He was also a philanthropist, a collector of art, furniture and antiquities, and an activist. He lived a life of glitz and glamor, squiring around the wives of some of the world’s most powerful men. Scores of married women up and down Park Avenue called on Blass when their husbands were too bored or tired to go out for a black-tie party.
From the time he formed Bill Blass Limited in 1970, his career was on a rocket trajectory; by 1998 his firm had grown to a $700-million-a-year business. A native of Ft. Wayne, Indiana, he had been a protégé of socialite/fashion editor Baron de Gunzburg, as were Oscar de la Renta and Calvin Klein; these three men went on to dominate the fashion industry, each becoming far more famous than Gunzburg, their mentor.
Over the next 30 years he expanded his line of clothing for men and women to include swimwear, furs, luggage, perfume, and even chocolates. As well, he designed signature collection editions of Lincoln Continental automobiles from 1976 through 1992. The Blass name came to be associated with a uniquely American style of his own invention: tailored, sporty classicism, with an accent on tweeds, cashmere sweaters, impeccable evening gowns, and his signature blazers.
Blass served in the U.S. Army during WW II and began a career in fashion in NYC immediately after, in 1946. At the peak of his influence as a designer in the late 1980s he became a generous supporter of AIDS treatment services; Blass was also a major donor to Gay Men's Health Crisis at a time when most prominent people were silent about AIDS. One of the founder members of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), he was the first to receive the CFDA Perignon Award for Humanitarian leadership beyond fashion; Blass donated the $25,000 prize to the AIDS care center of New York Hospital.
Sotheby’s oversaw the auction of the designer’s possessions in 2003, bringing in $13.6 million, more than double the high estimates. The contents of his NYC Sutton Place apartment and 1779 stone house in New Preston, CT (photos of both below), comprised the 475-page auction catalog (sold out at $45), instantly becoming a treasured collectible coffee-table item. Used copies sell today for $100-$200.
His homes were designed as virtual galleries for his vast collections. The interiors were considered influential and trend-setting, in that they mixed antiquities with nineteenth century objects.