Bill Blass, who dressed the likes of Barbara Walters and Gloria Vanderbilt while shattering the Paris-centric fashion world with youthful creations that mixed and matched chic with casual, has died. The never-married Blass died Wednesday 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. He was 79. "It's a great loss. He was an extraordinary man and a great designer," said Fern Mallis, director of 7th on Sixth, a fashion organization that produces New York's Fashion Week.
Blass's 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 and came to define American style. He designed clothes for a host of famous women, including first ladies and actresses who 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. During his career Blass expanded to design menswear, swimwear, children's clothing, shoes, jewelry, and furs. His designs were known for crisp elegance and simplicity, made from beautiful fabrics with sophisticated style.
"Each individual piece is a calculated attempt to entice women to add to their wardrobe," the designer told the Associated Press in 1997. "The women I know who have a great deal of money and go out all the time often wear clothes that are two to three years old. They buy new things to add to what they have." 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. Blass 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."
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."