NEW YORK — Private funeral services will be held Thursday for Arnold Scaasi, the designer and confidant to a bevy of First Ladies and New York insiders, who died Tuesday at age 85.
Scaasi died of cardiac arrest at New York-Presbyterian Hospital, according to his longtime associate Glendina Weste.
Born Arnold Isaacs, the designer changed his surname to Scaasi for business purposes in the mid-Fifties. One of the first American designers to break out on his own in his 20s, he became known for his designs as much as his ties to well-heeled women. He also helped pioneer the home shopping trend, first selling to QVC in 2001 and later signing up with HSN. Shrewd in business, rather than donate his archives to the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston in 2009, Scaasi opted to sell them.
He also helped break other new ground in 2011 when he and his longtime companion Parker Ladd were among the first gay couples in the fashion crowd to officially tie the knot and host a celebrity-studded celebration at Le Cirque. The Canadian-born designer also staked his claim in American history, dressing five First Ladies — six, if one added Lady Bird Johnson, whom he classified in a separate category. His White House days traced back to Mamie Eisenhower, whom he first dressed in 1960, “then on to Jackie Kennedy before she went into the White House, as the Senator’s wife, and also after. And then, of course, Barbara Bush, who I still dress to this day, and Mrs. Clinton and Laura Bush. Is that the right order?” he asked in a 2009 interview with WWD.
Indeed it was, with one omission: “Somewhere in there was Lady Bird Johnson,” whom the designer viewed differently from the others precisely because he didn’t deal with her directly. Rather, President Lyndon Johnson would somehow happen upon a Scaasi design “and would tell his secretary…‘I like that for my wife.’”
Former First Lady Barbara Bush said Tuesday, “I loved Arnold Scaasi. He was a dear friend and a brilliant fashion designer who could make any woman feel like a princess. His dresses brought me great joy – whether they were for a state dinner or just a simple suit I could wear anywhere. We sometimes would fight a little about colors and styles, and he, of course, was always right. Arnold’s legacy will be on display forever, thanks to the gorgeous blue Inaugural [Ball] gown he made for me, now at the Smithsonian’s American History Museum. His friends and the world of fashion will miss him terribly.”
While many remember Bush’s Inaugural dress, it was Scassi’s daring black evening jumpsuit with sequins and a white collar and cuffs for Barbra Streisand that created the most sensation when she wore it to the Oscars in 1969, since it looked sheerer than either thought. “Very saddened” to hear of Scaasi’s passing,” Streisand said Tuesday. “Arnold was a wonderful designer who knew how to combine fantasy and craftsmanship. He made many fabulous outfits for me over the years and, unfortunately, only one of them stole the headlines. I had no idea when I wore it to receive the Academy Award that the outfit would become see-through under the lights! I was embarrassed but it sure was original at the time.”
As for Scaasi’s own personal favorites, there were many, with Bush topping that list. Joan Crawford, Elizabeth Taylor, Ivana Trump, Joan Rivers, Florence Henderson, Dinah Shore, Danielle Steel, Diahann Carroll, Barbara Walters, Mary Tyler Moore and Mitzi Gaynor were other clients in his Rolodex.
Accomplished and well-known as he was, Scaasi also had a reputation for being difficult and pushy. But that was often accompanied by a hearty dose of humor. Unabashedly opinionated, quick-witted and feisty, Scaasi never left friends or foes wondering what he was thinking. Even in recent days, when he was under medical care and had been advised not to talk, he told friends, “I have to talk” — much to their delight. Hosting a party for the CFDA’s new members in 2006 in his art-laden Beekman Place apartment, Scaasi, with microphone in hand, stood atop the staircase overlooking guests on the terrace below and blared, “The wonderful thing about having your own party is that you can do whatever you want.”
Scaasi’s career was so chockablock with one-liners and memorable moments that the designer — who inspired Dominick Dunne’s character Nevel, “Leven spelled backward,” in his 1988 society roman-a-clef, “People Like Us” — was reluctant to single out any particular time period, even later in life when some tend to get nostalgic. Asked if Scaasi liked to refer to a favorite stretch, Ladd said Tuesday, “His entire life — he was committed to fashion.”
After meeting purely by chance on Central Park South in July 1962, Scaasi and Ladd embarked on what became a 53-year union. “We met on the street. I was living at the athletic club and working at Scribners. Arnold lived nearby. He asked me for a drink and we never separated from that very moment on,” Ladd said Tuesday. “I was a real country boy from Island Post, Vermont, where my grandfather had a farm and was an inventor. Arnold was a pretty sophisticated New Yorker who was pretty busy on the fashion world.”
Over the years, Scaasi and Ladd liked jetting off for some off-shore entertaining in Acapulco, Capri and Palm Beach, where they wintered for many years. In Capri, Scaasi liked to celebrate Bastille Day by hosting a costume party. Remnants of one of those gatherings, a color photograph of Scaasi wearing a kilt standing beside Ladd, was used for their 2011 union celebration. Starting in 1969, Scaasi and Ladd teamed up to help raise money for Literacy Partners, an organization they remained committed to for decades.
Although the Montreal-born Scaasi was the son of a furrier, he credited his Chanel-and-Schiaparelli-loving aunt Ida, whom he lived with for a year during high school in Australia, for steering him into fashion. He prefaced his 55-year fashion career by studying at the Cotnoir-Capponi School of Design and then the Chambre Syndicale school in Paris, before apprenticing at Paquin. It was Christian Dior who suggested that he go back to the U.S. to work for Charles James. Taking that advice, Scaasi learned from James a sense of form and a nonapologetic color sense that proved to be highly influential throughout his career.
