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What Went Wrong With Blass?

Lars Nilsson’s dismissal from the Blass collection a day after his runway show, came as a surprise to many editors.

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NEW YORK — It’s a tale of two brands.

As Nicolas Ghesquière took Manhattan by storm on Thursday afternoon, his achievement in reinventing the brand of a late designer was even more pronounced in the face of the previous day’s news at another company undergoing a similar exercise — Bill Blass.

Lars Nilsson’s dismissal from the Blass collection on Wednesday, just a day after his runway show, came as a surprise to many editors, who favored the popular young designer, and store buyers, who said the collection was doing fairly well during recent trunk shows. But something didn’t work.

Since Blass passed away last June, his legacy, both in the designs of Steven Slowik and his successor after one season, Nilsson, never reached the excitement of Balenciaga, where editors clamored and competed for tickets to the Balenciaga show, customers covet his shapeless army sacks and Ghesquière is championed as a savior of contemporary fashion. For all the successful relaunches of brands of late or retired designers, like Christian Dior, Yves Saint Laurent and Coco Chanel, there are flipside flops, such as Halston and Givenchy, leaving only questions as to why some brands can’t seem to prevail in the afterlife.

Many of the most successfully reinvented brands are backed by large conglomerates like LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton and Gucci Group. Gucci Group chief executive Domenico De Sole, attending the Balenciaga show Thursday, pointed to three critical components in the success of such company as Yves Saint Laurent, Balenciaga and Bottega Veneta. “You have to have talent, and that has to be number one,” he said. “The second thing is the financial structure to build that brand and the third is patience, because it takes time to be a success.”

Patience clearly is something Michael Groveman, chief executive of Blass, doesn’t seem to have as he tries to maintain and grow a business with collection sales of $20 million and revenues of more than $600 million at retail from such licensed products as jeans, men’s shirts, ties and children’s wear. Groveman reportedly already has lined up yet another designer, Michael Vollbracht, who had his own collection in the Eighties and, most recently, helped organize the Blass retrospective in Bloomington, Ind., in October.

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If it is Vollbracht, he faces the same hurdle as his predecessors: stepping into the shadow of the out-sized personality of Bill Blass. Some believe it makes the job of succeeding him a nearly impossible task.

“There is still a very clear idea of what Bill Blass stands for,” said designer Anna Sui. “When you look at Balenciaga, a long time had passed before Nicolas came in. It was at least a generation, or even two, so there was not such a set impression. It seems that they are trying to fit something into the Bill Blass mold without allowing that time lapse to happen.”

That was clearly a problem when Slowik approached the line after Blass retired in 2000 — handpicked by the man himself. Slowik put together a collection that attempted to work within the house’s established vocabulary, but also stretched into new territory that ultimately frightened Blass’ longtime clientele. Nilsson’s collections for the house were slowly drawing them back, but the company said that sales hadn’t met expectations, leading to the decision to eliminate the design team on Wednesday.

Evaluating the move on Thursday, some buyers were not entirely surprised, but others were under the impression that Nilsson was hitting his stride and that he ultimately had a chance to create a collection that would do what Blass himself had wanted: to continue to meet the needs of his established and faithful customers, while also attracting a new breed of women. Many of those who had stopped coming to the Bill Blass runway shows after Slowik’s presentation had returned to Nilsson’s on Tuesday.

But their verdicts were not always universal as Nilsson’s Nordic roots sometimes came through in his more elaborate designs, turning off a core group of Blass’ customers who favored his traditional cuts. That was likely one of the most significant factors leading to the sudden turn of events.

But retailers were curious as to the motivation behind the sudden move, are anxious to hear the company’s plans and are looking for Bill Blass to deliver a solid replacement. Nordstrom hasn’t carried the Blass collection for several years, said Sue Patneaude, the retailer’s vice president of designer apparel, adding it would take a sense of stability and a clear perspective on the collection to make it a viable business.

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“It is difficult to follow a successful and established designer,” Patneaude said. “There is no shortage of design talent out there, but for someone to take on a brand where the business was driven by such a personality — I wish them luck in finding someone who is a true talent and has great charisma. It’s hard for a younger designer to have that authority.”

Bergdorf Goodman, which has carried the Blass collections for decades and is a key connection between the house and its prominent clientele, has seen a drop-off in the business since Blass retired, said Robert Burke, vice president and senior fashion director.

“When you are relaunching a brand like Bill Blass, you have to keep the existing customer base and attract a new one at the same time, and you have to have a long-term goal in place,” Burke said. “It’s not something that is going to happen in three, four or even five seasons. And you don’t just go back to the well; you have to be innovative. Lars is extremely talented, but you have to realize it’s a new era. You can’t go back and live in Bill Blass’ skin. It’s just not going to happen.”

