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New Bill Blass CEO on Reviving a Legacy Brand

The Bill Blass brand has been rung through the hands of several owners and licensees since the late designer sold the company in 1999, however, the 55-year-old label known for its signature butterfly emblem and versatile day-to-night design aesthetic is on the cusp of a revival, thanks in part to a market demand for heritage brands and new leadership.

This week Bill Blass Group owners Bill and Peter Kim announced 35-year retail veteran Stuart M. Goldblatt has joined the company in the newly created position of president and chief operating officer.

Goldblatt, who’s career spans posts at Bloomingdale’s, Lord & Taylor and Carson Pirie Scott, left Macy’s Merchandising Group in March 2014, where he was executive vice president of merchandising for private brands and responsible for successfully launching, re-launching and repositioning a deep roster of private brands that have become household names. In his new role at Bill Blass, Goldblatt hopes to repeat that magic when the label re-launches in Spring 2016.

Sourcing Journal spoke to Goldblatt about his earliest memories attached to the Bill Blass name, the power of a legacy brand, and the challenges that lay ahead, including carrying a brand into its golden years and the online frenzy that is today’s retail environment.

SJ: What does the Bill Blass brand mean to you?
SG: First of all, I’m absolutely in love with the heritage and legacy of the man. Bill Blass is America’s first designer—the first to come out of the back office and put their name on a product. Coco Chanel and others were doing it in Europe, but he was a visionary in the U.S. And he was an astute businessman and a socialite who just happened to be this incredibly sophisticated designer of all things related to style and fashion.

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SJ: What do you think Bill Blass means to consumers?
SG: The brand has been relatively dormant for the last four years, apart from high-end couture, but we do have empirical data that confirms the name is still well known and brand awareness is high. Positive feelings toward the brand are high, mostly with people over 30.

SJ: Is that your target customer?
SG: Right now the 30 and older crowd is the most aware and affectionate toward the brand. I think we’ll resonate with women over 30—well-educated professionals that need and like to wear tailored clothes. And they are very focused on their accessories.

SJ: Which categories will you focus on to start?
SG: Women’s apparel and accessories. Maybe men’s apparel.

SJ: Why is it a good time to bring back the Bill Blass name?
SG: One reason, and it is purely business related, is that we wanted to make sure that globally we had our trademarks and intellectual property properly within our legal hands. We’ve spent the last couple of years understanding our licensees and reestablishing the foundations of some. Right now we only have three [a small men’s sub-brand, luggage and eyewear], but for us, we can’t run our business the way it was before. All of our answers are in the future, and fortunately, we have a vast archive to help establish a new platform in-house.

SJ: What does the Bill Blass brand have that others don’t?
SG: We’re starting with a broad body of work. You have to remember Bill Blass was the first fashion designer to ever be involved in car design. There were Bill Blass chocolates before there was Godiva chocolate. There’s a lot of heritage there, so our secret weapon is that archive dating back to 1952. It is fully intact. Bill Blass was a meticulous keeper of his archive. We have more than 1,000 couture dresses, every show from as far back as the 1960s, every slide, ad and so on, kept internally.

SJ: How do you plan on telling that story?
SG: Bill Blass loved to meet with the people who bought his product. We can do that today online and gain consumer insight. The brand has never had a strong presence online. The couture end of business was there, but it was hard for the world at large to access the brand. Today, if a woman sees a Michael Kors’ runway show online, falls in love with a gown but sees that it is $6,000, she can still gain access to the designer by buying a handbag, a blouse or a keychain for $50. That is how it was with Bill Blass, but the next incarnation will be accessible online.

SJ: Are you planning to sell direct-to-consumer?
SG: We are going to take a very judicious approach on how we develop our business—a crawl, walk and run approach. We’re not clear on everything yet, but direct-to-consumer seems to be very appealing based on the fact that we can speak to consumers directly. And it would be nice to offer Bill Blass fans extra special items.

SJ: Compared to the trials and tribulations a newcomer in the industry might face, are retailers are more receptive to a brand with history? Or, are the challenges to break into doors all the same?
SG: I’ve been telling people here to forget the history. We can’t rely only on the heritage and legacy of the Bill Blass brand because in our business it is always about product. However, a powerful name adds something special and enhances the appeal of product. For a consumer that wants to be dressed in tailored clothes, wouldn’t it be nice to have a story about the classic American designer behind it? When a woman is complimented on her handbag, wouldn’t it be nice to say, “It’s a limited edition style based on a 1974 purse in the Bill Blass archive.”

SJ: What are some Bill Blass signatures that will be incorporated into the line?
SG: You’ll certainly see his signature double B butterfly logo that he designed while still in the army in 1944, along with many other special details because Bill Blass was the inventor of special details in all products. He always had a surprise hidden inside a jacket and so we plan on continuing that tradition. We want to build some of those identifiable items that can be traced back in its lineage through the decades—only they’ll be made for a modern audience.