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Oleg Cassini: Iconic and Enduring

Oleg Cassini, the swashbuckling designer whose name will forever be linked with that of Jacqueline Kennedy, his most celebrated client, will be remembered...

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NEW YORK — Oleg Cassini, the swashbuckling designer whose name will forever be linked with that of Jacqueline Kennedy, his most celebrated client, will be remembered as much for his cult of personality and licensing prowess as for his clothes. He died Friday from a broken blood vessel in the head at North Shore Hospital, according to his wife Marianne Nestor. He was 92.

In a career that began during the Great Depression and continued into the 21st century, Cassini combined dash, durability and an uninhibited ego to become America’s first celebrity designer, as well as its longest-running. Senator Edward M. Kennedy said in a statement, “Oleg was truly an original. He had an eye for beauty, a love of life and an infectious laughter that enriched all our lives.”

Reached Sunday, his sister Ethel recalled leaning on the kitchen counters and crowding around the kitchen table of her family’s Palm Beach estate with her siblings and Cassini “just regaled us with one story after another.” In Sun Valley, he skied the black diamonds with them “like it was going in your backyard” and after a day on the slopes would whip up a superb dinner for 40, she said.

“He was such a charmer and very funny and full of beans. Kind and generous. Everyone loved being in his company.” Kennedy said. “He was a superb athlete – just to watch him dance. God.”

Cassini’s victory at the 1976 RFK Tennis Tournament, something his confidantes said he spent two years training for, was one of her fonder memories of the designer. “The day he won the tennis tournament was so nice. Jackie presented the trophy to him. He had given so much to our family. It was nice to be able to give something to him.”

“Everybody loved him and I don’t think you can say anything better than that.” Kennedy said.

While Cassini was unabashed about his love of women, one of his better-kept secrets later in life was the fact he had a wife of 35 years. Nestor, who is president of Oleg Cassini Inc., said she and Cassini said it was more intimate to keep news of their marriage private since they were both “very private people.” A former model, she first met Cassini while she was living and working in Paris and an argument about the exact location of Charles Martel’s Battle of Tour quickly ensued. When they concluded both were partially right, Nestor said Cassini suggested, “Let’s have 10 dates and then we’ll either have a great romance or a great friendship.”

After arriving in this country from Italy, he was a costume designer in Hollywood, ran a successful wholesale business on Seventh Avenue, became the official dressmaker to perhaps the most elegant First Lady in U.S. history, and spent the last several decades licensing his name to manufacturers of everything from sunglasses to fragrances to bridal gowns. He was likely the oldest fashion designer still working and his bridal-gown business was still booming.

Although Cassini felt his peers did not take him seriously enough as a designer, he was always a crowd favorite. And in 2003, the industry formally recognized Cassini when the Council of Fashion Designers of America presented him with its first “board of directors special tribute” and last month with one of its Icons of Style awards. He often joked about the timeliness of the awards he was given in recent years. In January of 2005, he was given a “night” by Lord & Taylor and 700 admirers showed up to see his new sportswear collection. He had gotten his first L&T windows 53 years earlier. Nestor said he was particularly touched by one guest’s comment who said: “He was always a part of my life even though he was never a part of my life.'”

Those who did know him, remembered an engaging man who never seemed to tire. A few months back Cassini said people routinely asked him why he was still working so hard. “I figure if I am going to hang around, I might as well work. I guess it’s because I’m a competitor. I have been all my life.”

Stan Herman, designer and president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, recalled first meeting Cassini in the Fifties, when he worked as a sketcher for the designer at his East 61st Street home and was clocked in by Cassini’s mother every morning.

“To me, he was the original red carpet designer,” Herman said. “He would always create these great necklines. He designed clothes for stars but at same time tried to make the average woman feel like she was on the red carpet.

“He was truly the first glamorous designer because he hung out with all those ladies. I was sitting at his desk on East 61st Street in the Fifties, and on his desk, on the left, was a picture of his wife Gene Tierney, and on the right, his girlfriend Grace Kelly. I used to sketch a dress for each one. That’s what kept me going there.”

“He always talked about the future and giggled about the past,” Herman said.

Herman recalled stumbling across a vintage Cassini leather bomber jacket in a thrift show from the Sixties about a year ago. “I bought it and sent it to him. He wrote me a note back saying, ‘Love it, doesn’t fit, you can have it.'”

Scores more CFDA members got a heart dose of Cassini’s wit, when he recapped his length career at the 2003 gala. He capped off his remarks, by telling the crowd how the gossip columnist Hedda Hopper had once questioned in an article whether Cassini’s mustache in any way contributed to his success with glamorous women like Gene Tierney and Grace Kelly. “Finally, I wrote her a letter,” Cassini said at the podium. “I wrote, ‘I give up. I’ll shave mine if you shave yours.”

