Photography by Joel Barhamand for Yahoo Style
Before Ralph Lauren, before Calvin Klein, there was Bill Blass. After establishing his eponymous line in 1970, he quickly became synonymous with classic American sportswear, and was the first designer to establish licensees for furs, fragrance, and even cars. At the apex of his career, he starred in his own ads, and was the go-to guy for top socialites, models, and the Hollywood elite. His chic, effortless clothing regularly appeared in the pages of Vogue, he threw lavish parties, dressed Nancy Reagan for her husband’s second inauguration, and donated millions of dollars to various charities of his choosing. He was larger than life. And yet, 45 years later, people have trouble remembering him at all.
Part of the reason is that there have been some missteps along the way. Since Blass passed away of cancer in 2002, the company has switched owners (and designers) multiple times. His vivacity and vision seemingly dimmed with every passing year until the brand essentially shuttered 2012.
Enter Chris Benz. The 33-year-old was tapped by retail legend and the new president and COO, Stuart Goldblatt, to give Bill Blass a total rehaul. The new creative director’s pedigree includes J.Crew and Marc Jacobs, as well his own highly successful eponymous line which was a mainstay on the fashion calendar from 2007-2012. A color rebel, he was recognized as much for his bright, playful luxurious separates as he was his hot pink hair. Benz has matured now, brunette and bearded, he quietly took over the reins of Bill Blass in the Fall of 2014, and on November 2, his year-long efforts will be accessible to the public with the relaunch of BillBlass.com. Here, we preview his studio (which he rebuilt and redesigned from scratch), talk funky 70s inspirations like your mom’s old Tupperware as well as what is like to resurrect a heritage label. “I think it’s not about recreating the past but it’s certainly about leveraging it,” he tells Yahoo Style.
Yahoo Style: When you took this on, did you realize how significant the Blass legacy was? It seems like a lot of people don’t get that.
Chris Benz: Yeah, they don’t. Mr. Blass, we always call him Mr. Blass, is definitely credited from an industry perspective with being America’s first fashion designer because he was actually the first one to buy his name and the manufacturing rights from the manufacturer. Prior to 1970, which is when Bill Blass Ltd. was officially started, it was always designers worked for a manufacturer. So it would be like Anne Klein for such and such and Bill Blass for Maurice Rentner, etc. So he was the first one that said, I don’t want to be behind the scenes and in the factories and designing. I also want to have my own name on my label.
So the way that everyone is now familiar with being a fashion designer, particularly in New York and the whole way the industry is structured, is because that’s the way that Bill Blass structured his business. He was outgoing and had a personality and had a face to the name and had all of his muses. He sort of started that ball rolling in that way. So it is a huge legacy. But the revelation that I have had, having done consumer insights and just talking to people about what my job is and what the brand is, is that most people just really have no idea who Bill Blass is. He could be a catcher for the Mets!
Since we have such an immense archive of not just clothing and samples, but also sketches and personal correspondence and videos and reels and editorials, I have really been able to digest the DNA of the brand and what Bill Blass was always about. By the time the Internet came along, no one cared about Bill Blass so no one bothered to upload any pictures or anything. So there’s actually not that much online.
I’m not sure that people realize that you’ve been working on this for a year.
I started and all we really had was the name. We had fabulous office space and a fantastic president but we had no employees, we had no systems, there was no tech design department, there were no designers in that thing. So it truly has been a start up where we have had to hire every single person, every single designer, every single agency, and it’s been obviously a huge learning curve for a lot of people and certainly for myself with web development and e-commerce. But yes, it has taken about one year from my start date until the site goes live, a year and a day.
And you redid the showroom and everything. It’s been the full kit and caboodle.
I have had the opportunity to really focus on creative direction across all categories, not just design, but that takes up most of the time obviously, but PR and marketing and branding. I did all the packaging. And coming up with the systems of how things are packaged and how many things go in a box and what the sticker looks like and all of that. It’s been really, really cool.
