Hedi Slimane's revamp of what we then referred to as Yves Saint Laurent was easily the most radical — and, at the time, controversial — brand makeover of recent memory. But what Chris Benz has done at American sportswear label Bill Blass will make Slimane look downright precious about the brand he took creative leadership of in 2012.
While he's kept the founder's full name, Benz (who quietly shuttered his namesake label in 2013) has set about reviving the famed American design house with little else. "We [hired] an entirely new team in every category, differently than some heritage brands that have reintroductions into the market or a change in personality," Benz said in an interview at his Flatiron district atelier last week. "All of those seem to be beholden to some kind of old-guard situation, like the pattern-makers that have been there for 30 years and the sales team that's always been there. We had nothing." Well, not nothing: "Of course we have a great brand name and a fantastic investment, but structurally, it's really a start-up, we're still only about 10 people."
The brand has been in limbo since Jeffrey Monteiro left his head designer position in 2012. Before that, Peter Som took the reins from 2007 to 2008; he left while the brand's financially troubled parent company Nexcen was struggling to sell the underperforming label, ultimately did sell the trademarks at the end of 2008 to Peacock International Holdings, LLC, which then changed its name to Bill Blass Group, LLC. The problems didn't end there, though: in 2009, Bill Blass Ltd, which manufactured the Bill Blass couture line (which Nexcen still owned), filed for chapter 7 bankruptcy. Then, in 2012, Bill Blass Group dismissed Monteiro along with the entire design staff a few weeks before the brand's spring 2013 show.
Since then, Peacock has pulled back all the licenses and reregistered all of the Bill Blass trademarks internationally. In September of 2014, it hired a new president and COO, Stuart M. Goldblatt — an industry veteran with over 35 years of experience in merchandising at Macy's and with his own consultancy. Benz's hiring was announced a few weeks later.
Benz immediately sought to shift the conversation away from the brand's recent financial troubles, launching a new website with a live stream of the house's archives as the landing page early this spring. "The thought was, as soon as possible we have to eclipse everything that came before because so much of the history of the brand has been tumultuous and confusing for people," he says.
Like Tamara Mellon, Benz is taking a modern, antiestablishment approach to relaunching Bill Blass: Collections won't be revealed until they're available for sale, and new products will be rolled out continuously, on a monthly basis, more or less. Beginning Nov. 2, the launch collection will only be available via the brand's own e-commerce site, which has been built from scratch, specifically tailored to allow for a consistent rollout of new product. The company even has its own photography studio to get new stuff live faster. "We may do fashion shows, but whenever we feel like it," says Benz, who feels doing shows twice a year in accordance with the fashion calendar is "old-fashioned." Social media will be an important part of the brand's marketing and Benz, who has long been prolific, funny and opinionated on Twitter, says many of the brand's tweets come directly from him (though he has hired a social media manager).
"The overarching goal of the past 12 months was to take this analog business formula and translate it into a digestible format for today’s digital consumer," he explains. That means, in Benz's words, of thinking as "everything [as] an accessory," including the clothes, which are relatively seasonless and priced in the advanced contemporary category (very little, if anything, costs more than $1,000). The actual accessories include functional-yet-cool bags optimized for travel and practical, '70s-tinged loafers and stacked heels. The ready-to-wear is comprised of items you can easily cherry-pick and fold into your existing wardrobe, including garment-dyed blazers you can "throw in a bag and treat like a cardigan," jumpers that can be worn on their own or over shirts and printed ruffled skirts that can be paired with a simple T-shirt.
Benz's personal influence can be seen most obviously in the choice of colors: bright oranges, yellows and reds populate the collection alongside nudes and navies. He says the website's editorial content will help show people how to incorporate such colors into their wardrobe. "I've always tried to carry that torch in general."
He took a few stylistic cues from the Bill Blass archives, like florals, little ruffles and and an overall casual-yet-playful approach to dressing. A new lowercase logo was taken from Blass's personal stationery. "What's inspiring is thinking about what the brand represented, which was very much about American leisure and this kind of cool, irreverent sophistication that was mostly not serious."
Clearly Benz is not too precious about the brand's heritage — not that he needs to be. Women who remember the brand from Blass's heyday in the '70s and '80s are unlikely to be among Benz's potential customers today. Though his approach may be in some ways nontraditional, he does plan to launch wholesale next year and Bill Blass brick-and-mortar stores after that. That all, of course, depends on the reception of this first collection — and on Benz's and Goldblatt's success changing the conversation around the brand.