To get better acquainted before presenting Cassini with the CFDA award, Diane von Furstenberg “went to see him in his house, and he took me to lunch at an Italian restaurant. I was impressed by his true elegance and galanterie…he clearly loved women and was a real playboy. He lived the lifestyle of a playboy, riding horse and playing tennis to the end…he designed for that lifstyle that he loved so much.”

LaVelle Olexa, senior vice president of fashion merchandising at Lord & Taylor said Sunday: “He had an association with so many stars and dressed celebrities long before it was a popular or of the moment thing for designers to do. There was also something very gentle about him — a kind of special insecurity that was part of his allure. He was always a gentleman.”

Marvin Traub remembered Cassini’s triumphs as an American designer. “He brought a certain elegance and chicness to American fashion in an earlier era when it was mostly about the Europeans,” Traub said. “He was the first American designer who was well known around the world. His ties to the Kennedy family really raised the image and status of fashion as a serious part of American culture.”

Cassini’s association with Kennedy made him arguably the best-known American designer in the world, but his contributions to fashion went well beyond the White House. He was one of the first designers to make in-store appearances and to expand his business through licensing. In men’s wear, he pioneered the use of vivid color in dress shirts and, for better or worse, he helped popularize the Nehru jacket — a style many critics said looked good only on its namesake. He also signed up Johnny Carson as a celebrity model in 1967.

His runway shows were unconventional. In the Fifties and Sixties, when his contemporaries were unveiling new collections in an atmosphere of solemn reserve, Cassini’s shows sparkled with irreverence and verve. He provided his own commentary, spicing it with double entendres. If a model sashayed by wearing a particularly sexy dress, for example, he might leer and say, “We call this one ‘Missionaries’ Downfall.'”

The out-of-town buyers ate it up and packed his shows — whether they were customers or not.

As befits a First Lady’s official dressmaker, Cassini championed American design for American women. There was no reason, he said, to accept style leadership from France. In an interview with WWD in May 1959, he suggested that Seventh Avenue should stop interpreting Paris and focus on creating its own designs.

“There are only a handful of thinking American manufacturers whose strength comes from opposition rather than from conformity to French trends,” he said. “All the styles stem from five or six picked in Paris, and the tendency, particularly among young designers, is to design not for the American consumer but for the fashion magazines.”

He refused to attend the Paris collections.

Ironically, the question of whether some of Jacqueline Kennedy’s clothes might actually have been designed by Hubert de Givenchy — a favorite of hers before John F. Kennedy’s election — dogged Cassini for years. He always denied it and could produce correspondence from Kennedy to back him up. A photo of Kennedy and sister Lee Radziwill with the inscription “Au revoir Givenchy, Bonjour Cassini!” was a favorite keepsake in his office.

Cassini’s private life filled the gossip columns. With his Russian-Italian background, rakish moustache and continental accent, he was the kind of fellow who could kiss a woman’s hand without looking — or feeling — silly. He married Gene Tierney, one of the most radiant movie stars of her day, pursued Grace Kelly but lost her to Monaco’s Prince Ranier, and dallied with such Hollywood icons as Lana Turner and Marilyn Monroe. His full head of hair went from black to snow white but the women on his arm remained forever young.

He was unblushingly aware of his ability to seduce — even as a baby. His 1987 autobiography, “In My Own Fashion,” begins when he is three and being fondled intimately by his little brother’s Danish teenage wet nurse. “I was adored by women, I must confess,” he wrote.

Cassini was also a remarkable athlete. Slim, graceful and ferociously competitive, he was a ranked tennis player while growing up in Italy and an accomplished horseman. He excelled at skiing, tennis, fencing and boxing. And at the age of 74, he became the oldest licensed professional harness racing driver in the U.S., steering a 10-to-1 shot to victory at Freehold Raceway in New Jersey on his second day in the sulky.

He and his younger brother, Igor, both adopted their mother’s surname because of her social connections. Igor became one of New York’s best-known gossip columnists, chronicling the exploits of cafe society for the New York Journal-American under the byline Cholly Knickerbocker. He died in 2002.

Oleg Cassini Loiewski was born in Paris on April 11, 1913, the son of Russian-Italian aristocrats. His father, Count Alexander Loiewski, was an envoy of Czar Nicholas II; his mother, Countess Marguerite Cassini, was the daughter of a Russian ambassador to the U.S. Before Cassini was nine, he had lived in France, Russia, Denmark and Switzerland; seen his family’s considerable assets disappear after the Czar was overthrown; and finally taken to Italy, where his mother began designing clothes for wealthy Florentines. Circumstances improved enough to allow Cassini to take lessons in gentlemanly pursuits such as boxing, fencing, skiing, piano and tap-dancing. He also began to show a keen interest in fashion.

