Passing the torch in a venerable fashion house is a dangerous game. Expectations from clients, buyers and critics run high when legendary shoes are to be filled. When Bill Blass retired last year, Steven Slowik was handed the reigns and faced with a daunting Catch-22: Stay true to Blass' consummately conservative roots but innovate enough to spark some precious fashion buzz. Slowik missed the target by a long shot in the single awkward and unflattering collection he designed at Blass, and was promptly shown the door.

So this January, with only a month before the Fall 2001 shows, Bill Blass Ltd. found itself flying without a pilot and pulled up one of its staff designers, the Swedish-born and Paris-trained Lars Nilsson, to put together a collection. And in a few short weeks, Nilsson pulled together a robust collection of unmistakably Bill Blass clothes: bold red cashmere coats, pinstripe suits and trim satin trenchcoats. The core of Nilsson's style is conservative enough to fit the Bill Blass image, with plush fabrics and familiar shapes, but the Swedish designer keeps it all looking current with minimal embellishments and sleek tailoring.