Bill Blass (1922–2002), born William Ralph Blass in Fort Wayne, Indiana, is an icon of modern American fashion, famed as one of the most influential twentieth-century clothing designers. During his childhood he was charmed by such stylish 1930s Hollywood stars as Carole Lombard (1908–1942) and Marlene Dietrich (c. 1901–1992). He also was entranced by the glamorous world of New York society and expressed this fascination by drawing and sketching clothing designs. In 1940 he moved to New York to work in the city's Seventh Avenue fashion district.
Blass designed everything from sportswear to eveningwear, creating bouncy resort clothes and shapely evening gowns. While he dressed working women and housewives, his designs primarily appealed to style-conscious, upper-class American women, such as socialites, actresses, and first ladies. Nancy Reagan (1921–), wife of U.S. president Ronald Reagan (1911–), has often spoken highly of his clothes, describing them as comfortable, wearable, and pretty.
Blass favored a range of materials, including worsted woolens, a lightweight wool, crepe, cashmere, and satin. His clothes often united the traditionally masculine such as gray flannel and pinstripes, with ultrafeminine spangles and touches that conveyed 1930s glamour.
In 1967 Blass became the first American designer to create menswear along with women's clothes. His initial men's designs were on the outrageous side and even included kilts, knee-length pleated skirts. Eventually his men's creations became more conventional and more marketable.
Before Bill Blass most American fashion designers were anonymous. Manufacturer names appeared on clothing labels, rather than the individuals who created the designs. Blass changed all this. He was a charming, outgoing man and he promoted himself, circulating among and socializing with his clients and developing a public identity. Eventually, his name appeared on the labels of his clothes. This change helped to alter the identity of American fashion designers, allowing them to become brand names and celebrities in their own right. Blass, in addition, enjoyed attending the foremost New York social events. He appeared in person at stores across the country, and he offered his name and his designs to countless charities. He donated ten million dollars to the New York Public Library and actively funded AIDS-related programs.
In 1970 Blass established Bill Blass Limited, which marketed everything from perfume to chocolate, bed linen to furniture, sunglasses to shoes, American Airlines uniforms to the interiors of Lincoln Town Cars. By the 1990s Blass had entered into almost one hundred licensing contracts, which allowed another company to sell a product he designed. His fashion empire was earning seven hundred million dollars per year. He presented his last collection in September 1999, just prior to retiring and selling his company for a reported fifty million dollars. During his last years he worked with Indiana University on a retrospective of his career. The exhibit opened after his death in 2002.
Throughout his career Blass was much honored. He won the Coty American Fashion Critics Award in 1961, 1963, and 1970. He earned the Council of Fashion Designers of America Lifetime Achievement Award in 1987 and the Humanitarian Leadership Award nine years later.