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Breaking the Bill Blass Curse

The pioneering American brand is back with a new business model and a new creative director. Can Chris Benz succeed where so many others have failed?
Looks from Bill Blass | Source: Courtesy
By
  • Lauren Sherman

NEW YORK, United States — The current Bill Blass showroom, with its soaring ceilings and hardwood floors, is relatively close to 550 7th Avenue, the Garment District building where the late designer held court before he sold his eponymous company in 2000. Culturally, though, it's miles away. The neighbourhood surrounding 236 Fifth Avenue — called NoMad — is full of technology startups, hip boutique hotels like Ace and NoMad, and retailers like Parisian import Maison Kitsuné.

The contrast is not lost on Chris Benz, the current creative director of Bill Blass, who has spent the last year reimagining the brand. The fruits of his labour — a multi-priced collection that features an exuberant mix of apparel, shoes, handbags and jewellery, including sherbet-coloured suiting, chunky bangles and driving loafers — will launch on November 2 on Billblass.com.

The stakes are high. Benz has been tasked with reinvigorating one of the first legitimate American fashion houses, which has sunk deeper and deeper into oblivion since the death of its founder in 2002. “We’re calling it a launch, not a re-launch,” says Stuart M. Goldblatt, president and chief merchandising officer of the Bill Blass Group. “It’s not a throwback revival.”

Our goal is to re-establish Bill Blass as the groundbreaking, trailblazing brand that it once was. For us, Chris Benz is our Christopher Bailey.

Of course, Benz and Goldblatt are not the first to take on the house of Blass, which was established in 1970 and became a leader in the American sportswear movement. Bill Blass, the man, was one of the first New York designers to become a household name and, alongside contemporaries Halston and Oscar de la Renta, put the United States on the global fashion map.

But since the designer’s passing, the company he founded has seen multiple creative directors come and go, including Steven Slowick, Lars Nilsson, Michaele Vollbracht, Peter Som, Michael Bastian — who designed menswear — and, most recently, Jeffrey Monteiro. In the past 15 years, the Bill Blass brand has been bought and sold three times. Back in 1999, Blass sold his name to his longtime chief executive Michael Groveman for $50 million. In 2007, Nexcen Brands bought it for $54.6 million. Just one year later, the brand was purchased for the bargain-basement price of $10 million by entrepreneurial brothers Bill and Peter Kim, who had made their money manufacturing dress shirts and neckwear for big-box retailers. Their firm, Peacock International Holdings, LLC, became the Bill Blass Group.

The Kims’ first attempt at remaking Blass followed more or less the same formula implemented by past owners: hire a buzzy designer (or two) to create a ready-to-wear collection grounded in classic American sportswear. Monteiro, formerly a designer for Derek Lam and Jane Mayle, joined in 2009. But in 2012, he too was dismissed, unable to gain the sort of traction the Kims had hoped for.

With Monteiro’s departure, the Bill Blass brand went dormant and the Kims went back to the drawing board, buying back licenses, and letting others expire. (The only license that remains is for eyewear.) In August 2014, they hired Stuart M. Goldblatt, a merchandiser who spent 35 years at Macy’s before starting his own consulting firm.

Chris Benz | Source: Courtesy

The executive promptly began the search for a new creative director and was introduced, by a mutual acquaintance, to Benz, who seemed a natural fit. While his namesake line shuttered at the end of 2012 five years after its launch, the former J.Crew designer earned a reputation along the way for clothes that were at once playful and sophisticated. At the same time, Benz also became fluent in social media, attracting more than 170,000 followers on his personal Twitter and 12,000 on Instagram. “Chris is well established, has lots of energy, understands American sportswear, understands colour,” Goldblatt explains. “He’s also savvy at social media, which I believe will be one of the linchpins of our success.”

Benz liked the idea of re-starting the brand from scratch. “At first, I think I had the same reaction that many people in the fashion industry have. You have a pain in your heart for it,” he admits. “But we had the opportunity to take an established name and position it and launch it in the most modern way. To me, that was the most exciting part. There were no employees, no crotchety old pattern maker that we had to work with, and there wasn’t an existing business of elastic waist jeans that we had to protect because it brought in a certain amount of revenue for a year.” Benz was also encouraged by the fact that consumer sentiment for the brand was generally positive, despite decidely mixed feelings within the fashion industry. According to Goldblatt, a survey of 3,200 people in 19 different cities showed that there was “tremendous consumer acceptance of the brand and surprising awareness.”

