Can One Designer Reinvent American Fashion?

Chris Benz
Is Out To Reinvent American Fashion
If he can pull it off, that is.
Photographs by Roderick Aichinger

There’s a cheeseburger on Chris Benz’s mood board. Where other designers pin languid, low-contrast images of Jane Birkin, he has two beef patties. It’s all part of the designer’s irreverent approach to high fashion: Shake Shack, he argues, is chic now. Why wouldn’t the Bill Blass woman eat a cheeseburger for lunch?

If that doesn’t sound like the Bill Blass you know from his '70s and '80s heyday, it’s because Benz is out to change that. When we first speak about his role as the brand’s new creative director, it’s January and Benz is relatively new on the job, having been hired in October. There are empty cubicles and one assistant, a recent SCAD graduate named Peyton, fetching Starbucks. Ideas for a new company logo are tacked to a corkboard.

The 33-year-old hasn’t shown a collection in three years, but his lapsed namesake line was a critical darling; Forbes once named him to its “30 Under 30” list and aptly called him a “disruptor.” What Benz is doing might not seem that radical, until you pan out on the fashion landscape at this very moment. The concept of classic American sportswear that Blass epitomized is less and less in evidence, with customers leaning more and more toward athleisure and fast fashion, or, at the higher end, toward European luxury brands. Bedrock American labels like Ralph Lauren and Donna Karan have undergone shakeups this year — with Lauren stepping down as CEO, and Karan leaving the company she founded. The idea of an independent American fashion label with one all-controlling figure at the helm seems almost quaint.

Photo: Roderick Aichinger

And the house of Bill Blass, in particular, has weathered more than its share of storms. After its founder sold his company at the turn of the millennium, it went through a series of successors: Steven Slowik, Lars Nilsson, Michael Vollbracht, Peter Som. None of them really panned out. For a couple years, the company has mostly been focused on licenses — ties and fragrances. “It’s certainly a tough act to follow, and certainly not taking the baton from something that was a wild success, necessarily, and directly propelling it,” says Benz. “I think, and this is obviously conjecture on my part, but having the brand be overly licensed and having lots of different hands in reimagining and designing it got to a point of such confusion that the only way to pull it out of that is to slice through with a very clear and consistent new voice.”

When he originally got the call, “I wasn’t that excited about the prospect of getting back into the cycle of creating literally hundreds of new products every four months and wholesaling and negotiating with department stores in an uncomfortable way that made you not feel great about the things that you designed oftentimes,” Benz said. Which is why when he signed on, he was determined to do things in a new way. That means treating Blass like an entirely new company — in fact, thinking of it as a start-up. “This isn't a fashion company, necessarily,” he says. “Yes, we're making clothes and handbags and shoes, but this is a design company.” There won’t be fashion shows, or presentations. No advertising. No brick-and-mortar stores, at least for now; everything is e-commerce, with the products shipping to 69 different countries. No working with so-called “influencers,” whom Benz considers “inauthentic.” Even social media gets his contrarian treatment. “What is exciting about exposing the corner of a bag on social media? That's so silly,” he says. “It's such a straightforward, beautiful product that I don't feel this weird need to tease things.”

Benz sees no point in hewing to the well-worn grooves that have become faits accomplis in this industry, like showing spring 2016 clothes in fall 2015, or having parkas in stores when it’s still iced-coffee season. “I read a quote the other day from Bill Blass that was like,'There are only two seasons: hot and cold,'” Benz says. So instead of seasons, Bill Blass will have the corporate-sounding Q1, Q2, Q3, and Q4. “I told the design team, everything should be a resort collection,” he says. “We're [all] traveling all the time.” He sees the half-dormant status of Blass in its current state as an asset, because it means it's a blank slate for his project. “It’s virtually impossible for existing businesses to be like, okay, we're pulling back all of our retail. We're pulling back all of our distribution. We're going to shift this monster business and try to adapt.”

So rather than tiptoe around Blass’s formidable legacy — as represented by the signed pictures of Lynn Wyatt and Nancy Reagan that line the walls of Blass’s Flower District HQ — Benz feels free to be a little irreverent. “These are very LOL,” he notes, gesturing to a pair of gold scissors that stand in a trophy case of Blass’s many design prizes. When I admire a pair of stained-glass doors in the atelier, Benz tells me that they’re from Blass’s apartment on Sutton Place, then later admits that he totally made that up. While one room houses a substantial archive of Blass’s career, which Benz walks me through, he doesn’t plan to slavishly study it. If the designer, who died in 2002, could communicate from beyond the grave, says Benz, “He would be like, ‘Get out of that archive. This is ridiculous.’”

