Saturday, February 9, 2008

Bill Blass: Som-nambulant

The classic American designer is six feet under. Or at least two of their leading number are, which is one reason that labels like Halston and Bill Blass are having such a hard time reanimating. Yesterday it was Peter Som's turn to breathe life into what had at one time been a big-league brand: Bill Blass. Blass died in 2002, and in the six years since four designers have braved the challenge. The first was fired after his debut collection; the second lasted slightly longer and the third lasted two seasons longer than the second. Now there is a fourth. Peter Som, who has an eponymous label, worked in the Blass design room before branching out on his own. Som designs polite frocks and slightly matronly separates for the type of young lady who legitimately gets married in white. On occasion, a look will be so demure that it seems like a reaction to the present cheapness of youth culture.

American fashion has taken a smackdown since the 1980s.
Formerly marked by a good taste that was handed down from mother to daughter, it is now a battleground of generational opposition. Daughters no longer wish to look like their mothers; they want to wear expensively deconstructed apparel with odd, often fetish-like decoration. Or they buy frothy couture that looks like a child's idea of a grown-up's dress. In this latter they pose coyly, with their toes turned in and their shoulders hunched against adulthood.

It works the other way as well; a recent spate of tulle brought out the little ballerina in fifty-somethings.

The designers fired by the Blass label received a manifesto that stressed the importance of designing for the younger generation, including Young Hollywood. That, it was emphasized, is where the money and the all-important branding opportunities are. We have become a culture that lives by flashbulb and strobe; there is no underestimating the instantaneous sales boomerang of well-placed paparazzi photographs.

Som walked into this modern conundrum with the experience of his prior work at the label, and then he sleepwalked through his first collection.

The problem is that Som was asked not just to bring fresh relevancy to a label, but to spearhead--alon
g with Marco Zanini at Halston-- an American fashion renaissance. For whatever reason, this burden rests with the designers of the master-class brands. In an ideal world, these younger designers would become not only heirs but arbiters.

The world is not id
eal and the task is not simple: Honor thy father while making him hip. It's a tall order and one that is so far driving a further wedge between the generations. The clothes Som designed for Blass were supposed to satisfy the needs of both child and parent and perhaps the odd grandmother thrown in between.

It's no wonder Som reached into the grave and reiterated some of the less important classic Blass. Marco Zanini played safe--too safe-- while acting as a medium at Halston, and Som tiptoed towards Blass holding the pretty-party dance card. In either case, there was the well-publicized demand for vigorous fiscal return.

Zanini's Halston collection was deliberately imitative and retro; Som for Blass was imitative and not new. Those designs he chose as his guide simply looked unfresh, referring to an era that had as two of its main features social inaccessibility and a certain powdered vanity. His job was to style this past into something presently approachable

He did something right, although exactly what might be missed in the critical drubbing. Perhaps drubbing is the wrong word, it implies that someone is invested. Yawning might be the better choice. Still, there is a small segment of society that does not want its fashion separated from its ego, and that is where Som's collection succeeded. These are the anti-modernists, and yes, many of them are young conservative Republicans. For the rest, who put their own idiosyncrasies before societal expectations, Som's show was full of bourgeois uniforms.

Let's assume that the definition of "fashion" must include recency. Not random alteration without momentum, but recency. If this is the case, then Som's designs are not "fashion"; they fall into a netherworld of middle-class values in which the presumption of taste is probably the most critical element. They are past-tense class markers when class markers are no longer fashionable themselves.

It's not the end of the world, but it's not the beginning of a new one, either.



Bobble Bee said...

I think American fashion is too concern on making money and that's stopping the designers to get creative and take chances.
Every collection looks just like the other, there's not differences, nor in style nor in concept and shapes... everything seems too boring, but i guess it's not "fun" for the designers either... so i don't know.

WendyB said...

But who knows what the future might bring, if he's given a chance.

enc said...

Sleepwalking, what a perfect word. It's almost onomotopoetic.

It seems like Zanini and Som, designers who are charged with "resurrecting," or "bringing back" these lines are floundering on their first collections, sort of asking to be accepted.

I wish these two had just dived right in and shown more personality. I wonder if management told them to hold back initially, to create lines with mass-appeal in hopes that the clothes would sell, rather than carve out a new niche for the brands they now represent.

At any rate, it can't be easy to be either of them right now. I hope they both wake up soon.

Suzanna Mars said...

Enc, I believe that Zanini in particular was told to channel the ghost of 1973-1978 Halston. Et voila--the shirtdress, now priced in the stratosphere (see BB's comment above).

Som may have been permitted a freer hand (just for the record, I do think he is a good fit), but I think the history of Blass might have had him err on the side of caution. One need only remember the immediate firing of Slowik to understand why this post would be approached with caution.

Also for the record, I liked the gray and the black pantsuits (this last was YSL-lite).

These were designs for women (of any age) whose tastes in clothing match what society feels is acceptable. By society, I mean THEIR society. Therefore, valid collection.

enc said...

D'oh! In my verbosity, I think I forgot to say I liked the clothes . . . I do, very much. I know Som must be under pressure to perform, and perform he did. I saw a lot of things I liked in that collection. But just the same, I'm hoping he'll take it farther next time.

As for Zanini, I remember thinking the prices for the sold-out net-a-porter shirtdresses were laughable for something which seemed—to me, anyway—so basic. But I guess people are enamored of, and paying for the name, and want the versatility of such a solid, reliable piece. And wouldn't such a shirtdress be relevant for years to come, therefore being worth the price? I definitely see what you meant about Zanini ghost-channelling; and it's paid off, as the clothes are selling so well. As the customers appear and become loyal, perhaps management will allow him more latitude.

Imelda Matt said...

yEnc makes a valid point. It’s brand building 101, a soft launch with a handful of key pieces that sell. As I mentioned in the Halston post I think this collection deliberately designed to under whelm us while re introducing the Halston brand to the wider public. Strong sales equal confidence in the brand that should translate into Zanini’s leash being loosened.

While a Som dress wouldn’t look out of place at Mike Huckabee fundraiser. For the record there was nothing that lifted my skirt!

SM you pose an interesting question wether American design can be revived? Naturally there is no quick fix but if corporations keep urging designers to ‘play it safe’ then well all know the answer.