge” best rendered by Michael Kors for Celine and Marc Jacobs’ debut collection last spring for Louis Vuitton. “The first outfit on the runway was a white raincoat and a white messenger bag with the LV logo stamped on it so you could barely see it. Invisible, almost,” said Mr. Talley. “The right key for fashion today.”
Finally, the “editor” named the most stylish men and women of this century: among them Gloria Guinness, Nan Kempner, Chessy Rayner, Nina Baker, Gloria Vanderbilt, C.Z. Guest and, the youngest on his list, Eliza Reed.
“I gave Slim Keith particular prominence,” said Mr. Blass. “Not just in terms of layout standpoint, because she has originality that was totally an American point of view. And she had an air of mystery about her.
“Mystery,” he enthused, “is one of the appealing things about really stylish people.”
Take Kate Paley, daughter of William and Babe Paley, he said. At the wedding of Eliza Reed in Kent, Conn., earlier this summer, “Kate Paley arrived with such a great look. She didn’t come in chattering with any other person. She came with these two little dogs of hers, and she sat in a pew by herself. My God, what an air of mystery. Style,” he said, “is unexpected. It’s a quality that intrigues us, no matter who you are. We look for it.
“Doing this convinced me I probably should do a book,” Mr. Blass said, pulling a cigarette from a box with the brand name Now written on it. “I will do a book. Work with a good editor and art director,” he continued. “I have more to say, if only by virtue of the fact that I’m so f’ing old!”
Mr. Blass was born June 22, 1922, in Fort Wayne, Ind. Probably the only obvious hint of Indiana left in this cosmopolite is the scorching shade of his cornflower-blue eyes. Hardly retired, Mr. Blass recently hired his first chief executive, George Ackerman, to oversee the business, which includes licensees, men’s wear lines, perfume and furniture. As a result, Mr. Blass is able to spend the lion’s share of his week at his house in northwestern Connecticut, coming into town two or three days a week; in a recent week he met with Ms. Wintour and lunched with Duane Hampton, widow of interior designer Mark Hampton.
Asked what a fashionable woman needs this fall, the designer answered definitively, “An open mind.”
“Never mind having to have a long skirt or a leather parka or whatever. Pick up the one thing you hadn’t planned on buying at all. That will be the thing that will make your whole season.”
Back to Civilization . “It was a very interesting experience, shall we say,” Mr. Blass laughed. “I don’t think we paid the writers as well as Architectural Digest , but they did all right, I hope.”
Billy’s List: Quiz time!
1. Sebastian is:
a. hairdresser Oribe’s twin brother. He runs their new salon in Paris.
b. the name of the current MGM lion.
c. the title of Fairchild Publications’ men’s magazine, expected to launch in September 1999. (In French slang, a “Sebastian” is a chic dude.)
2. Want a copy of the stretch leatherette cat suit Uma Thurman wears in The Avengers ? Try:
a. Patricia Field.
b. Gianni Versace.
c. the J. Peterman catalogue.
3. How does the first act of Queen of Hearts , a musical about the Princess of Wales, end?
a. In a minefield, with a solo by Elton John.
b. At the fairy-tale wedding of Prince Charles and Diana, both singing with Camilla Parker Bowles.
c. With Diana mournfully singing lieder on the deck of Ralph Lauren’s yacht.
Answers: (1) b; (2) c; (3) b.