By Richard K. Oliver
October 29, 1979 12:00 PM

Henri Bendel, Neiman-Marcus and I. Magnin are in her fickle good graces, but Bloomingdale’s almost blew it by daring to include some of her clothes in a sale. Lord & Taylor and Saks Fifth Avenue, deemed unacceptable, have gotten only the cold shoulder. With the energy crisis holding public thermostats to a Spartan 65°, designer Joan Vass’ hand-made sweaters are suddenly among the hottest—not to mention warmest—items in fashion.

Vass can afford to make store buyers sweat it, and does. “If I don’t like someone who comes in,” she says at her loft headquarters in Manhattan’s Chelsea section, “we don’t sell. We try to be very selective since our production is limited. At the moment, we’re not taking on any new customers.”

The ranks of the approved include private notables like Jane Fonda, Caroline Kennedy, Barbra Streisand, Cher, Farrah Fawcett and Harry Belafonte and his wife Julie. “Joan’s sweaters are so wearable and timeless looking,” attests Lauren Bacall. Candice Bergen bumped into Vass outside Benders recently and asked her for permission to call for an appointment (the company number is unlisted). “I love Joan’s things more than anyone else’s,” said Candice. Ali MacGraw, too, approves: “Vass sweaters look like a real person made them.”

Real people do—46 of them, in fact, and all female. They come to Vass’ office only to pick up yarn and one of her blueprint-like patterns or a sample and later return to drop off finished goods. “I pick the right button, match the yarns, choose everything,” Vass says. “But each woman is responsible for her garment and puts something personal into it.” The crew ranges in age from 20 to 70, in ethnic background from Polish to Japanese and in vocation from housewife to dancer. Most are in the arts. “The actresses and poets,” Vass confides, “are the most reliable.”

Vass founded her latter-day cottage industry in 1972 to help unemployed women friends and went big time the next year, when Bendel’s ordered 248 crocheted hats and they quickly sold out.

Unlike so much chic fashion, Vass apparel is built to last. “I don’t believe in obsolescence,” she says. “When the sweater is 15 years old, I want people to wear it for gardening.” The materials have quality—angora, alpaca, chenille—and the look is simple. “Monkish, almost medieval,” Vass describes it. “I like beauty with function. I think Cinderella looked best in that little old dress she used for sweeping up.”

Her fans don’t look for bargains—$150 to $200 is average, with some sweaters topping $600. “It absolutely chilled my blood when I figured out what the cost should be,” says Vass. For that, buyers get a tiny “JOAN VASS, N.Y.” label, which she sews in only because “the stores insist. I hope they fall out,” she adds. “The only reason for a label is so you can tell the front from the back.”

Iconoclasm is standard with Vass. “There are times,” confesses Bendel vice-president Pat Peterson, “when you’d like to turn her off for a minute, just to catch your breath.” Loudmouth or no, last month Vass won a special Coty Award.

Vass, 54, grew up the “very sheltered” only child of an industrial dry cleaner and his secretary wife in Lawrence, Long Island. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin in philosophy, married abstract painter Gene Vass and followed him from Buffalo to Rome to Manhattan. There she worked at the Museum of Modern Art as an assistant curator during the 1960s and wound up editing 50 books on art. “If you went to school and can think,” she says, “you can work in any area at all.”

Vass candidly admits that Gene moved out four years ago “because he couldn’t stand me anymore. I’m very difficult.” She remains close to their three sons and one daughter, aged 24 to 35. Her love life now? “I’m celibate,” Joan says. “Can you imagine anyone being interested in me? Anyway, I’m too old for that sort of thing.” She rises at 6, works till 2 a.m. “I’m driven to work,” Vass admits. That could lead to a more accessibly priced, mass-produced, if carefully monitored line. But never jeans. Sniffs Vass: “I would not like to have my name on the outside of something.”