Burke compared Bill Blass instead to Oscar de la Renta, a contemporary that remains independent and successful because the designer has strived to attract a new, younger customer while continuing to cater to his established fans.

“The way we can tell this is working is that an established customer is buying his suits, while the new one is coming in and buying three blouses or one signature jacket,” he said. “No one wants to forsake the existing business, but when you think of the gambles that have paid off today, you realize that you have to be willing to take those risks.”

Nilsson certainly had the support of stores and the press. Jaqui Lividini, senior vice president of fashion merchandising and communications for Saks Fifth Avenue, which has continued to report strong sales of the Blass collection, said there are several important components to making the continuation of a brand successful, namely investment and the talent to balance the history of the house with a look toward the future. “I thought Lars did strike that balance,” she said. Several magazine editors, including Vogue’s Anna Wintour and Glenda Bailey from Harper’s Bazaar, were also extremely supportive of the designer.

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Harry Bernard, executive vice president and chief marketing officer at Colton Bernard Inc., said brands like Anne Klein, Givenchy, Halston and Bill Blass were made based on the personality, charisma and the talent of the designer, but the more successful continuations of brands like Gucci and Louis Vuitton are cases where the incoming designer has a bigger personality, like Marc Jacobs and Tom Ford.

“Look at Louis Vuitton, it was part of the old, dusty, logoed luggage,” he said. “Marc Jacobs came in and gave it a point of view and he is an exciting person and created that enthusiasm for a brand and now LV is the cash cow. Gucci and LVMH are all about giving people a sense of status. The others have not yet developed their imagery at the same level — the personality and packaging is not there.”

Marc Gobe, president of Desgrippes Gobe, a brand consulting firm, similarly said a problem at companies like Blass and Givenchy is that they have tried instead to focus too much on pleasing both the old and new, instead of making a clear choice to go in one distinct direction.

“It takes a really great innovative and charismatic designer to replace another great, charismatic designer,” Gobe said. “What has been missing is the ability to bring into the fold another great visionary designer that understands today’s women. You do not have creative leadership there to make a statement to the world. Gucci did it with Ford, Dior with Galliano and Louis Vuitton with Marc Jacobs. The others have not brought that level of creativity into their brands and they do not have a great understanding of what made the brand great in the first place.”

In the case of Blass, it was the ladies to whom he catered. Many of them, while trying to support his memory, couldn’t in the end find what they really wanted.

“Bill Blass always represented a quintessential American style,” said Jamee Gregory, a longtime customer. “He was terrific and always did mens’ wear fabrics that were tailored and precise. It was a look I really loved…his cashmere twin sets, and jazzy skirts. Designers wanted to change it and make it modern, but in a certain way, it lost its Blassness. Lars and Hervé [Pierre Braillard, design director] are so talented, but you wish whomever they choose this time won’t wish to reinvent the wheel, and at least use the wonderful fabrics and shapes that women like so much.”

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For many of the stalwart women of society, Blass’ passing represented the end of a way of dressing that cannot be replicated. They have turned to designers like Michael Kors and Tuleh, but frequently find that the direction of modern fashion has become too young and too driven toward editorial image to meet the needs of actual customers.

“I feel absolutely that so many of the women I know would still love to have a beautiful coat and suit, and in a way, Michael Kors has captured the Blass look, that kind of American sportswear look,” said Gregory. “But then look at Michael Kors yesterday. He didn’t do it, and the conversation among the ladies was, ‘Wouldn’t it be nice if someone did something to go out to lunch or a board meeting in?’ I would absolutely be open to a new Blass designer, but they would need a muse to tell them, ‘It’s very nice, but not Bill Blass. The jacket should be longer, materials shouldn’t be wrinkled.’ They should go to the people who wear the clothes. Maybe they need a focus group.’”

Nina Griscom said Nilsson’s last show was a solid one, but that any designer who tries to fill Blass’ shoes would be faced with the same problem. “Unless you have a public who is willing to start fresh, it’s hard for a designer to be held on a leash, delivering an interpretation of someone that’s gone,” she said. “In a way, everyone will be punished for not being Bill. The more you depart from Bill, the more you have a chance, but then the more you’re not delivering the nostalgia that people want.”

But younger social customers, ones like Jennifer Creel and Tara Rockefeller, really got behind Nilsson and Hervé Pierre, perhaps because they were not as well associated with Blass himself as the previous generation of the upper crust.

“Both Lars and Hervé took the collection to a new level I don’t think it’s been to since Mr. Blass,” said Lauren du Pont. “He brought a whole new group of young women to the brand. Lars had a great feel for print and the way the clothes fit. Lars and Hervé are the nicest gentlemen, they made it fun to shop.”