Fash­ion de­signer Arnold Scaasi dies at age 85


De­signer Arnold Scaasi, whose bright, flam­boy­ant cre­ations adorned first ladies from Mamie Eisen­hower to Laura Bush and film stars from El­iz­a­beth Tay­lor to Bar­bra Streisand, has died. He was 85.

Scaasi died early Tues­day at New York-Pres­by­te­rian Hos­pi­tal of car­diac ar­rest, said his long­time friend, Michael Sel­leck, ex­ec­u­tive vice pres­i­dent of sales and mar­ket­ing at Si­mon & Schuster.

Un­til he closed his dress busi­ness in 2010, Scaasi — his sur­name, Isaacs, spelled back­ward — spe­cial­ized in made-to-or­der clothes, fa­vor­ing or­nate, bril­liant­ly­hued fab­rics and trim­mings like beads and feath­ers.

“Fash­ion, it’s re­ally about feel­ing good,” he told The As­so­ci­ated Press in 2002, when the Mu­seum at the Fash­ion In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy ex­hib­ited his works. “It should be fun to get dressed. I like ex­cit­ing and pretty clothes that help women feel ex­cit­ing and pretty.”

While “less is more” was usu­ally not his credo, per­haps Scaasi’s best known out­fit was a fa­mously translu­cent pantsuit worn by Streisand’s in 1969 to ac­cept the best-ac­tress Os­car for “Funny Girl” (she won in a tie with Katharine Hep­burn.) It fea­tured bell-bot­tom pants and a match­ing top in span­gly black lace, with white col­lar and cuffs.

Strate­gi­cally placed patch pock­ets cov­ered her breasts, but the ef­fect of the thin fab­ric in bright light cre­ated the im­pres­sion of nu­dity from some an­gles. Scaasi de­nied the in­tent was to shock, say­ing only that he told Streisand: “We have to do some­thing very mod­ern — re­ally of to­day” — since to that point, movie­go­ers had seen her only in cos­tumes from another era.

Scaasi’s most im­por­tant legacy will be that of “his pro­found in­di­vid­u­al­ity,” Parker Ladd, the de­signer’s hus­band since 2011 and his part­ner of 54 years, said in a tele­phone in­ter­view Tues­day.

“Ev­ery­one who com­mit­ted to his clothes will feel that way, and mu­se­ums and history will re­mem­ber him that way,” Ladd said.

Va­lerie Steele, di­rec­tor of the FIT mu­seum, worked on the Scaasi ex­hibit and re­called the de­signer as “an amaz­ing in­di­vid­ual, so inim­itable — very funny and witty, a real per­son­al­ity.” She called his de­signs “col­or­ful, fem­i­nine and sculp­tural.”

Scaasi was born in 1930 in Mon­treal. His fa­ther was a fur­rier, and he be­came in­ter­ested in art and fash­ion at an early age.

He trained both in Mon­treal and Paris and worked for de­signer Charles James — famed for his glam­orous, sculp­tural gowns — in New York be­fore open­ing his first ready-to-wear busi­ness in 1956.

Over the years he won nu­mer­ous awards, in­clud­ing the 1996 life­time achieve­ment award from the Coun­cil of Fash­ion De­sign­ers of Amer­ica.

Be­cause he did rel­a­tively lit­tle for the mass ready-to-wear mar­ket, Scaasi wasn’t as well known to the av­er­age cus­tomer as con- tem­po­raries like Os­car de la Renta or Liz Clai­borne.

But he did de­sign some high-end ready-to-wear clothes for spe­cialty stores, telling Women’s Wear Daily in 2007 that he was cre­at­ing a new ready-to-wear line be­cause “women were stop­ping me in air­ports and ask­ing me at din­ner par­ties.”

Ded­i­cated to Cus­tomiza­tion

For a spec­tac­u­lar price, his so­cialite and celebrity clients got oneof-a-kind clothes — care­fully con­structed, tai­lored to their pre­cise size, high­light­ing their best points and cam­ou­flag­ing their worst. He was known for tak­ing dozens and dozens of mea­sure­ments of clients’ bod­ies.

In his 2004 book, “Women I Have Dressed (and Un­dressed),” Scaasi de­scribed some of the things he made for El­iz­a­beth Tay­lor: “A spec­tac­u­lar white satin ball gown with a rhine­stone de­sign of arches over the en­tire dress. ... A long black vel­vet cape to go over it — it was fab. ... A coral and turquoise pe­tu­nia printed silk short dress with a cape coat in turquoise cash­mere. ... A beau­ti­ful short black chif­fon num­ber that was to­tally cov­ered in tiny leaves and flow­ers with dia­mante clus­ters.”

Scaasi was a young man when he had his first White House client: Mamie Eisen­hower. The first lady fa­vored strap­less evening gowns, Scaasi wrote: “I was very pleased that Mrs. Eisen­hower wanted to look so stylish.”

For Bar­bara Bush, he de­signed a num­ber of out­fits in­clud­ing her two-toned, deep blue “Bar­bara blue” 1989 inau­gu­ral gown.

Laura Bush, he said, had to be per­suaded to shorten her skirts slightly, to mid-knee. He praised her “long neck, which, of course, any woman would give her eye­teeth to pos­sess.”

Scaasi said loy­alty to the Bushes pre­vented him from ac­tively seek­ing made-to-or­der busi­ness from Hil­lary Rod­ham Clin­ton. But to his sur­prise, he said, he met her in 1994 and learned that she had pur­chased a dress of his, a ruffly black num­ber that she called “one of the pret­ti­est gowns I own.”

As for another fa­mous first lady — Jac­que­line Kennedy — Scaasi wrote in his book that she had worn his clothes be­fore she be­came first lady, but not af­ter; he said he could not af­ford to pro­vide cloth­ing to her as first lady for free.

Scaasi also re­called in his book how he per­suaded opera star Joan Suther­land to feel com­fort­able in clothes that showed off her fig­ure, rather than hid­ing it.

He made a gown with apri­cot roses on a black back­ground, top­ping it with a tan­ger­ine silk cloak. He wrote that she told him: “I have never felt pretty in my life. Tonight I feel re­ally pretty.”

Scaasi is sur­vived by hus­band Ladd, with whom he shared homes on Man­hat­tan’s Beek­man Place, on Long Is­land and in Palm Beach, Florida.

“Our re­la­tion­ship was very pro­found,” Ladd said Tues­day.

(Right) In this April 14, 1969 file photo, ac­tress and singer Bar­bra Streisand wears a se­quined Arnold Scaasi bell-bot­tomed sheer pantsuit as she poses with her Os­car for her role in “Funny Girl” at the 41st Academy Awards in Los An­ge­les.


(Above) In this Oct. 10, 2002 file photo, fash­ion de­signer Arnold Scaasi talks about his de­signs at the Fash­ion In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy in New York.

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