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God, Antimatter, and Magritte 

An exclusive, existential interview with designer Bill Blass

Wednesday, Sep 1 1999
San Francisco's miraculous economy certainly has its positive side: an SUV in every pot; 24-year-olds owning 24-room mansions; 64 new millionaires every single day.

But has consumerism robbed us of something even more important than stock options and helipads? Might Palm Pilot materialism be dulling our spiritual side? Have we put off confronting life's fundamental questions as we ask for stock quotes over our cell phones?

To answer these and other pressing existential queries, we turned to SF Weekly consulting expert Bill Blass. Mr. Blass, of course, is one of the few men whose name has graced the bottoms of millions of California high school girls; leather attaché cases; and perfume bottles. His "simple elegance" fashion ethic, meanwhile, drives the immutable style of women such as Mrs. Randolph Hearst, Mrs. Charlotte Swig Shultz, Mrs. Ronald Reagan, and Mrs. George Soros. Mr. Blass is most qualified to comment on the eternal vacillation of man's yearnings from the physical, to the spiritual, and back again.

We joined Mr. Blass recently in the Saks Fifth Avenue San Francisco executive break room for water and cigarettes. We soon discovered that he's a gregarious, charming raconteur; a man of wealth, taste, and a certain je ne sais quoi that makes filthy-rich fashion designers somehow different from you and me.

SF Weekly: Do you believe there are religious implications to the quest for a unified quantum field theory?

Bill Blass: God, this is a marvelous question. As a fashion designer, I'm a person of very frivolous occupation. I like talking about everything other than fashion. Fashion is not my favorite topic. Religion is such a curious thing. It's a personal thing. I'm not a great believer in belief. I know that it's a tremendous help, and a crutch for a lot of people and I've never implemented it in my own life to any degree. I do think as one gets older, and God knows I'm sure getting older, you do begin to have more of an opinion about it. (Mr. Blass gets up. Looks for an ashtray. Comes back.) How do you feel about religion?

SFW: I just sort of take having some sort of sense of an existence of an immutable morality that has some sort of religious nature as a given, without probably giving it the kind of thought ...

BB: (Interrupting) I have a firm belief in such things as, you know, the water, the Earth, the trees and sky. And I'm wondering, it is increasingly difficult to find those elements in nature, because it's nature I believe in rather than some spiritual thing. Um, God, what will happen when every square inch is covered with the human being? It will be very hard to have a religion.

SFW: So then anything that impacts the Earth from that perspective could be seen as a religious or at least spiritual question?

BB: I wonder if this doesn't have a connection with your original question, in a sense. But it's not for me to comment.

SFW: But most certainly it is!

BB: I very rarely, even in discussions with friends or other people, one has political discussions, but we don't have anything as aesthetic as in the sense of religion discussion. That's funny. Now that I talk to you. This is the first time I've talked about religion in years.

SFW: It's something people don't talk about.

BB: No, I know they don't. They talk about sex and every other forbidden topic. Religion is probably the one topic that doesn't ...

SFW: ... easily fit in?

BB: Because it is so personal. Maybe love is a religion. I don't know. (Mr. Blass pauses.)

SFW: Any other thoughts on that? ... What I wanted to ask was, sometimes the Big Bang is discussed as confirming religious sensibilities, and sometimes, people force scientific quests into religious sensibilities.

BB: I don't know that many people consider it in that sense. I'm not sure that I do, certainly. Perhaps there is ... most of your questions are all so self-answering, do you realize that? (Mr. Blass laughs.)

SFW: Hmm. Well, maybe there are some that aren't. Would you like me to move on?

BB: (Mr. Blass reflects on modern Kosovo, American sexual morality, Sen. John McCain, and the media.) Who knows about politics? At one point in life I thought it would have been fascinating to have been involved in it and then one realizes that, well, it's quite impossible.

SFW: So you, at one point in your life ...

BB: (Interrupting) Well, I would have thought that being in diplomacy, or in politics doing something where one could really and truly perhaps benefit ... (Mr. Blass does not finish the thought). So what do I do, I end up designing clothes. (Mr. Blass pauses.) Maybe that also pleases people.

SFW: So can you tell me about that? You once dreamed of being a diplomat?

BB: Only in my own fantasies, let's put it that way. What, did you always want to be a journalist?

SFW: Early on. But, yeah, everybody has other things one thinks about. Did you -- was there a specific scenario that you imagined?

BB: Not really, except that I thought -- it sounds so corny to say it -- that one would like to make a sort of patriotic statement about your time on Earth, and if you happened to be an American and to have made an impression, to have made a difference, but on the other hand you have to fit the niche that you really and truly desire. I was lucky I suppose knowing from a very early time that I wanted to be a designer and, um, so that's just what I pursued. But along the way I have been tempted to think that there were other professions such as diplomacy or politics where one could make a greater contribution. (Mr. Blass becomes distracted, directing his attention to the break room wall, which is adorned with a framed poster reproduction of René Magritte's 1953 painting Golconda. The painting's title has been a subject of debate among art historians, but its dictionary meaning is, "a source of great riches, as in a mine." Magritte's Golconda depicts a late-afternoon downpour of bourgeois banality: successful men in bowler hats staring toward nowhere.)

About The Author

Matt Smith


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