When it was revealed last year that Chris Benz, he of the neon mesh details, gutsy tropical prints, and skewed ladylike designs (he launched his own line when he was just 25 years old in 2007, and it lived for five years), was taking the helm at Bill Blass, it came as something of a surprise. But then again, who better to revive the all-American sportswear label than the Seattle native, who could make sequins feel streetwise and ruffles feel anything but retro? We got the honor of interviewing Chris, right in time for the release of the Spring collection, featuring breezy shopper totes and sporty duffels, easy slip-on sneakers, and lots more to covet in a perky citrus palette.
Take us through your day!
Well, I have quite the routine these days – living out in the glamorous part of Brooklyn and driving everywhere means I’m living my LA lifestyle right here in NYC. I get up at 6 everyday (I’m a morning person, so I like to have The Today Show on while I’m getting ready, making coffee, letting the dog out, etc.). I drive into Manhattan to the Bill Blass office every day, park, drop the dog off at daycare, and finally backflip into my chair by 9 am. Each day is different, and I’m pulled in lots of different directions – which is where being a decisive Virgo comes in handy. Oftentimes, we only have a few moments to make design decisions! Between design meetings with each department (we have two: one for handbags and the other for ready-to-wear and shoes), board meetings, interviews, and appointments, it’s a daily press right up to 6 pm. After work, unless I’m screening a film or rolling through an event of some sort, it’s my whole morning routine in reverse. I’ve automated as much as possible so that there’s extra time to Instagram!
Lola Large Duffle (on Bill Blass for $458)
You started your namesake line when you were just 25. In what ways has building a business like that from the ground up been beneficial experience for your new role at Bill Blass?
I have always had a low-grade panic that I wanted to do things sooner rather than later – so the idea of launching my own little collection was important to me early on, and I’m very happy I did it while still somewhat naive. I really learned how to do every part of the fashion business on my own, and that in and of itself is a tremendous asset in my newest role at Bill Blass. As Creative Director, I really have to understand what each person’s duties are and be able to synthesize everything together like an orchestra.
You’ve said before that “having to churn out hundreds of new products every few months from scratch” was the hardest part of working at your former company, a sentiment that many designers have brought forth recently. How many pieces are you responsible for producing now?
For Bill Blass, we are on an ongoing design schedule, such that we’re somewhat autonomous and less tied to the schedule than in my past experience. We really only make what we feel strongest about, rather than produce a lot of “filler” product like more traditional businesses do that are expected to fill a runway and merchandise seemingly more “commercial” elements into their collections. We have around 50 styles across ready-to-wear, handbags, shoes, and accessories, which is really quite small in the grand scope of the industry. We like lots of different colors in a few dazzling styles.
Sutton Slip-On Shoe (on Bill Blass for $248)
What have you implemented at Bill Blass already that you’re proud of?
I am in awe of the scale and amount of work we have been able to achieve in only one year; when I started there were no employees – none! We built the team, designed and produced a fantastic line, and established the new voice of the brand through e-commerce and all that goes with it – packaging, user experience, visual elements, innovative interface – but still maintained the spirit of what has made the brand resonate with customers since 1970.
Lola Small Duffle (on Bill Blass for $288)
The new BB logo is borrowed from Mr. Blass’ stationary. In what other ways have you incorporated him or the classic elements of his brand?
I am constantly, fanatically referencing the archive – it’s everything you can imagine, from the smallest detail like a mother-of-pearl button to the cutaway on a jacket, to an actual silhouette. I’m very conscious about not simply remaking old styles from the past, but giving a strong wink behind us with every piece we design.
Who is today’s Bill Blass customer?
The Bill Blass woman of today is independent, mobile, tech-forward, and very busy (I realize these are descriptions of most women today). But in the same way that Bill Blass was a mirror to a generation of women in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, the Bill Blass of today is a reflection of what women wear, carry, and have an appetite for today. I always imagine our customer shopping from her phone in the back of an Uber or before a plane takes off. She’s on the go.
Sutton Embellished Slip-On Shoe (on Bill Blass for $388)
What is the Bill Blass bag every Bag Snob should own?
Our Buckley Shopper Tote is THE BAG to own. I even carry one every day; it’s the most delicious tumbled calf leather, perfectly constructed and in perfect proportions. Beyond. We deliver new colors all the time, and it is timeless, utilitarian, and elegant.
Buckley Shopper (on Bill Blass for $348)
What do you see as the largest challenge facing you as Creative Director now?
I think the largest challenge for me, as with most retailers today, is simply keeping the brand top of mind. Fashion is such a crowded environment, which is really dictated more than ever by the consumer. I just keep the consumer in my sights and forge ahead. We have a burgeoning social media presence, which is very fun and a tremendous vehicle for the brand to complement our e-commerce footprint, and likewise with all of our chic, glamorous brand loyalists around the world. We ship to almost 70 countries worldwide, so it’s quite a lot of ground to cover!