June 22, 1922 – William R. Blass:
“When in doubt, wear red“
Bill Blass was first and foremost one handsome guy. He was a gay fashion designer and society maven. As a couturier he made millions and was thus able to travel in the social circles of the rich and famous clients he dressed. Blass was on a first name basis with several First Ladies, including Jacqueline Kennedy, Barbara Bush and Nancy Reagan. Many of the world’s most famous women wore his creations: Gloria Vanderbilt, Jessye Norman, Candice Bergen, Liza Minnelli, Barbra Streisand; and society girls Brooke Astor, Nancy Kissinger, Happy Rockefeller.
He lived a life of glitz and glamour, squiring around the wives of some of the world’s most powerful men. Married society women called on Blass when their husbands were too bored or too tired to go to a black-tie party.
A mid-westerner from Indiana, he had been a protégé of socialite/fashion editor Baron de Gunzburg, and so were Oscar de la Renta and Calvin Klein; these three men went on to dominate the American fashion industry, each becoming far more famous than their mentor.
Over the next 30 years he expanded his line of clothing for men and women to include swimwear, furs, luggage, perfume, and even chocolates. As well, he designed signature collection editions of Lincoln Continental automobiles from 1976 through 1992. The Blass name came to be associated with a uniquely American style of his own invention: tailored, sporty classicism, with an accent on tweeds, cashmere sweaters, impeccable evening gowns, and his signature blazers.
His homes were designed as virtual galleries for his vast collections. The interiors were considered influential and trend-setting, in that they mixed antiquities with nineteenth century objects.
He was also a philanthropist, a collector of art, furniture and antiquities, and an activist. In the late 1980s, at the apex of his influence as a designer, he became a generous supporter of HIV/AIDS treatment services. Blass was also a major donor to Gay Men’s Health Crisis at a time when most prominent people were silent about AIDS. One of the founding members of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), he was the first to receive the CFDA Perignon Award for Humanitarian leadership beyond fashion; Blass donated his $25,000 prize to the AIDS care center of New York Hospital.
In 1999 Blass sold Bill Blass Limited for $50 million and retired to his home in Connecticut. He was diagnosed with oral/tongue cancer in 2000. His cancer took his life in 2002, at 79-years-old, six days after completing his memoir, Bare Blass. He bequeathed most of his estate, as well as several important ancient sculptures, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Sotheby’s oversaw the auction of the designer’s possessions in 2003, bringing in $13.6 million, more than double the high estimates. The contents of his Sutton Place apartment and 1779 stone house in Connecticut, comprised a 475-page auction catalog (sold out at $45). Used copies sell today for $200.