Clash of the Titans

Mr. Blass and Mr. Beene

The cell phones are snug in their quilted patent-leather Chanel holsters, an acre of knobby knees are crossed in anticipation, 100 tiny liposuctioned behinds perch upon ivory-cushioned chairs on the second floor of Le Cirque 2000: it's time for the Bill Blass show! This is Bill's penultimate offering— he's announced he's retiring in 2000— and he's holding it two months late: instead of presenting back in February with Ralph, Donna, and Calvin, he's showing in April, at the same time as the 28 virtually unknown designers who compose S.O.S. (South of Seventh), an upstart group that has organized a counter­7th on Sixth movement in lower Manhattan. Aside from the iconoclastic Geoffrey Beene, who is actually a member of S.O.S., Mr. Blass is the only establishment designer of a certain age showing this week.

What he puts on the catwalk is an assortment of echt-preppie styles that have their genesis in the tony Connecticut exurbias of the mid 1970s (Sigourney Weaver's character in The Ice Storm would be in her sixties now, certainly not too old for a Blass ensemble). There's a bathrobey quilted camel suit, a wide-wale orange corduroy pea jacket, and more than one rarefied version of a Sonny Bono animal-print vest. (Mr. Blass calls these items tabards, which turns out to mean a sleeveless, collarless thing you pull over something else: maybe, if you're as wacky as the late congressman once was, a sequined turtleneck, which Mr. Blass also can provide.)

Evening suggestions include unironic 1960s-redux baby-doll dresses with big bows, and tubular gowns made entirely of pashmina, that fiber collected from the underbellies of goats that is so prized by the fashion crowd. One sinuous black tube (Mr. Blass calls it a column) is topped with a mauve bodice that wraps around the wearer like a shawl, likely precluding her from adding a pashmina scarf to that day's outfit. (Or maybe not: the only thing better than one pashmina is two pashminas.)

The Blass menagerie: Bill's ladies who lunch at his fall '99 show at Le Cirque 2000
Sandra-Lee Phipps
The Blass menagerie: Bill's ladies who lunch at his fall '99 show at Le Cirque 2000

All these expensive, perfectly tailored items are making the models miserable. They skulk down the runway with pained looks on their faces, as if forced by their mommy to don stuff they wouldn't be caught dead wearing in real life. Tattoos flicker wanly under crystal-beaded chiffon tops; a mannequin loping along in a pair of shimmering sequined black pants and an ivory turtleneck topped by a corduroy pea coat looks like she's ready to burst into tears.

But why should she, really? Mr. Blass handles American classics the way the model probably treats her own East Village wardrobe: mixing wildly discordant elements culled from a variety of sources, decades, and price ranges into one get-up. The sequined pants look like they arrived special delivery from Palm Springs; the turtle is Westport; the car coat strictly Massapequa by way of the 19th-century naval corps.

Fifty years ago, or even 30, the matrons who are Mr. Blass's customers didn't dress this way: Fancy was fancy; casual was casual. Even if some of his combinations are dowdy or fairly incongruous, Mr. Blass in his swan song has understood the meaning of millennial fashion— anything goes with anything. There is no right way to dress. Sportswear is all. Once a dumpy car coat over an evening frock was the sad lot of women who couldn't afford an evening wrap; now it's high fashion.

If Mr. Blass represents one solution to fin de siècle dressing — throw yuppie classics into a pot, stir with a grosgrain ribbon and top with a satin jean jacket— Geoffrey Beene, in his delightful show the next morning, offers a second opinion. Not that Mr. Beene's heart doesn't also reside in the deep recesses of the 1950s and '60s; it's just that instead of giving in to eclecticism, he stays true to a radical personal vision.

Mr. Beene shows downtown, at the Puck Building, and although there are plenty of botoxed foreheads in his audience as well, the atmosphere is friskier than at Le Cirque. Two members of the crowd are wearing playing-card-printed jackets from one of Mr. Beene's previous collections as an homage to the designer; these have checkered collars and the jaunty air of a vintage train-conductor's uniform.

On the runway, the models illustrate Mr. Beene's obsession with a certain brand of midcentury modernism. They sport Allegra Kent­ish ballerina buns and there are rampant references to beatnik molls (gray jersey midcalf frocks, flat shoes, black tights) and the Kennedy years (mod minidresses decorated with oversized rhinestone zippers and beige bolero jackets decorated with black paillettes, perfect for the upper-middle-class Upper West Side person who collects Taos pottery and goes to Women's Strike for Peace meetings).

If fashion had gone in another direction, if jeans and Ts and sweatshirts and sneakers hadn't won the battle so definitely that people wear Levi's to funerals and Nikes to job interviews, Mr. Beene's wonderful monastic dresses and jersey jumpsuits might have ended up ruling the planet. As it is, they remain twinkling beacons, wistful pointers to a sartorial world that might have been.


Frocktology: specimens from Blass (top) and Beene
photo: Sandra-Lee Phipps


photo: Sandra-Lee Phipps

 
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