Designer's apparel honors Blass

— Loyal customers of Bill Blass, who died of cancer at 79 last year, say the man affectionately dubbed "the dean of American fashion" will never be replaced.

But isn't there a designer who can step into his shoes at the company and continue the distinctive Blass tradition? That was the prevailing question at the Bill Blass spring 2004 preview Tuesday, as the Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week continued.

The show was the Fashion Week debut for Michael Vollbracht, who was appointed head designer of the company, following two earlier designers who tried the job.

In an effort to stabilize the design house and steer it back to the looks Blass made so popular, the company in March hired Vollbracht, a longtime designer who came to the company two years ago to work on a Blass retrospective.

Indeed, the show revived some signature Blass looks, notably ensembles of menswear-styled suits with matching coats, sweaters with taffeta ball skirts and animal prints, which Blass once called "as classic as polka dots."

Vollbracht said he did his homework by reviewing Town & Country magazines from the 1950s, in Blass' archives.

So, did it look like a Blass show?

"Very much so," said Town & Country Editor in Chief Pamela Fiori. "I do think it looks like Bill Blass, more than anyone else who's followed in his footsteps."

If Vollbracht dipped into the past to recount favorite Blass looks, perhaps that's why he also brought back older models who previously walked the Blass runway.

"I'm using girls my own age," said Vollbracht, who was born in 1947 in Illinois. "Women who know how to show clothes and not just teenagers who thump down the runway."

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