Before Tommy and Ralph became household first names and Calvin put his signature on everything, there were the distinctly American pinstriped suits and cashmere-accented ball gowns of Bill Blass. Best known for dressing the ladies who lunch, the designer — who died June 12 of cancer at his home in New Preston, Conn., at 79 — also made fashion accessible to everyday women.

”He was a great designer — very simple, not trendy,” says longtime client Nancy Reagan, who along with Katharine Graham and Brooke Astor typified the Blass ”gal,” as he liked to call them. Not that his classic attire didn’t attract newer fans. ”I’m very much into his suits,” said Sex and the City’s Kim Cattrall from the front row of last February’s Blass show. ”They’re comfortable and stylish.”

Born in Fort Wayne, Ind., Blass moved to New York in 1939 and worked as a sketch artist as well as with such designers as Anne Klein and Anna Miller. He created his eponymous line in 1970, building it into a $700 million empire with licensing agreements for everything from chocolates to perfume. (The company was sold for a reported $50 million in 1999.) Among his honors were 1987’s Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America and a 1968 Coty Award for menswear. Notes Blass fan Mary Tyler Moore: ”He combined chic and elegance better than anybody.”