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  • File photos Fashion designer Bill Blass, left, recalls a music class with Jim Adams and Verda Mae Zeigler during a reception in Fort Wayne on Sept. 29, 1971. Blass was back in his hometown for the first time in 25 years for a fashion show.

  • Glittering, multicolored sequins adorned this gown in the fashion show at the Sheraton Motor Hotel in Fort Wayne.

  • A chiffon skirt with uneven hem is paired with a green silk jersey top, glittering head scarf and gold belt in this look.

  • Blass drew on the 1940s for this look: Draped white crepe under a blue-green coat trimmed with golden Russian raccoon.

  • File Sept. 29, 1971: City native Bill Blass has a cigarette and smiles while visiting the city.

  • File Sept. 29, 1971: Esther Phipps, left, and Blanche Hutto remember Bill Blass as a pupil during a reception for the designer in Fort Wayne.

  • File Sept. 29, 1971: Blass' top New York model, Clara LaMonte, left, discusses designs with Mrs. Eugene Senseny of Fort Wayne.

  • File Sept. 29, 1971: Mrs. Peter Owen, left, of L.S. Ayres was host for a cocktail party for Bill Blass. She talks with Denis Sheahan of Women's Wear Daily, center, and Mrs. William Kunkel III, a friend of Blass.

  • File Sept. 30, 1971: A look from Bill Blass' fashion show includes a wool outfit, a big bow and natural waist belted in leather. It was among looks harking back to the 1940s.

Thursday, February 28, 2019 1:00 am

Bill Blass returns to city for fashion show in 1971

COREY MCMAKEN | The Journal Gazette

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In the early '70s, fashion designer Bill Blass returned to his hometown for the first time in 25 years.

Born in Fort Wayne in 1922, Blass graduated from South Side High School in 1939. After high school, he moved to New York to pursue fashion. He also served in the Army during World War II.

His hometown never seemed to be his favorite place. Asked once by the Washington Post about why there were many fashion designers from the Hoosier state, he replied, “I guess we mainly wanted to get out of Indiana.”

But on Sept. 29, 1971, Blass returned to Fort Wayne ahead of a local fashion show that included his latest looks.

Blass' collection at the time featured a return to the looks of the 1940s. The clothing revolution of the 1960s was over and fashion was becoming more conservative again, he said at an event for the media, which included local and national outlets.

“There's the same nostalgia for the '40s in fashion for men as for women,” he said. “The men are tired of all the wild colors and are returning to dark suits and white shirts.”

At a party at the Summit Club atop what is now known as the PNC Bank building downtown, the designer said he found the drive in from Baer Field to be pleasing. He said he was also amazed at the growth of Fort Wayne.

The Women's Committee of the Philharmonic, department store L.S. Ayres and Vogue magazine were co-sponsoring a fashion show the next day and hosted a cocktail party for Blass. Guests included Vogue's international fashion editor Mildred Gilbert, old friends and teachers.

A friend gave him some clothing sketches from his days at South Side that she had held on to.

“There's no question about what I wanted to do,” he said with a laugh.

The sold-out fashion show Sept. 30 was attended by hundreds of women at the Sheraton Motor Hotel. It featured looks from several designers.

Blass' collection included styles for women of varied backgrounds, including scarf dresses with uneven hemlines in silk chiffon, sheer black wool for an understated evening gown and tweed culottes cuffed in sable.

Blass' career spanned six decades, during which he designed clothes for notable women including former first lady Nancy Reagan and Barbra Streisand. He sold his company in 1999 and died of cancer in 2002 at age 79.

History Journal appears monthly in print with additional items weekly on The Journal Gazette's website. To comment on items or suggest dates and topics, contact Corey McMaken at 461-8475 or cmcmaken@jg.net.

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The following stories appeared in The Journal Gazette.

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Sept. 30, 1971: “Bill Blass Finds Hometown Not Bad After All,” by Marian Fitzgerald

Bill Blass, the great name in fashion who once reportedly disowned his hometown, returned last night for the first time in 25 years. He is sophisticated, handsomely tanned, articulate, knowledgeable and svelte. His choice of clothes for the press party at the Summit Club where he was introduced to some of his old acquaintances underlined his belief in a return to the '40s. He wore a navy blue gabardine suit (tailored expressly for him in Italy) without vest, white silky shirt and blue-green plaid necktie, wide.

Of the Summit Club, he remarked on its beauty, and the route in from Baer Field he found to be quite pleasing. He immediately took command of the press conference and the whole room of people with great ease. He wasn't even startled to see Denis Sheahan, reporter of New York's controversial Women's Wear Daily, there to attend his press conference. Denis is researching the small-town boy who really made it big in the world of fashion.

The '60s saw a revolution in clothes where the young took over, but now America has taken a second look and is going conservative in both men and women's fashion, said Blass. “There's the same nostalgia for the '40s in fashion for men as for women. The men are tired of all the wild colors, and are returning to dark suits and white shirts.”

Blass believes there is no such thing as the world's list of best-dressed women. In each community of the nation, he says, there is a group of women who have the comparable taste of say a Mrs. Paley of New York and who dress in the best of fashion. He takes a dim view of the woman who spends all of her day in the fitting room. His ideal woman is the young matron who cares about clothes but isn't preoccupied with fashion.

Amazed at the growth of Fort Wayne, Blass said he went to New York because he was certain he would be a designer, and he went directly to the source of fashion. He got a job on Seventh Ave. in the garment district, worked for David Crystal, served three years in the Army, then returned and was Bill Blass of Maurice Rentner.