So that was one of the reasons that I was so excited about Bill Blass as a heritage brand with such an esteemed history but that we could really do things in a completely new way from scratch.
Can you talk a little bit about the font that you selected? I know it has a special backstory.
Yeah. So of course as a creative director one of the first things you have to do, no matter what the letterhead and logo looks like, you must throw it in the trash immediately because that’s your first order of business. The prior logo that was in existence when I started was all caps and the font had nothing to do with anything really and I felt really that it was necessary to find something in the archive that we could tie back to the logo so I found old little butterfly sheets of Mr. Blass’s personal stationary, which always had Bill Blass in lower case san serif block letters, and that has become our new logo. We kept the BB monogram, it’s very recognizable and people love it and then we just updated the typeface to be Bill Blass lower case, which has every sort of connotation that you can imagine that it does. It feels younger, it feels more approachable, it’s kind of demurring in a way. And I just think it looks chic and is very of the moment.
In your research, have you found anything that surprised you?
It took me a while to get excited about the brand in the way that I think people were excited about it in the past because it has had a bit of a tumultuous decade or so.
Right, a lot of different designers.
A lot of different designers, a lot of different owners. Certainly the less fashion-indentured owners were not as kind to the brand as the more fashion focused ones. To me, Bill Blass represented this austerity and tailoring and suiting. And certainly that was a component but there’s also this great irreverence and humor and exuberance to the actual collections and clothes and personality that I don’t think really exists in people’s recollection of what Bill Blass represented.
He was also about having things that you could wear season after season and timelessness and color, which is totally up your street as well. Can you talk about how you’ve dovetailed the two?
I feel particularly blessed to have the opportunity to carry on a vision that falls squarely in line with my own. It’s not a far reach for me to experiment with color and guide people that may be apprehensive about wearing color or playing with mixed prints or funny proportions. In the way that I carry that torch with my own line, that’s always been part of the Bill Blass brand is making fashion accessible to lots of different people and making it just fun and a lot of the time very practical.
Most of the past Bill Blass product is very simple shapes, it’s t-shirt dresses, it’s jackets, it’s gorgeous trousers, flat shoes, and then all those things are in either really special fabrics or embellished in some certain way or interesting color combinations. It’s also something that I did with my own Chris Benz collection was take American sportswear standards and play with them in terms of like fabrication or proportion or details. So it’s certainly the same category or the same brain space but now it has a different gravitas because it comes with a huge heritage. And certainly for the customer, the sense that there is a heritage is something that validates what we’re doing now and we can pull through whatever threads we choose to create authenticity with what we’re doing now.
So it’s very colorful. What was the palette that you wanted to focus on? You use a whole range of color, which is great.
Yeah they are all very specific colors. Yellow is not just yellow, there’s a million different shades of yellow. It’s not just Crayola crayon box because I think there is something too obvious about that. It’s always very weird tones. I think that’s what’s fun obviously about playing with color. For the launch collection specifically, because Bill Blass the brand started in 1970, we looked heavily at the early ‘70s for inspiration for the color palette and detailing and things. And the thing that I quite like about when you say 1970 to people is that it is so polarizing in terms of people’s adoration for that period.
Yeah, well especially now with everyone loving the era.
Yeah, or sort of the grotesque nature of so many things that happened aesthetically in the '70s. So we kind of combined both of those, all sorts of linoleum, kitchen linoleum colors and Formica counter tops and Tupperware and all those kind of weird places in that '70s palette.
Nice. Tupperware. That’s so of that era. I was thinking on the way over here that when you’re doing this much research and you’re digging into archives, you kind of are an actor preparing for a role. And it’s about nailing the part, even though there is obviously a different aesthetic to what you’re doing. So do you feel like this is next chapter sort of thing?
I do. I think it’s a perfect analogy. Marc Jacobs for Louis Vuitton is something very specific and very different than Marc Jacobs for Marc Jacobs Collection or whatever other brands he may design in the future. And I think for me, the Chris Benz collection was very much about designer level weirdness, the sort of rich, eccentric, hand-finishing and details, this whimsical thing. It was like making a package of my pink hair into that era and that was –
No more pink hair for you!