Weirdly, the changes Benz is promising as a break with company legacy are somewhat in keeping with company legacy. “Mr. Blass talked about moving the business forward, taking advantage of the most modern channels and supply chains,” he said. “He was always talking about how ridiculous fashion shows were and how he hated seasons and how he just wanted to create products all the time.” Were he alive today, Benz thinks, “He would have been trying to tear down that traditional sense of it.”

A few months later, there are clothes in the showroom and a small band of assistant-elves going up and down the racks, steaming and futzing. (Benz compares the scene to a Christopher Guest mockumentary.) There are accessories: “little things with big zippers, big things with little zippers.” Some of the hardware plays on soda tabs or bread ties. He calls the concept “precious garbage, which feels very American and tongue-in-cheek and Bill Blass.” There’s a key chain with a Wonder Bread–shaped charm attached; small bags “for running out to Chipotle,” but also roomy totes, based on his observation that every woman in New York is perpetually carrying two bags. Most of the shoes are flats, except one modest heel that he compares to a “little flipper.” “My direction for the design team was, ‘Fashion is dumb, and you should not be making clothes that feel too fashion-y.’ Not like, 'Here's the new crazy silhouette, and nothing fits with it.'"

Photo: Roderick Aichinger

In a more symbolic sign of progress, Benz has settled on a new logo: Instead of the opposite-facing capital B’s that have always connoted the company (Benz says they even found the design in Blass’s sketchbooks from childhood), there’s a punchier-but-still retro lowercase version, pulled from his 1970s stationery.

“It gives me pause when people are like, ‘I want to be a fashion designer,’” Benz reflects. “It's like, 'Okay, but fashion is about 10 percent of it. And then 90 percent is coming up with all of the checkpoints along the way in order to create this world.'" That means applying his Virgo perfectionism to everything from the logo redesign to the font size on the website to hiring people who, as he puts it, “weren't saddled with some antiquated chart” about how fashion is made.

Over the summer, the collection shapes up — ruffled coats and a plethora of stripes and sequins populate an ever-growing rack. “If you're going to wear a polka dot, wear all polka dots. If you're going to wear stripes, wear all stripes. If it's going to be in a color, wear all one color,” Benz says of his design philosophy, pointing to one sequined look that he jokes is for “walking the dog.” While some of the color palette — mustards and brick reds — evokes Blass’s heyday, the collection doesn’t feel like the ’70s rehash we’ve seen on the runways: “I'm much more into the tunic-y ’70s,” he says. And he encouraged his design team to break with the conventional wisdom, color-wise. “In a corporate environment ... they know that green is a color that doesn't sell so well. So, they wouldn't necessarily use green. I wanted to not have those hang-ups.” When his team began shooting bags for the site, they were going to suspend their handles with invisible fishing wire, as is traditionally done. “That doesn't look natural,” Benz told them. “Let the strap flop over. I feel like when people get it, they're not going to be like, ‘Why aren't these handles sticking straight up?’”

When I last met with Benz, he was putting the finishing touches on an event today where he will unveil the new Blass to fashion-industry people, but also family and friends. He's thinking of it more as an app reveal a tech company might do, and promises "no passed hors d'oeuvre." I ask him about his new approach: Is everyone going to be doing this in ten years? In his mind, it's inevitable. “There are so many steps and so many variables to having someone fall in love with a product or happen upon your store, when what's so great about technology in the way that it pertains to fashion,” he says, “is that anyone can order something in the palm of their hand at any hour whether lying in bed on a Sunday morning or when they're drunk at a club going shopping on their phone. For me, that's what feels like progress.”

Benz has displayed nervousness over the course of our meetings — like most people who are maybe a little too smart for what they do, he’s hyperneurotic — but he seems eerily calm now. “My mood ring is just sort of excited,” he says. He tells me he's had a shift in perspective of late; he'd been thinking about the launch date as a make-or-break day for the company, then realized that’s not the case.

“November 2 is really the starting point,” he says. “Everything comes from that.”