Late last November, Peter Som swooped into London’s Cipriani to dine with a group of locals that included Tamara Mellon, Camilla Al Fayed and Vanity Fair editor Elizabeth Saltzman Walker, who gave the dinner in his honor. The hostess feared that the seemingly shy Som might be intimidated amid this particularly boisterous group, but she was pleasantly surprised. “He got down and dirty with the rest of us,” Saltzman Walker says. “He listened to all the girl chat, took it in and captured a few of the girls’ hearts. And it’s not even like he is some swanky boy toy. He is actually pretty serious, but he fit right in.”
Som’s social insouciance should bode well for him in his newest role. In July he was named creative director of women’s wear at Bill Blass, charged with updating the fashion house that has had serious succession woes since its namesake founder retired shortly before his death in 2002. Som, who will oversee every aspect of the women’s division, including the numerous licensed collections, will show his first work for Blass for the prefall 2008 season. (Michael Bastian has been hired to relaunch Blass men’s wear.)
In fact, Som’s appointment brings him back to where he started. Fresh out of Parsons School of Design in the late Nineties, the designer, now 36, landed his first job as a design assistant to Blass. Som now readily admits that he was wide-eyed, a little green and too shy to develop a personal rapport with his boss. Yet he fondly recalls observing Blass, cigarette dangling from a corner of his mouth and bons mots and zingers on the tip of his tongue. “He had confidence, which at that point in my career I didn’t necessarily have,” Som says. “He loved the grand gesture, and he didn’t really mince words. If something didn’t look good on a client, he’d just say it and give them something else.”
Blass, of course, was as well known for being one of New York’s most prominent walkers as he was for designing, and he had complex, long- lasting relationships with many leading socialites. He would accompany them to galas, his duties sometimes extending to being a godfather to their children. Some women even misunderstood his attentions and threw themselves at him.
They had reason to—he was always considered among the most dapper of men. Even when he served in the Army Corps of Engineers’ secret camouflage unit during World War II, he had his uniforms tailored, and he considered his war years a training of sorts for his future on Seventh Avenue. Once there, he put almost every major American socialite, from Nancy Reagan, Casey Ribicoff and Lynn Wyatt to Carolyne Roehm and Blaine Trump, in his clean, luxurious sportswear.
Som regards Blass as a kindred spirit, design-wise. “Mr. Blass didn’t try to be cool or try to be hip or downtown,” he says. “He knew exactly who his customer was, and he knew exactly the life they lived. He was friends with a lot of them.”