Not never. We’ll see. But I have a very nice picture of what that period of time that was and then the Bill Blass period is kind of like I’m a bit more grown up but our customer is a bit younger in a weird way because the price point is much lower. I’ve already made all the expensive clothes. Now it’s about making great clothes that as many people can afford to tap into as possible and then also launching with e-commerce specifically opens it up to a whole other personality of the brand being tech-forward and digital and adaptable and flexible in terms of merchandising and all these different things.
Right because it launches on BillBlass.com.
We are launching exclusively on BillBlass.com, which to me is kind of the Netflix model of House of Cards. Like if you want to watch House of Cards, you have to subscribe to Netflix and watch it on Netflix and it’s not ostracizing in any way, its just what is.
And then also just in terms of the branding and the image of the company, we have complete autonomy over it. We’re not like on a little tea stand in a store somewhere and expecting someone who works part time to represent the brand. It’s sort of like we’re the bottom of the funnel right now.
You are the funnel. How many pieces are you launching with?
I think it’s close to sixty styles across five categories and I think it’s around two hundred and fifty skus, which is style and color.
What are your favorite pieces?
I love all the washed, rumply pieces, it’s so much a part of where my head is at right now. I mean who has time to iron clothes or dry clean things? I certainly don’t.
The jackets that you can just throw in your bag and treat like a cardigan I think are really special. I love all the little sequined scarves that are almost like jewelry, you just throw them on with anything. It has always been about special pieces to wear back to jeans and a t-shirt, but with Bill Blass historically, and this launch is completely based on that.
We’re also selling all of the bag straps that can interchange with all of the bags. So chain straps and camera straps. I love all of the shoes. I think the loafers are so fantastic. It’s really about a flat shoe only for the Bill Blass girl, I think. We have a heel that’s obviously comfortable and cool and you can run a marathon in but for me it’s really about flat shoes in a million colors.
So in terms of price points, that’s something you were focused on when you were designing the line?
Definitely. We have worked really, really hard to keep the price point in that contemporary range. The sneakers are $248, the loafers I think are $298. I think $700 is our average price point across handbags. And then ready to wear, the same thing. It’s under $1,000. And then we have a little bit of a halo of collection-y pieces, which are very special investment pieces that are what they are. But it’s not $5,000 dresses, it’s $1,200 dresses.
How important is celebrity to this brand? Or will it be?
Historically celebrity has been somewhat important to the brand to the extent that Mr. Blass always talked about dressing the most important woman in the room, that was actually one of his quotes. But in the '80s, the most important woman in the room was Nancy Reagan and I don’t necessarily think that a first lady is the most important person in the room now. I think so many people do so many interesting things and the most important woman in the room to me may not be a celebrity, it may be someone who just has this spirit of like cool, calm, confident, casual radiance.
So to me it’s more about just doing our thing over and over. And the people, celebrated or not, that gravitate towards the brand can obviously only enhance it because it will be organic. So I do think it’s important, obviously, fashion and celebrity are so intertwined and symbiotic in so many ways but I’m not that inspired by any celebrities in particular. So it’s not really top of mind for this, yeah.
It’s a very organic launch. There’s no huge, splashy party or anything.
There’s a great deal of humility with the launch of Bill Blass in 2015. The reasons for are not limited to the fact that it’s been attempted to have been relaunched a number of times, which I am very conscious of. I am also very conscious of doing things in a completely new way but in order to communicate that most effectively I don’t necessarily think it’s about doing a big, flashy runway show or even a presentation or a party, I think it’s really about a grassroots start up approach. We have this great name and heritage, but what we are doing in the company that I am working for is truly a start up.
So structuring anything in a traditionally fashion calendar-based way just doesn’t feel modern to me. Plus, if anyone cares I can pull up a quote where Mr. Blass says that he doesn’t agree with like the fashion calendar or seasons. So there! Try to argue with a dead person. [Laughs]