“Fashion means little on its own,” Scaasi liked to say. “Its first function is to make a woman beautiful. It must enhance and compliment the wearer, or it has no merit as a design.”
With the flamboyant color sense influenced by James, Scaasi’s designs were not for the faint of heart. He also liked sculptural shapes — including asymmetrical and brioche forms; sumptuous fabrics, often with diamante tracery or appliqués, flowers, embroidery, fur, beading and ruffles. That made him a perfect match for the over-the-top Eighties, a time when he had many customers and a thriving business and relaunched a ready-to-wear business. Publicist Jody Donohue, who worked with Scaasi in the Eighties, said Tuesday, “He was able to create clothes that made a woman feel very feminine and he had a number of splendid clients who just adored him and who insisted on working with him. He was creative but also a very good businessman.
“No matter how aggressive he could be, he always rallied people,” Donohue said. “He could be difficult, yes, but even in being difficult, he was open to concerns, though not quite amenable.”
In 1964, Scaasi made a bold move and shuttered his rtw company on Seventh Avenue to open a made-to-order house. He took that risk just at the moment when a youthquake was breaking all over the world and other custom firms were having a hard time making a go of it. Ellin Saltzman, Saks Fifth Avenue’s former fashion director, once told WWD, “You have to remember Arnold’s the only one of the custom designers who’s lasted. Nobody else has done what he has done — on his own. It’s easy only if you’re the right kind of person. You have to enjoy, as he did, working directly with his clients.” She was one as well, describing the red sequined trapeze dress he made for her as “phenomenal” and one that now belongs to her daughter.
Saltzman first met Scaasi in the Seventies on assignment as a fashion editor for Glamour magazine. “He was funny, slightly pompous, and had an amazing sense of self. His contribution to American design was glamour. He was one of the very few couturiers to mix with his clients,” she said Tuesday. “His ready-to-wear never made it in my mind – only his custom made. And any guy who dressed five Presidents’ wives for better or for worse deserves credit.”
Saltzman and her husband Renny had many laughs socializing at dinners with Scaasi and Ladd. One weekend while the foursome and Liz Smith were visiting Claudette Colbert’s Bahamian home along with Helen O’Hagan, “Claudette kept sending Arnold back to his room to change, because she didn’t like what he was wearing. It was hysterical. She didn’t like the length of his bathing suits. I think Arnold was wearing a Speedo.”
Like Ladd, Scaasi met another instrumental figure in his life, Gayfryd Steinberg, a Reagan-era hostess whose lifestyle became synonymous with Eighties-era excess, by a stroke of serendipity. In a 2010 WWD interview, Scaasi recalled spotting Steinberg at the Guggenheim and finding in her an ideal client. “She had a wonderful figure and she was rich,” he said. “Don’t laugh. Rich is very important when you want to do these kinds of pieces.”
Many associate Scaasi’s style with his structured numbers and over-the-top ballgowns, such as one with Elizabethan black velvet puffed sleeves and hot pink satin slits, as his signature look. His imprint on the industry extended beyond style, though. In the mid Fifties, when Cadillac refused to run his given “Jewish-sounding” name Isaacs in credits for an ad that featured a model wearing one of his designs, he decided to start spelling it backward, according to Stan Herman, who first befriended the designer in 1953. “At that time, even though Seventh Avenue was considered to be very Jewish, a lot of people were trying to hide their Jewishness,” Herman said.
“He was probably the first designer to break through when he was in his mid-20s,” Herman said. “He had a major career in our business and a career that helped a lot of people move into the big time because his name was accepted as a designer whose clothes were important enough to be covered by the press.”
Herman also recalled Scaasi’s at-times acerbic side. Years ago when the designer was about to be honored at the CFDA awards and PETA protestors started acting up, he said from the podium, “‘This is my night. You’re not going to ruin it,'” Herman recalled. “Even if you believed what PETA was saying, you had to applaud.”
Scaasi lived a glamorous lifestyle, working out of a Stanford White town house on 57th Street and living on Central Park South, with a country house in Quogue, N.Y., and a house in Palm Beach. He collected art, too — sculpture by Louise Nevelson (also a customer) and Boris Fedushin, paintings by Vasarely, Picasso, Leger and Monet paintings, a David Hockney screen, and a society woman portrait by James Montgomery Flagg, which he said resembled Tallulah Bankhead as Regina in “The Little Foxes.”
He designed costumes for three movies — Streisand’s contemporary clothes for the 1970 film “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,” costumes for Shirley MacLaine and Susan Sarandon in Eighties “Loving Couples” and clothes for Sally Field in 1982’s “Kiss Me Goodbye.” Kent State University had a major Scaasi retrospective in 2001, while the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston had a show for him in 2010. F.I.T.; the New York Historical Society and Ohio State University have had shows for him, too. He received the CFDA’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996.
Costume designer William Ivey Long said Tuesday, “Arnold was such a hero, mentor and friend. He guided me through some tricky wickets: from danger to safe ground. He was so focused and so funny – I can hear his voice right now – lightening up tense situations with that unique, perfect pitch of tone and approach. A true original.”
The designer is survived by his husband, Ladd. A memorial service will be held next month in New York, according to Michael Selleck, who helped Scaasi with his two books — “A Cut Above,” (Rizzoli, 1996) and “Women I Have Dressed (and Undressed!)” (Scribner, 2004). Ladd said Tuesday, “All has come to an end. But he had a wonderful life.”