Classic American sportswear brand Bill Blass has relaunched today. After debuting 45 years ago and enduring many unsuccessful revival attempts, how does it plan to finally make a triumphant comeback? By eschewing the typical fashion-industry schedule, for starters. Bill Blass is giving that a go, as a completely season-less, e-commerce-only business — a particularly salient gesture right now, considering that designers are being more vocal than ever about the demands of producing season after season.
Chris Benz, J.Crew alum who designed an eponymous line from 2007 to 2012, is at the helm of the new BillBlass.com, which is currently showing products that will be available for a few months and ship to 69 countries. The next slew of looks will drop in March; eventually assortments of new pieces will roll out monthly.
"We’re thinking about the brand as a design company, not a fashion company,” Benz says. Prices for the punchy-hued looks, styled with quirky touches like mismatched shoes and stripes-on-stripes, range from $48 for a keychain to $2,000 for hand-beaded dresses (though those pricier items “skew the bell-curve” of pricing, Benz points out). Most handbags are priced around $700, and shoes hover around $300 a pair. Those latter categories are what Benz and his team seem to be betting on: “The ready-to-wear was designed as a sort of support system for all of the accessories,” he says.
“It’s liberating to just completely dismiss the [fashion] calendar, in the frenzy of trying to get everything ready for a certain date,” Benz says. "Our structure puts a bit more power back into the design department, so we can take the time needed to come up with fantastic ideas and not design into a calendar, which we’ve all been trained to do.” And Benz isn’t eager to put a runway show together, either, which arguably would’ve been the more predictable way to roll out a reinvention.
“I don’t miss it at all,” Benz says of designing without a mandatory catwalk component. “I don’t think anyone’s had a fun Fashion Week in 15 years… I just don’t even know who Fashion Week is for anymore.”
A lack of traditional seasons also means not having to play toward trends. “We’re not trend-based — that’s a philosophy Bill Blass himself talked about, so we have empirical data to back this up. It’s not like I just dreamt [this] out of thin air. We’re trying to see through some of the philosophical ideas Bill Blass had when he was running the business.”
When Benz took this job, he didn’t consult with any of the label’s (many) former creative directors of the past decade and a half, such as Peter Som or its most recent creative lead, Jeffrey Monteiro, who was fired in 2012 (the most recent Bill Blass runway show was for the fall 2012 season). “Who knows if they’d ever want to hear the name ‘Bill Blass’ again?” Benz says. “This is the, what, 2,000th time it’s been relaunched? Those were entirely different companies, with entirely different ownership.” The designer defines his revival of the Blass name as a “startup”; there were three employees when he joined, and “hundreds of people were interviewed” to build his current team of 10. That group includes one of Benz’s former interns, now the ready-to-wear designer at Bill Blass.
Ushering in this new Blass, Benz isn't trying to be too referential to the brand's aesthetic of yesteryear: “We’re blessed and burdened with an enormous archive… It was better for me to think about what Bill Blass could be, instead of exposing my brain to lots of things that it was,” he says. “Doing something tightly edited, bold, and with a very clear point of view was the only way to cut through all the confusion about what the brand was. When I think about what Bill Blass himself would want me to be pulling from the archive, I imagine he’d say, ‘Nothing! Get rid of it, lock the door! It’s a mausoleum, it’s dusty, it’s old! Get out!’”
So, what’s the point of applying a very modern business model to a name that’s been around the block since 1970 and had its heyday in the '80s? “There’s a great deal of value in a brand with intrinsic, psychological history, be it good, bad, or otherwise. Any sort of history garners attention from the consumer," Benz says. "People make brands all the time and put an ‘&’ between their names, fabricating some sort of brand ethos.”
That said, even Benz isn’t banking on former Blass customers necessarily clamoring for his designs. “I anticipate that the vast majority of our customers will have no past relationship to the brand,” Benz says. "The majority of people are very familiar with the name, whether they know he’s a fashion designer or not (someone asked me if Bill Blass was a senator). The name does resonate with some kind of American, luxury, intangible thing to people. It’s not a new name people have to learn how to pronounce.” The new Bill Blass customer, as Benz sees it, is a “global, mobile, agile, professional woman, hitting the pavement and probably carrying multiple bags and changing throughout the day.” She's 25 to 35 years old and “tired of fast fashion and just wants to find really great pieces that have some longevity.”
Though the relaunch is completely focused on e-comm at the moment, there will be brick-and-mortar at some point, Benz tells us. “Everyone says that retail is dead…but I think there’s something wonderful about having a store; a home base for the brand,” Benz says, estimating that an IRL retail presence could come next year or the year after. As for being carried by other retailers or department stores, that’s not out of the question, though it wasn’t really a consideration for the launch. “Because the brand has been battered around so much, keeping a really tight leash for the launch, and fully controlling the message and vision, was really important, so we could eclipse everything that came before,” Benz says, adding one important note for online bargain hunters: “We’re not producing thousands of units, so the hope is that things will sell out.” That is, extra pieces will be discounted if need be — but not if Benz works his new production schedule just right.
Check out the inaugural new Bill Blass collection after the jump.