December 06, 1999 12:00 PM

The wrath of a huge storm only heightened the drama in a leaky Manhattan tent that afternoon in September. Mascara melting, New York City society’s grandest dames joined fashion bigwigs to honor Bill Blass and his six-decade career as a fashion designer. “You’ve never seen anything like it,” says social doyenne Nan Kempner of Blass’s final runway show. “You could see water running down my face. But we were all there—we wouldn’t miss it. Everyone was weeping.”

When the last model—in a chiffon turtleneck and silver skirt—left the runway and Blass at last emerged, the audience leapt to its feet. “There are not many standing ovations in fashion,” says Patrick McCarthy, chairman of Women’s Wear Daily. “Bill just gave a little wave, barely perceptible, but it was a wave good-bye.”

And a fitting flourish from one of the most celebrated and influential men in American fashion. “The thunder and rain couldn’t have provided a better send-off,” chuckles Blass, 77, settling into an antique leather library chair in his New Preston, Conn., home, a former tavern said to have been visited by George Washington. A month ago, Blass finalized a deal to sell his empire for $50 million to two fashion executives and semiretire. “I thought the end of the year, beginning of the new century, was the perfect time,” he says. “After all, I’d been doing it for 60 years.”

The Fort Wayne, Ind., native’s sporty signature looks—cashmere sweaters over long taffeta ball skirts, sequined tops with gray flannel pants—shook up the previously Pariscentric fashion scene with a casual look that still defines American style. He also spun his talent into brand-name fame to become what friend Oscar de la Renta calls “the first American celebrity designer.” And one with a most glamorous fan club: First Ladies Nancy Reagan and Barbara Bush, Candice Bergen, Barbara Walters and society ladies throughout the land. He won them not only with his dresses but also his debonair charm. “I fell in love with him, like every other woman,” says Kempner, 69. “He was as warm, friendly, intelligent and talented as he was good-looking.”

With typical understatement, Blass says his career “has given me a very interesting life.” The son of a middle-class hardware-store owner and a dressmaker, Blass came of age amid the Depression, following his father’s suicide when Bill was 5. (“My mother never discussed it,” says Blass, who doesn’t like to talk about it either: “You feel like you’re being analyzed.”) Entranced by movie sirens such as Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo, Blass says he had his career mapped out by age 7. “Something about glamor interested me,” he says. “All my schoolbooks had drawings of women on terraces with a cocktail and a cigarette.”

By his early teens, Blass was selling fashion sketches to s New York design houses to make some money. “They bought them for the huge sum of $25 each,” he says. Graduating from high school in 1940, he made a beeline for New York and a job offer at a sportswear firm.

When the U.S. entered World War II a year later, the 19-year-q old enlisted. The man who would become a master at disguising clients’ figure flaws wound up in an Army camouflage unit setting up fake artillery installations to fool the enemy. Along with artist and battalion-mate Ellsworth Kelly, Blass saw action at the Battle of the Bulge and in France and Belgium.

Back in New York in 1945, Blass worked for future rival Anne Klein (who, he says, told him he “had good manners but no talent”), then as an assistant designer at an upscale ready-to-wear house. He also cultivated posh pals. “If you’re reasonably attractive and have a dinner jacket, you can meet anybody,” he says. But for years—because designers commanded so little cachet—he told chums he was in advertising. Designers, he explains, “never met the buyer, never met the press. I was anxious to change that.”

He got his wish in 1958, becoming head designer for Maurice Rentner, a label then popular with wealthy older women, and made an instant splash with his more youthful creations. (In 1970 he bought the company and renamed it Bill Blass Ltd.) He crisscrossed the country holding shows in cities other designers often shunned—a key to his success. “It gave him insight into how women he would design for live,” says Houston hostess Lynn Wyatt.

Inspired as well by such stylish friends as Gloria Vanderbilt, Blass popularized mix-and-match chic with casual but luxurious items like cashmere twinsets and camelhair coats. “That was a way of dressing that was so American,” he says. (Today, “anything goes,” he declares. “It’s one of the most interesting periods of fashion ever.”) He later made hits of ruffled dresses and boldly colored evening gowns—”I used to say, ‘Whenever in doubt, wear red’ “—that flattered women of all ages. Now costing from $1,000 to $10,000, his couture pieces “cover you in all the places where you need to be covered,” says friend Nancy Kissinger, “and don’t make you look or feel 110.”

Blass was also a pioneer in the lucrative licensing game, lending his name to dozens of products such as jeans, luggage and perfume. (A line of chocolates flopped. “Unfortunately, all I did,” he says, “was test them all the time.”) If he courted overexposure, the devotees he calls his “gals” didn’t care. “I love his clothes,” says Nancy Reagan, “because they are comfortable, wearable and pretty.”

A fixture at Park Avenue parties, the lifelong bachelor “doesn’t sit there and talk about hemlines,” says McCarthy. “He knows about everything: politics, history, philosophy, religion.” But Blass has a solitary side, savoring days alone with his yellow Lab, Barnaby, at his 22-acre Connecticut estate. (He also owns a Manhattan apartment.) A mild stroke he suffered on the way to a Houston fashion show last year made him “pause and think” about a “less stressful” life, he says, adding he now feels fine and works out with a trainer most mornings. “God knows you’re not immortal.”

And while he plans to play an advisory role in his $700-million-a-year company, now co-owned by his former chief financial officer and the head of the company that markets Bill Blass jeans, he has no intention of meddling with his yet-unnamed couture successor. And what of his “gals”? “My dear, they can still find clothes,” says Blass, smiling. In fact, if they look hard enough they will probably find Blass as well. “It’s highly unlikely,” he admits, “that I would be satisfied with disappearing.”

Samantha Miller

Sue Miller in New Preston and John Hannah in Los Angeles

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