By Allyson Rees | Impressionist
When it was announced three weeks ago that Chris Benz would be taking over as Creative Director at Bill Blass, no one was too surprised. Benz is an all-American designer who received the Emerging Designer Award from the CFDA in 2007. He recently took a few seasons off from his namesake line, but with over 156K Twitter followers, he’s still very much a part of the NYC social circuit. He’s young, he’s cute and he’s keen to succeed in a role that four other designers failed at.
Still, it’s a slippery slope to the sale rack at Macys and if recent revivals of Halston and Helmut Lang are any indication, Bill Blass under Chris Benz could drift into the contemporary abyss. Here’s our execution plan to give the brand its fashion revival.
“When you think Bill Blass, you think tailoring and tweeds,” Chris Benz said in a November 5th interview with T Magazine. While he’s known for playing with texture and fabrication, Benz’ most recent collections have been reviewed as “eccentric,” “eye-boggling” and “quirky.” To sell to today’s modern American women, he’ll need to tone down the quirk and present classic, wearable looks akin to the pieces his European counterparts have already mastered (the ones that American women drop thousands of dollars for).
Forget the sweet taffeta cocktail dresses spotted on the red carpet of Peter Som’s tenure (they were far too Som)—Chris Benz should look to the street to find his inspiration. Tailored suiting, colorblocked coats, languid dresses and structured handbags come to mind—pieces that would work just as well on Kim Kardashian as they would on Caroline Issa.
And speaking of accessories, Benz should hire an experienced team of designers to be a contender in the designer handbag space—a category his European competition is winning at. Benz’s namesake brand never expanded to handbags, but Bill Blass will need something far more compelling than the bow-topped sacks the brand offered at the end of the 90s or Chris Benz’s one-time collaboration with J.Crew and Cambridge Satchel Company.
Though the brand had a few red carpet wins with young stars Jessica Biel and Eva Mendes in the early aughts, its aging clientele, including Nan Kempner, Nancy Reagan and Liza Minelli, was not only dying off, but making the brand look old.
For its relaunch in spring/summer 2016, Benz needs to tap his contacts of raised-in-NYC alterna-socialites. Fusing Upper East Side heritage with Williamsburg accessibility, Benz’s girls, like best friend Elettra Weideman or entrepreneur/DJ Hannah Bronfman, need to be on social media, tweeting, instagramming and hashtagging like their lives depend on it.
The combination of CEO Stuart Goldblatt, who most recently worked as the EVP of Macy’s, but also spent time at Bloomingdale’s and Lord & Taylor, and Chris Benz, who dropped his prices in the fall of 2013 to appeal to a more contemporary audience, screams Halston 2.0— a huge fashion community push, followed by a few years on Shopbop.com and then a smattering of sequin dresses on Rent The Runway.
Bill Blass needs a price point that takes it out of Shopbop and Piperlime and into Net-a-Porter, Kirne Zabete and Barney’s and international heavy hitters like Lane Crawford, Galeries Lafayette and My Theresa. It needs to validate Bill Blass as an American luxury brand, but still hit that sweet spot of accessible and aspirational. The price point will also place the brand in better company—sophisticated American labels like Michael Kors, Ralph Lauren, Altuzarra and Derek Lam are a good fit.
In The New York Time’s December 2008 story “The Long Fall of the House of Blass,” writer Eric Wilson walks the reader through the relationship between Vogue and Bill Blass, the brand. Editors enthusiastically endorsed 2003’s collections under the helm of Swedish designer Lars Nilsson, but his sudden firing followed by the appointment of Michael Vollbracht ruffled feathers. When Peter Som became the fourth designer to take over the collection in 2007, Vogue approved, but the damage had been done. Said Vollbracht: “When they fired Lars Nilsson, they fired Anna Wintour. And that you do not do.”
Though Benz has always been supported by fashion editors, he’s never been a first pick for Vogue editorials, and he’ll need that prestige to boost Bill Blass.
According to T Magazine, Benz and his team plan “an e-commerce push and collaborations with up-and-coming designers and artists,” but they’ll need to be much more remarkable to succeed in today’s social marketplace. Chris Benz’s 156K Twitter followers are a great start, but without compelling content, striking visuals (read: a proper ad campaign) and a brand dialog, that popularity is worth little.
For the ad campaign, Blass needs a respectable creative agency and beefy media buys to give buyers and consumers alike the sense Bill Blass is back and worth buying into. An American-based firm like Laird and Partners, who have done successful campaigns for Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger and Bottega Veneta will help bring Bill Blass off the runway and into the zeitgeist.