Role models of greatness.

Here you will discover the back stories of kings, titans of industry, stellar athletes, giants of the entertainment field, scientists, politicians, artists and heroes – all of them gay or bisexual men. If their lives can serve as role models to young men who have been bullied or taught to think less of themselves for their sexual orientation, all the better. The sexual orientation of those featured here did not stand in the way of their achievements.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Bill Blass

William R. Blass (1922-2002) was first and foremost a handsome, gay fashion designer and society maven. As a couturier he made millions and was thus able to travel in the social circles of the rich and famous clients he dressed – Blass was on a first name basis with several presidents’ wives.

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.

Many of the world’s richest and most famous women wore his creations: Jacqueline Kennedy, Gloria Vanderbilt (photo at right; a.k.a. Anderson Cooper’s mother), Nancy Reagan, opera diva Jessye Norman,  Barbara Bush, Candice Bergen, Barbra Streisand, Brooke Astor, Nancy Kissinger, Happy Rockefeller and Barbara Walters – for starters.

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.

In 1999 Blass sold Bill Blass Limited for $50 million and retired to his home in New Preston, Connecticut. Blass was diagnosed with oral/tongue cancer in 2000, not long after he began writing his memoirs. His cancer took his life in 2002, and he died at age 79, six days after completing his memoir, Bare Blass. His will bequeathed half his $52 million estate, as well as several important ancient sculptures, to the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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.

1 comment:

  1. My class of '68 yearbook pic features me in my first 'important' purchase, a Bill Blass navy blue sport coat. Treasured it for years, felt like a million bucks when I wore it and LOVED those brass buttons !!!