Designing Strategy: Bill Blass Hires Bank to Explore a Sale

Fashion house Bill Blass has been approached by a would-be suitor and is exploring its options.

with contributions from Marc Karimzadeh
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Since Blass retired with his spring 2000 collection, the company has been in a somewhat volatile state with a revolving door that has seen four different people designing the collection over the last five years. Tharani and Groveman hired and fired staff long associated with Blass, who died in June 2002, and the company has been plagued by enough reports of internal backstabbing and jealousies that they could populate a television miniseries.

The fall 2000 collection, the first without Blass at the helm, was put together by Yvonne Miller, a longtime Blass muse who also handled public relations for the house. Steven Slowik became the first designer to replace Blass, but he was shown the door after his first collection failed to ignite editors, retailers and Blass’ loyal Park Avenue fan base. Replacement Lars Nilsson brought in a fresh sensibility, attracted a younger clientele and garnered more favorable reviews by editors and socialites, but he was rarely consulted on company decisions or licensing matters. The company claimed his collections underperformed, and he and his design team were let go the day after he showed his sixth collection for the house in February 2003.

At the time, it was rumored that Miller had created her own Blass collection and privately showed it to retailers while plotting to bring in Vollbracht, an old friend of the late Blass, fashion designer and illustrator, who had his own line in the Eighties.

Vollbracht hired Deborah Hughes as the company’s external public relations firm, which unleashed a power struggle between Miller and Hughes, and resulted in Miller’s dismissal in 2003. Relations between Vollbracht and Hughes have since soured, and the company dismissed Hughes after the February show, hiring Victoria Ashley to handle its public relations efforts in-house.

Vollbracht’s first few collections were poorly received by editors, though reviews have recently improved. Where other houses’ rejuvenation efforts involve bringing in a younger customer, Vollbracht made little secret of the fact that he targeted women over age 50. As a muse, he picked Karen Bjornson, Halston’s house model in the Seventies, and she appeared in his first few runway shows alongside other older models like Pat Cleveland, Dianne deWitt and Sarah Kapp.

From a fashion point of view, his designs often seemed dated. They ranged from boxy suits to wide pleated pants and flowing evening gowns. Of the fall 2005 collection, WWD wrote, “While it appears that Vollbracht is trying to come into his own — he even cut out the camp — he still has work to do. Some of the evening numbers were way too sheer, showing some front-row editors more than they bargained for, and one iridescent silk suit with a feather underskirt peeking out from underneath would certainly not have passed muster with Blass.”
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