A year and half ago, he bought out his old boss and now owns his company. He won so many Coty Hall of Fame awards that the rules said he couldn't win any more. But just last Thursday, Coty thought his collection, rainwear, even his own stationery so great, they created the award for outstanding achievement just for him.

Future desires? Mr. Blass would like to get into automobile interior designing. “I'm no engineer,” he says, but fabric is to him what the canvas is to artists. He has done linens for the home, and he feels the house is the place for his fabric designs. People now are turning more to the home for new creations, and he says many have two homes. Though St. Laurent and Pucci have done home fabrics, Bill is the first American designer to enter the field.

Speaking of design, Bill was surprised by a set of his old sketches done when he was at South Side High School. His chum, “Mazie” Waller, had saved them. He didn't remember them, but as he gazed at the flowered formal, Ginger Rogers style, he said it was almost right for today. But when the red coat, princess style, trimmed with Persian lamb at the collar and down the front appeared, he laughed and said, “There's no question about what I wanted to do.”

He doesn't credit any one person with his success and as Mildred Gilbert, international fashion editor for Vogue says, in the fashion world, “everyone makes his own life, his own success.” Mildred is here for the fashion show tomorrow at the Sheraton.

Since the Women's Committee of the Philharmonic with L.S. Ayres and Vogue Magazine are sponsoring the sold-out fashion show, Ayres hosted a cocktail party for Blass, his old friends, Philharmonic Orchestra and Women's Committee board members. Clyde Burt, our own ceramist of now small repute, was commissioned to do a clay composition for Blass, who accepted it from Hans French of Ayres. Bill said, “It will always be a source of great pride for me.”

At the delightful party were former teachers who swear they always recognized Bill's talents. They included Miss Esther Phipps, Miss Blanche Hutto and Miss Verda Mae Seigler. Mrs. William Kunkell III and Mrs. Eugene Senseny, who have kept in touch with Bill over the years and who have gone to Indianapolis to his Ayres showings, were there. They believe in his clothes as well as his personality.

Ayres president Daniel Evans and Mrs. Evans along with hosts of media and merchandising people were at the party, too. As his friend Mazie gave him a collection of old pictures taken as a youth at Lake James, Bill looked through them and said, “God, they're vintage pictures.” Despite his previous disenchantment with Fort Wayne, Bill Blass truly seemed to enjoy being here last night.

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Oct. 1, 1971: “Crowd Applauds Blass Showings: '40s Look,” by Marian Fitzgerald

The secretary, the volunteer worker, the young matron with baby-sitting problems, the executive's wife, the out-of-towner, the social set and just about anyone would be able to identify with the smashing collection shown by famed designer Bill Blass yesterday afternoon at the Sheraton Motor Hotel.

Tweed culottes cuffed in sable; plaid knickers; city shorts worn with velvet vest, turtle neck sweater and Eton jacket, all topped with a curly lamb short coat; the strictly tailored look of menswear gray; bold Windsor stripe, and the black, black Tuxedo look; splits in the long skirt back; richly worked fabrics from Italy and France; shimmering art deco prints; uneven hemlines in scarf dresses of glorious silk chiffon; pristine white collars and cuts on softly tailored city dress; nun's veiling of sheer black wool in understated evening gown; all illustrate the many looks of Blass.

A double-wrap belted coat in electric geometric woven wool from Italy opened to show a plain princess dress with welting at the bust line. Doublefaced wool in camel is favored by Blass for coats. Skirts are free swinging, even a hint of the wrap-around in some. The butterfly pleat was used in a long plaid skirt and in a white jersey, halter necked evening gown, made today by his New York model, Ginny Hubbard, wearing over it a movie star sequin jacket of royal blue.

The New York collection shown by Ayres as seen in Vogue featured designers Ben Reig, Mollie Parnis, Pauline Trigere, Joan Leslie, Malcom Starr, etc. The '40s look was so prevalent that some who remember those fashions well remarked “if they take us back any further, we'll be wearing bibs.” But it is a simple, polished and pretty look as commentator Mrs. Jacqueline Stolkin said.

Pussy cat bows at high collared necklines, the princess line, stand away collars, white pique collars and cuffs over wool ones; red hot red and black black; plaids and chess board taffetas; return of the suit with long waisted, belted jacket; great golden pendants; huge jeweled pins and layers of jewels for evening were all part of the now look.

Many in the audience chose black and white combinations for fall. Mrs. A.J. McAndless wore a checked jacked dress trimmed with black rickrack. Mrs. Frederick C. Miller tied a soft black and white striped bow at the neck of her black dress, and Mrs. Robert Trier wore a black blouse open at the neck with black and white checked and braid trimmed skirt.

From across the room, Bill Blass recognized his own black tuxedo suit. Worn by Mrs. C. Daniel Ingebrand, it was rhinestone buttoned, lined with white satin and tied with a white ascot.

Hundreds of women came to the showings. They said, “Smashing, nothing better in New York; most professional show I've seen.” And why? Mrs. Walter Bauer Jr., who does a lot of design, is a freelance model and thinks Bill Blass is the greatest. Miss Phyllis Boedecker, on vacation from her job, just came to see Mr. Blass. And she wasn't disappointed. He opened the door for her.

Mrs. Paul Haberly Jr., in a raw silk dress combining stripes and other motifs in greys, blues, yellow and brown, said she was surprised to find the showings not mod. She also designs clothes and has copied some of Bill's trends. “He showed something we could wear.”

The excitement of high fashion, the generous supply of champagne, and the original canapes made the event outstanding. The Women's Committee of the Philharmonic; Mrs. DeWayne Hull, Mrs. Robert Hamblin, Mrs. Keith Darby and their committees should be congratulated.