A Salute To Fort Wayne Fashion Designer Bill Blass

Bill Blass and a mannequin
Bill Blass and a mannequin
Photos courtesy the Bill Blass Celebration Team

“I drew my first sketch of a corporate logo in 1944 while lying on a bunk in Luxembourg. It would be another 15 years before I would have a product to put it on, and another 10 after that before I had my own name on the door. Patience is something I know a lot about.”

BILL BLASS was renowned for his timeless fashion designs, but what many people may not know is that Fort Wayne’s most stylish son was also an integral member of the clandestine Ghost Army during World War II.

To mark what would have been Blass’s 100th birthday on June 22, organizers are lining up 100 days of exhibits, events, and activities commemorating the fashionable Hoosier at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, the Fort Wayne History Center, the Veteran’s National Memorial Shrine, and other locations throughout the city.

“When I was a kid, my mother used to sew Bill Blass clothes using his patterns,” says philanthropist and event coordinator Kathy Carrier. “I had no idea he was from Fort Wayne. Then when I found out he was also a Ghost Army hero, I knew that his life story had to be told.”

At the tender age of 15, Blass was already wading into the waters of the fashion industry by selling dress sketches to a New York manufacturer for $25 apiece (around $500 each by today’s standards). After graduating from South Side High School in 1940, Blass set his sights on the Big Apple and never looked back. With a knack for designing classic, streamlined clothing for the American woman, Blass through the decades dressed everybody—and every body—from Nancy Reagan, Gloria Vanderbilt, and Liza Minnelli to Mariah Carey and Whitney Houston.

Although famous for his fashions, Blass flew largely under the radar when it came to his military service. In 1942, he joined the Army as a member of the 603rd Engineer Camouflage Battalion, aka the Ghost Army, a brave group of 1,100 soldiers whose sole mission was to deceive German troops and throw them off course through the use of phony transmissions, decoy inflatable tanks, and other ruses.

The entire operation remained classified for 40 years, finally coming to light and earning a Congressional Gold Medal honor just this year, with Blass also being recognized with the first Humanitarian Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

“As a founding member and former president of the CFDA, Bill Blass played a significant role in the trajectory of our organization as well as American fashion as a whole,” says CFDA CEO Steven Kolb. “Mr. Blass was a formidable designer and member of New York society, empowering women with his elegant designs. His service to the country during World War II added another dimension to one of the most important established designers in American fashion history.”

You’ll have to bounce around Fort Wayne to get the full story—the art museum exhibit will showcase Blass fashions, the history center features a survey of Blass’s personal life through historical objects and photos, and the veterans’ shrine highlights his Ghost Army participation. Or, just pick and choose according to your interests. Speakers, children’s activities, radio/television broadcasts, art installations, pop-ups, and other events fill out the 100-day calendar.  

“We’re doing this so that everyone will know about Bill’s legacy, and we’ll be archiving and digitizing everything to store at the [Genealogy Center in the Allen County Public Library],” Carrier says. “After the 100 days are up, we’re also hoping to install a pocket museum at the new Electric Works development with a selection of rotating items.”

For more information, visit the event’s Facebook page here.