"When Bill showed up in another town, it was like the second coming of Christ. No matter where he went, he had friends and he made more with each trip."

-Nan Kempner

DFR: Daily Fashion Report

Book Review: 'BARE BLASS'

Two weeks before his eightieth birthday and six days before his death on June 7, 2002, Bill Blass put the finishing touches on his final, most ambitious design: his memoir, BARE BLASS by Bill Blass, Cathy Horyn, editor (Harper Collins -order now direct from Amazon for $18.70) . The 170-page book includes quotes from many of his friends (John Fairchild, Nan Kempner, and Oscar De La Renta to name a few) and more than eighty images of Blass alongside the luminaries and socialites he famously dressed. It is a sharp, refreshing departure from the haughty confessionals that dominate bookstores, and is as much a history of fashion and friendships as it is a firsthand account of the making of an American original.

"Childhood bores the hell out of me," begins Blass. "I think it bored me even as a child." Blass’ voice is more honest than insolent, more jocular than sardonic. He admits to spending a lifetime eschewing nostalgia and self-analysis while embracing good food, great style, loyal canines and a knack for self-innovation that started "with that modestly assumed British accent." They are traits which don't customarily predict the writing of a memoir, at least not an honest one. However, "the unexpected blessing of a disease" (Blass was diagnosed with cancer shortly after beginning this book, although he only briefly mentions the illness) provided the incentive he required to think about his life in its entirety and "finally fill in the blanks." We are lucky he did.

Blass was born on June 22, 1922, in Fort Wayne, Indiana, the son of a traveling salesman. His father killed himself when Bill was five, and by the time he was fifteen he was selling sketches of evening dresses for $25 a pop to a New York company called Kalmour. In 1939, he made his way to Manhattan to study art. Three years later he joined the army. Blass may have been the only soldier in his battalion sketching ladies garments and accessories in his bunk, but in a military unit that included painter Ellsworth Kelly and photographer Art Kane, he remained in a "bubble of delight." It was in that bubble that he drew the first sketch of his company logo, a pair of mirrored B’s.

  Blass returned to New York after the war and went to work as a backroom designer on Seventh Avenue. He spent his days mastering his craft and his nights going out on the town. "Going out at that time residually meant getting drunk, and occasionally getting very drunk," he recalls. "I am reminded that after one particularly drunken night I woke up to find myself wearing only my cuffs. Unable to extract the studs, I had cut my way out with a pair of nail scissors."

By 1970, Blass had gone into business for himself, and was traveling the world with his tweeds, cashmere, and signature red dress. His nightly escapades had paid off, and he was well on his way to cultivating an impressive stable of gal pals, a stable that eventually included, among others, Pat Buckley, Gloria Vanderbilt, Brooke Astor, and Nancy Kissinger. Soon, everything from automobiles to chocolate would be sporting the BB label.

Blass’ story is rife with tales of his myriad adventures across the globe—from Cuba to Fire Island and Versailles. He documents his changing tastes (change that often manifested itself in the color of his drapery) and the transformation of the New York fashion world into "the camp world of Pop artists and celebrity socialites" with equal finesse. He even provides a number of dishy, albeit harmless stories about some of the country’s grandest dames. Yet he rarely mentions clothes.

BARE BLASS is the story of a man whose unique combination of Midwestern gentility, timeless elegance, and unapologetic candor made him an enduring symbol of American taste and style. The memoir, like the man himself, will be forever appreciated by fashionistas and non-fashionistas alike.

While reading BARE BLASS in a Soho coffee-shop, I was approached by the store's proprietor who had apparently seen my book was desperate to share his memories. "He was the one designer who never talked about designing, and he was a true gentleman," he gushed. "I have his meatloaf recipe!" The recipe, as it turned out, appears at the end of the memoir.

-Tobin Levy

Question or Comments? E-mail Tobin. About Tobin Levy: Originally from Austin, Texas, our contributing book editor comes to us from Talk magazine. She has also contributed to Elle, American Health, and Philadelphia Magazine. She is currently a freelance writer in New York City where she lives with Xena Warrior Princess...her cat.

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