Classic American sportswear brand Bill Blass has had a rocky recent history. After its heyday in the ’70s and ’80s, bringing classy-yet-casual styles to a new generation of business women, the company fell apart when its iconic founder stepped down in 1999. Blass’s death in 2002 ushered in a parade of successors–including Steven Slowik, Lars Nilsson, Michael Vollbracht, and Peter Som–none of whom successfully revitalized the brand for contemporary consumers.
For the fashion label’s latest attempt at revival, new creative director Chris Benz is taking a more radical approach than his many predecessors. Since assuming the position last year, Benz–formerly a designer at J. Crew and at the helm of his eponymous women’s clothing brand–has been rebuilding the brand from the ground up as an e-commerce fashion line. The company relaunched as BillBlass.com in early November with a fresh line of mismatched patterns, punchy-hued looks and quirky accessories, sold direct-to-consumer.
Under Benz, fashion shows and brick-and-mortar stores are out, a younger, more playful aesthetic is in, and the focus is more on serving the consumer than impressing the rest of the fashion world. In fact, Benz considers the relaunched brand as more of a design company than a fashion company.
Though that distinction might seem minimal to some, Benz comes from a high-end fashion world obsessed with seasons, insider status, and exclusivity. Not being tethered to the industry schedule means that clothes are actually available to consumers as soon as they’re out in the world, which means you have to engage with consumers directly. This has led Benz to think about what his consumer base–roughly 25- to 35-year-old working women–really need out of an outfit or accessory.
“A lot of fashion brands–and a lot of fashion in general–is for fashion’s sake and for other fashion people, and not necessarily tied to the customer. It’s just the way the fashion industry moves” Benz says. “Because there’s so much emphasis on Bill Blass as a digital brand and the high quality of our products, we have to think about just creating great products. It doesn’t matter what season it is or what time of year we’re showing it, we want everything to really relate to the needs of the customer.”
For Benz, joining the company in its current state is a pro rather than a con: it allows him to operate the business like a startup. When he started along with just two other coworkers, he says, they “didn’t have a spool of thread in the office or markers to sketch with.”
For most well-known heritage brands, it would be impossible to scale back retail and distribution and to shift completely to online sales. Benz had Blass’s recognizable name but none of the limiting structure of a long-established business. “When I first came on, we did some consumer insight research into the brand. Consumers still loved brand and it represented something for them, but not anything specific,” Benz says. “We had opportunity to give new meaning to the brand, and an entirely new costumer base to launch the brand to.”
In designing the new line, Benz tried to be reverential to brand’s class working women aesthetic but he also wanted to bring in a bit of levity and some youthful touches. He based the color palette on early ’70s cleaning supplies–bright yellows and oranges–and created a modular line that could be mixed and matched or worn with other clothes. Many of the details focus on comfort and practicality, a “particularly non-fashion” approach, as Benz put it. The shoes, for example, are mostly flats with memory foam insoles “designed for hitting the pavement” (though at about $300 a pair you might not want to hit it that hard). All of the new Blass handbags are engineered according to the proportions of the latest devices, so every pocket in the satchel fits the 13-inch MacBook or the iPhone 6 Plus.
That approach, Benz says, is more about creating quality products than trying to meet the demands of an increasingly backward and inaccessible fashion world. “My job is to bring the fashion into it and make it look cool and covetable,” says Benz. “We work on these things in tandem–but it’s really product design first and fashion second.”
The forward-thinking business model may bring the brand to the masses, but it’s still to be seen whether the masses will come. With prices that range from $48 for a keychain to $2,000 for hand-beaded dresses, Blass is still only accessible to some.
The launch collection is currently available on BillBlass.com, with plans to roll out new looks every month later next year.