By  on January 21, 2005

NEW YORK — Truman was in the White House and women still wore hats the first time Oleg Cassini landed the windows at Lord & Taylor’s Fifth Avenue flagship. More than half a century later, the designer is doing the honors again.

Under the banner “Now and Then,” the store is now showcasing in its windows Cassini’s new white denim collection, and six white vintage dresses, including a few worn by Jacqueline Kennedy. Near the store’s entrance, passersby paused Thursday to get a closer look at two larger-than-life photos of the former first lady with the jaunty president.

Unlike the pedestrians, Cassini is taking the flashback in stride. “To me, it’s just the progression from the constant effort to improve. It represents what I’m trying to do. There is a very young note, and there is the classical.”

More importantly, the 91-year-old designer has been “validated” by two of the top executives at L&T. It was the store’s first female president, Dorothy Shaver, who initially helped launch his career in 1951, and now president and chief executive officer Jane Elfers has helped refresh it. Shaver was instrumental in launching other designers’ careers, including Claire McCardell, who worked as an L&T buyer at one point. Despite the five decades that have passed, Cassini said he vividly remembers how Shaver was “stern, but very polite and encouraging” to him.

Fresh from five years in the U.S. Army and a run designing costumes in Hollywood, he relocated to New York in the early Fifties. “After doing three or four motion pictures in Hollywood, I realized fashion in Hollywood was going downhill because of TV and other things,” he said. “You had to go to New York if you wanted to be a significant designer.”

Shaver’s decision to turn over all the store’s windows to this little-known designer saved his business. “It was the difference between survival and disappearance. I didn’t have any money, and I hadn’t made a lot of money in the army after five years.

In the meantime, he said he is happy to have L&T plaster his name and sketches of his face “all over the place like a pharaoh from Egypt.” The flagship will throw a party in his honor Wednesday night.LaVelle Olexa, senior vice president of fashion merchandising, said, “He is almost an institution. His name is internationally known. He is a phenomena. Fifty years is a very long time for the fashion business, where we see such great talent come and go. He deserves to be recognized.”

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