Neither Benz nor Goldblatt was interested in following the traditional playbook. Unlike past efforts to revive Bill Blass, the collection spans a wide array of price points and the company has no plans to launch a secondary label. Prices range from $48 for a keychain to $2,388 for a hand-made party dress. The line’s core t-shirt is $88, “Laverne” loafers are $348 and “Mica” carryall is $1,288, with production spread across the United States, Europe and Asia.

“The business model of building a designer brand then cascading sub-brands below it for mass distribution is post peak,” Goldblatt says. By positioning the brand across multiple market segments, they aim to reach a much broader range of women than the lunching ladies Blass was known for dressing. Benz and Goldblatt see their target customer as a professional millennial who might not be able to afford ready-to-wear, but is eager to build her wardrobe beyond fast-fashion copies.

Next, they went about determining the merchandising mix. While Blass was best known for his clothes, a significant part of the new line is accessories: pebble-leather carryalls, chunky costume jewellery and slick shoes in warm colours reminiscent of the 1970s. “We wanted to be focused on apparel originally,” Goldblatt explains. “What we learned is consumers are really interested in lots of choices.”

It’s a controversial approach that has its detractors. “When a brand re-launches, it’s very important to have a very focused message and a focused product assortment. Launching too broad and too diverse is a risk,” says Robert Burke, chief executive of advisory firm Robert Burke Associates. “Often times, it’s better to start with a 20-piece collection.”

But Burke is confident in Benz's abilities as a creative director. "Chris Benz is a good name and a good designer," he says. "He will probably add a lot of modern elements to it." Design-wise there are nods to Blass in terms of the collection's attitude, but not necessarily when it comes to the actual execution. (Both Blass and Benz are fans of colourful sequins, for instance, but Benz chose to bead spaghetti strap dresses and baseball tees in monochrome paillettes instead of directly referencing Blass' heavy evening jackets.) Although much of the collection could be considered classic in terms of silhouette or shape, nothing — from the burnout tees to the striped-ruffle jacket — is basic. "We want to give customers the cherry on top of their outfit," Benz says. "I would much rather direct our customer to whomever makes the best black cashmere sweater than make it [myself]. Everything is developed specifically with that idea in mind."

The Bill Blass e-commerce site | Source: Courtesy

As part of the launch, Goldblatt and Benz also re-examined the company’s approach to distribution. Given the baggage that comes with the Bill Blass name, wholesaling to department stores and independent retailers was a non-starter. Instead, they focused on a direct-to-consumer strategy. “Because it’s been so beaten up, we couldn’t go a wholesale route,” Goldblatt says. “We needed to control every image, every word, every font to re-establish Bill as the groundbreaking brand that it was.” The company invested significantly in its website, designed and built by the agency Wondersauce.

But launching online-only comes with obvious marketing challenges. Along with search engine marketing and press — which will get the opportunity to preview the current collection for the first time on October 27 — the company aims to attract customers by delivering new product at a faster interval than most brands, breaking away from the traditional fashion calendar. Instead of dropping seasonal collections, the brand will distribute new product each month. “All the way back to the early 1980s, Mr. Blass was talking about how seasons were ridiculous and how you should be selling lots of great things year-round,” Benz says. “Through the website, we have the flexibility and functionality to continuously re-merchandise and show people product in new and interesting ways.”

Inventory will also be tightly controlled. “It’s okay if product sells out,” says Kelly DeMeester, the company’s business director. “People like the idea of being the first and one of few to have covetable product. The scarcity principle creates a sense of urgency.” Like many digital-first brands, Blass will also publish editorial content to help raise awareness and host customers in its New York showroom by appointment. Additionally, Benz has put a great emphasis on the brand’s packaging — designing colourful, white-lettered boxes, some of which nod to the evolution of the logo that has changed almost as frequently as the brand has changed designers.

But will the unconventional approach drive results? The idea is that if the consumers respond, wholesalers and retail stores — as well as new categories, such as men’s and home — will follow and the curse of Bill Blass will finally be broken. “Our goal is to re-establish Bill Blass as the groundbreaking, trailblazing brand that it once was,” Goldblatt says. “For us, Chris Benz is our Christopher Bailey.”

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