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Dennis Basso: Enjoying the Show

The jovial designer opens up about his business, his life and hints at things to come.

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WWD Milestones issue 02/12/2013

Baritone, gregarious, directorial — Dennis Basso is more often than not heard before seen. But once he does appear, he can pretty much command the room merely by walking into it. Warm and effervescent, tagging on a hug to the requisite air kiss, greeting visitors with a hey-how-are-you-honey like he is genuinely glad to see them.

Not-so-New-York as that might be, somehow the designer has made buying his clothes a bit like Old Home Week. On an unseasonably warm January day, a few shoppers greeted the handsome doorman at Basso’s Madison Avenue boutique with “I’m here to see Dennis.”

That kind of familiarity was just what Basso was after when he opened his first freestanding store, which he hoped would make customers feel as though they were walking into his home. Granted, the average urbanite’s pad is free from racks of sheared mink jackets and sable coats, but you get the point.


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And apparently, so do his customers.

During that recent visit, two friends tried on several coats before deciding which ones to buy.

“It’s been an expensive morning,” one said with a laugh to the other as she said good-bye. Browsing through a rack of furs, the woman who remained said, “What’s more fun than spending money shopping?” to no one in particular.

Seated at his desk in a signature navy Ermenegildo Zegna blazer, Basso, 58, looks ever the Upper East Sider, but what might not be readily apparent is a sentimental side. He always carries his father’s pen knife and the keys to the house he grew up in, in Lake Hopatcong, N.J., on his mother’s Gucci key ring.

His first job in the industry taught him how to do a little bit of everything, from designing to shipping and sales.

Along with the numerous press clippings about his 30-year career, there is a framed thank-you note from Meryl Streep; the first fashion sketch he drew at the age of seven (with $500,000 scrawled across); a photo of his parents, Theresa and Richard; another of his husband, Michael Cominotto, and their miniature schnauzer, Basso.

It’s all work and play. Whether hosting trunk shows, going from one meeting to the next, making appearances at QVC — the designer said he has no trouble working hard to get things done.

“It’s all part of who I am,” he said. “I could never imagine doing what I’m doing and not loving it. That would not be possible. People who are successful at what they do love what they do.”

WWD: Besides the four Dennis Basso boutiques and concept shop at Harrods in London and another at Tsum in Moscow, your collection is sold at Bloomingdales’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and luxury boutiques. Will you open more stores?
Dennis Basso:
Our 2,000-square-foot boutique in Harrods has been extremely successful, both in the evening collection and the furs. New York is our top-selling location but Harrods is a very successful shop-in-shop.

We are thinking of possibly opening stores in Milan, Paris and the Middle East through several partners.

WWD: How do you deal with the fur protestors?
D.B.:
You know, it’s America — everyone has his own opinion. That’s why we live here.

WWD: Would you ever sell the business?
D.B.:
It’s not something I would entertain immediately, but if somebody came to me with a great plan, I would entertain that thought. I believe the Dennis Basso label has a lot of uncharted water still to go into. I understand the luxury end in eveningwear and furs, and we have unbelievable mass-market appeal at QVC. But there is a whole middle-of-the-road area that has been untapped.

We’re actually working on finding the right partners to create that middle piece of contemporary sportswear.

WWD: How did you envision your career?
D.B.:
I thought that I would one day be a designer and wanted that very badly. But what I wanted when I would read about the then-famous designers was the combination of the designer and the lives they were leading — Bill Blass, Carolina Herrera, Oscar de la Renta and Yves Saint Laurent.

In the Eighties, Ivana Trump invited me to fly on their private jet, a 727, to go to [Mar-A-Lago in Palm Beach]. That’s when it was their private residence. She gave a dinner for 50. I was like, “You can’t make this up. This is great.”

WWD: How would you describe yourself to someone who doesn’t know you?
D.B.:
I’m fun — I like to have fun. I’m a very loving open-hearted person. I’m actually very inclusive. I love all kinds and all types of people. That is something that has been beneficial to me from a business standpoint but also from a personal one. That makes me open to all sorts of opportunities.

WWD: So has your success been more a matter of personality than craft?
D.B.:
You can’t be successful without a perfect product — the quality and the workmanship are paramount. But I think that the designer’s personality clearly lends something to what the design is actually about and that connection. It’s a very interesting mix and it all kind of melds into one.

WWD: What was it like when you first went out on your own?
D.B.:
My first office was at 307 Seventh Avenue. It was about 20 feet by 20 feet. I sublet it from a manufacturer. Today, most dressing rooms are bigger than that. I showed my first collection in September of 1983, after forming my company that spring. After my first show at The Regency, the following day Ivana Trump bought seven furs from the collection and Leba Sedaka bought five. They are both close friends today.

WWD: How did you get started?
D.B.:
Actually, I looked in Women’s Wear Daily. There was an ad for Hi Fishman Furs that said, “Designer Sales Shipping.” And I thought, “This is great.” What I hadn’t realized was there wasn’t a comma between each position and that I would be doing all of those jobs. But they hired me and I really took to it.

I loved working in luxury and I totally immersed myself and I even got involved in sales and production. Even to this day I know how to pack a bag quite well.

WWD: When did you know you were onto something?
D.B.:
Around 1981 or ’82, a good friend wanted to buy a fox jacket wholesale for his girlfriend, so I had one made and sold it for $400, and my friend and I each left with $50. That was [some] nice little extra spending money in 1982.

Somehow this snowballed when word spread about what we were doing. Within one month, we could barely fit all the furs in a truck for these Tupperwarelike fur parties. We were going to Long Island, Greenwich, Short Hills, having two to three fur shows a week. This went on for about a year until one morning I came into work and Mr. Fishman called me into his office and said, “You’re fired.”

