- The Washington Times - Wednesday, January 2, 2002

NEW YORK — Fashion designer Lars Nilsson was born in Sweden and trained in couture houses in Paris. So what's he doing at the helm of Bill Blass, one of New York's most famous sportswear houses?

He's turning out clothes that are wearable, fashionable and appealing to the label's American customers, that's what.

With two seasons at Blass under his belt (worn on this day with a tweed three-piece suit and a purple tie), Mr. Nilsson is getting attention. His spring 2002 collection was among "the winners" heralded by industry insiders following the September previews. Fashionistas are eagerly waiting for his vegetable-print dresses, embroidered gowns and men's-style suits to hit stores.

"I'm using graphics and luxurious fabrics to take my couture and European background and to use it in an American way. it was tough at first. The whole first-collection process was a discussion of 'Is it American? Is it Blass? Is it wearable?'" Mr. Nilsson says.

Did he mention salable?

When he took the head designer job almost a year ago, Mr. Nilsson was charged not only with putting together a fall line within weeks (a task that normally takes months), but with wooing back Blass fans who had abandoned the label when the company's founder retired in 1999. The interim collections, by Steven Slowik, had been criticized as straying too far from the house's signature styles.

Mr. Nilsson says a typical marriage of his vision and the Blass label's traditional look is a long skirt with elegant French beading and a print taken from Swedish folklore, then paired with a crisp white shirt.

It's an outfit that American women can carry off, he adds.

"Americans are really great at putting an American chicness to things, a casualty of wearing things. They can mix sporty and luxury."

Mr. Nilsson says he marvels at the creative combinations, such as a couture blouse paired with jeans, that U.S. fashion followers dream up.

Sometimes, however, the look is taken too far, he says.

Mr. Nilsson adds that after two years of observing American women, his primary criticism falls at their feet.

"Often the problem is the shoes, especially sneakers. You should wear sneakers when you're supposed to wear sneakers. I have sneakers, but I don't wear them with a dress, and neither should you," he says with a laugh.

Mr. Nilsson's other observation about the American clotheshorse is her demand for beautiful, feel-good fabrics and comfortable clothes that move easily with the body.

Mr. Nilsson, 35, came to the United States in 1999 to work for Ralph Lauren. He previously was in France, first as an apprentice in the Chanel Couture Atelier. Later he worked with Christian Lacroix and John Galliano.

Couture clothing is hard to do because the ideas are fabulous and over the top, but no one really wears them, Mr. Nilsson says. In ready-to-wear, the opposite is the problem: The clothes need to be toned down enough so everyone will want to wear them.

Mr. Nilsson says the Swedish touches he has added to the Blass line, such as elaborate embroideries, are subtle (thanks to the region's color palette of navy, gray and beige) but they make the outfits special.

He offered a preview of his first pieces under the label to the legendary Mr. Blass. Needless to say, he was relieved to see Scandinavian furniture decorating his employer's house.

He was on a roll.

Mr. Nilsson also has added some silhouettes in jersey in an effort to court younger, more body-conscious customers. What he finds really in his favor, though, is the popularity of the tailored look, which both he and Mr. Blass like, and the fact that it looks good on almost everyone.

Another plus for Mr. Nilsson is the shopping habits of American women.

"I'm quite surprised that our [Blass] customers buy so many pieces. They trust designers a lot. If they like a look, they plan their wardrobe for the next few months. In Europe, people shop the day before they need to wear it. They're not as loyal," he says.

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