Bill Blass exhibit honors late fashion icon, city native | Living


During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, Kathy Carrier was sifting through the book “Bill Blass: An American Designer,” looking at the designer’s work displayed at the Eskenazi Museum of Art at Indiana University Bloomington in 2002.

Carrier, a self-proclaimed artist, took the book apart, “just for the fun of it,” she said.

Carrier’s parents were both fans of Blass when she was growing up, with her mother sewing Blass-inspired patterns and her father owning a few Blass pieces. She grew up on the south side of Fort Wayne near Foster Park, her brothers attended South Side High School and her father fought in World War II.

What Carrier didn’t know was that she was like Blass in more ways than she would have imagined. He too was from Fort Wayne, growing up in a house on South Calhoun Street, across from South Side High School, where he graduated. Blass also served in World War II, as a member of the 1,100-person “Ghost Army,” a tactical deception unit used to impersonate other Allied Army units to deceive the enemy.

After discovering this, Carrier had one question: Why hadn’t she known more about him?

“I didn’t want our community to forget about him,” said Carrier, founder and CEO of Briljent, “so, I thought, ‘I’ll pull together a group of people that I think are like-minded that would have a really good time, enjoy digging into this and give the community a celebration.’ ”

From this, the “Bill Blass Blast – 100 Days of Bill Blass” event was born. Carrier, along with seven other women in the community, has been working on this tribute since Halloween, and it includes multiple displays and activities, including exhibitions at both the Fort Wayne Museum of Art and History Center.

This year would have been Blass’ 100th birthday, which Carrier said she had no idea about when she started this project. But, once she discovered that, it made more sense for the event to be this year.

“I’m not big on the one-time events with thousands of people,” she said. “But I thought if we could do something for 100 days, that touches all kinds of people.”

At the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, Jenna Gilley, associate curator of exhibitions, will be curating a fashion exhibit on loan from Indiana University. Gilley said she has always had an interest in fashion and showing diverse types of art, and this event gives her the opportunity to do that.

Gilley is curating both the exhibition at the art museum and the one at the History Center. The History Center exhibit will focus more on Blass’ life – his connections to Fort Wayne, personal life, career and involvement in the “Ghost Army.”

“It’s funny, I didn’t know a lot about Bill Blass coming in,” Gilley said. “He was a staple in the business for many, many generations and he’s not talked about today … but he was a key player in helping build American style.”

Gilley said she thinks a lot of people will be able to relate to Blass and his life story because he spoke a lot about his upbringing in Indiana, but also because his story is one of “the American dream” as he went from living with a low-income family in Fort Wayne to building a fashion empire in New York.

The “100 Days of Bill Blass” event is an unorthodox approach to creating an exhibition, Gilley said, because there is not one central organization putting together the project.

“It’s just a group of women who are all really passionate about this topic and want to do something special for the community,” she said. “To see local people have so much fun and feel super strong about an event after we got out of a pandemic is so fun.”

Todd Pelfrey, executive director of the History Center, said Carrier reached out to him last fall for a “Blasstastic celebration” and there has been so much enthusiasm from the whole group since then.

Many of the objects on display at the History Center have not been on display publicly before. They include personal items from early in Blass’ life and more information about his family and time spent in the Ghost Army.

“I’m just humbled that we are going to be featured in this dual presentation,” Pelfrey said. “The Fort Wayne Museum of Art is one of our dearest partners, and this is a wonderful, wonderful topic.”

Pelfrey said it is rare for the History Center to allow another organization to curate one of its exhibits, but because there are ample stories about Blass to share, Pelfrey wanted to make sure that there was a cohesiveness between the History Center and Fort Wayne Museum of Art.

In addition to the exhibitions, Greg Mendez, a sculptor from Decatur, will create a sculpture to be on display near Freimann Square for the celebration. Mendez said Linda Wyss, one of the committee members for the event, contacted him after learning from his wife that he was a sculptor.

This is Mendez’s busiest time of the year, and he said it was somewhat last minute for him to start a sculpture. However, because there was so much excitement from Carrier and Wyss, he decided to take part in the event.

“They were so excited and enthusiastic about it, that it made me excited,” Mendez said. “I wanted to do something cool in return for the festival.”

Mendez plans to create a series of six sculptures, but so far, he has only completed two. He said Carrier and Wyss had originally asked for one sculpture, but it was difficult to sum up Blass’ life in one piece of work.

For the first piece, Mendez looked at some of Blass’ concept sketches for his designs and looked at which would translate well into a sculpture. He said it “almost seemed backwards” to look at final clothing designs rather than his earlier sketches.

The second piece is inspired by ruins and classical sculptures, which is what Mendez studied originally, he said. The second piece will take Blass’ final designs, like a gown, and mix it with classical sculptures using steel, the medium Mendez typically uses.

“I want to finish all six pieces,” he said. “But, at this point, it’s just a matter of what can get done in time for the festival.”

Mendez, like Carrier, Gilley and Pelfrey, is excited to see the public’s response to the celebration. He hopes it will be a positive response and believes it will help people learn more about who Blass was, because before he was contacted, Mendez didn’t know anything about Blass or his work.

Carrier believes the group has already seen a positive response from the community because everyone she has contacted has been excited to work on the project.

“It just exploded,” she said. “I think we’ve already educated people about who he is, and they’re excited (to celebrate) this incredible man who was born and raised in Fort Wayne.”

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