WWD: What did you do after that?
D.B.:
That day I was quite upset but my partner said, “Don’t worry. We have so many fur parties lined up.” As a young man living in such a big, glamorous city, it was exciting. There were limos everywhere, the “Dynasty” thing was going on and people really dressed to go out. At night we would go to the Limelight, Palladium.

WWD: From the mid-Eighties through the early Nineties, you had a celebrity finale for your runway shows. How much have celebrities influenced your career?
D.B.:
That was a very exciting moment, but it was about that moment in time. It was fun and wonderful. I loved the fact that in the opening scene of “The Devil Wears Prada,” Meryl Streep is wearing one of my coats. I’m sure that a lot of designers feel that way when they see someone wearing one of their dresses at an awards ceremony. And someone who says that is not a great feeling — I don’t believe them. It’s a big deal. And we have always had celebrity recognition as long as anyone could remember.

WWD: Do you have a few favorite celebrities?
D.B.:
I love Meryl Streep. We made a coat for Nicole Kidman in “Nine.” She’s so beautiful. That was also a big moment, to see her on the big screen wrapped in one of my coats.

I find that people are very lovely when you’re dealing with them. When I had my 20th anniversary, Diana Ross finaled my show. To have grown up with all of that music and knowing “Miss Ross” was actually in my fashion show and I was taking the final bow with her…to see her in my coat walking with her on the runway. I’m not jaded at all when it comes to any of those moments.

WWD: Do you remember doing that sketch that is now on your wall?
D.B.:
I drew that in my bedroom at my table and chair. I still have that table and chair in our basement in Water Mill. I’m [an] only child, so my mother had everything well-preserved. I had a wonderful childhood so the memories of my childhood and growing up were great. I have a lot of different mementos.

WWD: What is most challenging about what you do?
D.B.:
The most challenging part is to stay current and modern, but yet be true to your own aesthetic. It’s about moving with the times and being aware of what your customer wants and what she needs, not always what some designers put out there. It’s important to create a look and to make a statement, but it’s important to be true to your client and to know what they want. That is who has helped to build your business.

WWD: How do you stay current?
D.B.:
You have to surround yourself with a creative team that is bright and smart. You have to be willing to exchange ideas. It’s important that you always have an open mind, but it has to be who you are.

When grunge was big, I just couldn’t go near it. No matter what the trend is, I like a finished, polished look. For me, that is the most important look. The Dennis Basso woman, no matter if she is 25, 35 or all the way to 85, is someone who wants a finished look. She likes being pulled together, even if it is in the most casual manner.

WWD: You appeal to the social set, many of whom are friends. How frequently do you go out?
D.B.:
Sometimes we are out several nights a week — it goes in waves. We spend a lot of time at our house in Water Mill, so that tends to be friends coming over for a bite or going out for a casual bite. We travel a lot for business — sometimes your life becomes not your own. We don’t go out just for the sake of going out. I like to go out for a reason. Otherwise, it’s fun to stay home. Michael works on the collection for QVC in product development. We got married last year at The Pierre’s first same-sex wedding.

WWD: Why do you still work so hard?
D.B.:
Listen, I am a very positive individual. It’s a gift. I wake up happy every day. In business, there are peaks and valleys every day. The day there is a valley, you look around and think, “Whose idea was this any way?”

You work so hard to make the picture grow, and that’s a lot of responsibility. The fun, the recognition and — dot, dot, dot, the aggravation — grows with the whole scenario.

In the 30 years, there were different financial challenges and you have to go back and reevaluate. I was always very fortunate to keep things level and move forward in a very positive manner.

WWD: Is there anything you would have done differently?
D.B.:
I never felt like I was a quote-unquote struggling designer. I think it was because of the support of my parents, helping me along the way. Though there were challenges, I always continued to have a very nice life but was not afraid to work to get it done. Like today.

WWD: Did you ever think that going into business might not have been the greatest idea?
D.B.:
I don’t think we were smart enough to be scared. I was able to live in my L-shaped studio in a doorman apartment building on East 58th between Second and Third. I was doing something that I really fell in love with.

WWD: What would people be most surprised to learn about you?
D.B.:
That I’m really a little bit shy and extremely, extremely sensitive.

WWD: What is the biggest misconception about you?
D.B.:
That I’m full-speed ahead and nothing can stop me. That may have to do with my having a big-sounding voice.

WWD: What would you most likely be doing if you weren’t working?
D.B.:
C’mon, I’d be on the big screen. I like to get a late start, not necessarily sleep late, then get ready and meet two or three friends for a fantastic lunch together. We go to Cipriani, Amaranth, Michael’s, Ciro’s.

WWD: What was the road not taken?
D.B.:
Do I wonder what it would be like to be a doctor who saves lives? I marvel at people who have that kind of intelligence but that was not my calling. It gives me great pleasure to do what I do.

WWD: What is your most prized possession and what is your greatest accomplishment?
D.B.:
My life at home, and being a good partner of 21 years.

WWD: You have dressed Hillary Clinton and were in the White House when a gunman opened fire on a group of men on the north lawn thinking that President Clinton was among them. Did you fear for your life and did that experience make you change the way you live your life?
D.B.:
I didn’t think we were in danger until after it happened. Not one drop. Right after it happened we were at a dinner at the White House and President Clinton came over and said, “I hope tonight is a little less eventful for you.”

WWD: What’s next?
D.B.:
I want to grow this business even further. I feel as though I’ve only just begun. Actually, a day without some sort of work for me is really a day without fun. I wouldn’t know what I could do if I couldn’t get dressed and do some sort of work. And I think the sky’s the limit. In a perfect world, I could see myself having a morning talk show.

WWD: Not to rush things, but how would you like to be remembered?
D.B.:
As being kindhearted and caring.

 

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