The stock market crash of 1929 reintroduced the family to hard times. In 1931, Cassini went to Paris as a sketch artist for Jean Patou. He returned to Italy and started a custom business in Rome. By late 1936, Cassini decided to head for the U.S., whose movies — especially the westerns — had fascinated him. He later became an active supporter of many causes related to American Indians.

Cassini arrived in New York in December 1936 with $25, a tennis racquet and a dinner jacket. He also had some letters of introduction from his mother. He was hired as an assistant at Jo Copeland, then a major name on Seventh Avenue, and followed with several unsuccessful attempts to start his own business. In 1938, he met and married Merry Fahrney, the 25-year-old heiress to a cough syrup fortune. In his autobiography, Cassini described her as “one of only a few purely evil people I’ve met in my life.” A lurid divorce that was sensationalized in the tabloids became final in 1940.

That year, Cassini left New York for Hollywood, found work as a costume designer at Paramount and wooed Tierney, then a 19-year-old budding star. They eloped in 1941, against the wishes of the Hollywood establishment, which regarded him as a womanizing rogue. Cassini became a U.S. citizen in 1942, shortly after the start of World War II. He enlisted in the Coast Guard, but transferred to the U.S. Army Cavalry. He was assigned to Fort Riley, Kan., where he played polo, went fox hunting and taught soldiers to ride.

Returning to Hollywood after the war, Cassini was hired by Darryl F. Zanuck to design clothes for Twentieth-Century Fox, Tierney’s studio. All told, he worked on some two dozen films, many starring his wife.

The marriage, however, was running into trouble and by 1950, Cassini decided return to New York and start a wholesale operation. By that time, he had two daughters, both of whom survive him, along with four grandchildren. The oldest child, Daria, was born in 1942, blind, deaf and severely disabled, and has been institutionalized virtually all her life. A second daughter, Christina, arrived in 1948. Cassini and Tierney — whose subsequent struggle with mental illness and eventual comeback as an actress has been well documented — were divorced in 1952. She died in 1991. Cassini also has a son Alexander.

In New York, Cassini got some backers and opened Oleg Cassini Inc., at 498 Seventh Avenue. The bulk of the line wholesaled from $55 to $69, with some numbers at $200 to $250. His first collection got Fifth Avenue windows at Lord & Taylor. After a year, his volume at $750,000, Cassini paid off his partners and owned his company outright. By 1955, sales reached $5 million.

During that period, he fell in love with Kelly, then 24 and at the dawn of her movie career. He followed her to Cannes, where she was making “To Catch a Thief,” with Cary Grant and, after an intense romance, he said they agreed to marry. Her family — Irish-Catholics from Philadelphia — did not agree. They disapproved of Cassini because he was 40, twice divorced and had a reputation as a lothario. Instead, Kelly became Princess Grace of Monaco.

The next important woman in Cassini’s life was Jacqueline Kennedy. When it was decided that as First Lady she would limit her wardrobe to American designers, Cassini was among those invited to submit sketches. He was familiar to the family because he had gotten to know Joseph Kennedy, Jackie’s father in law, while both men made the rounds of New York nightclubs. When Cassini was chosen to be Kennedy’s only designer, it surprised many in the industry because the dresses on his runway — cleavage-baring, figure-hugging, sexy — seemed antithetical to the elegant taste reflected by the president’s young wife.

Cassini said he drew on his Hollywood experience and treated his illustrious client as though she were a character in a film. He would create clothes specifically for her persona rather than showing her “the best” of his collection. The first sketch he produced for the First Lady was of the white satin evening gown she wore to JFK’s inauguration gala. During the swearing-in the following day, a frigid Jan. 20, 1961, she wore Cassini’s wool coat with sable collar and muff, and the famous pillbox hat. It became “the Jackie look” and swept the world.

Almost overnight, Cassini became a “personality,” appearing frequently as a guest on national TV talk shows such as those hosted by Jack Paar, Phil Donahue, Mike Douglas and Merv Griffin. All told, he designed some 300 outfits for Kennedy, but their association ended after JFK’s assassination and her return to private life. A 1995 coffee table book, “A Thousand Days of Magic: Dressing Jacqueline Kennedy for the White House,” is Cassini’s recollection of those years.

Nestor’s sister Peggy, another Cassini employee, recalled something Kennedy said during a visit to her Park Avenue apartment in the late Eighties. “She said, ‘He dressed me for the part.'”

Around that time, Cassini began franchising, the next phase of his career. His name appeared on coats, ties, swimwear, lingerie, hats, eyeglasses, luggage and fragrance. In 1964, he purchased a magnificent Renaissance-style townhouse a block from Gramercy Park in Manhattan. Built by the Wells Fargo company 75 years earlier, its great room boasted a 20-foot-high vaulted ceiling, leaded windows, a walk-in fireplace and carved wood paneling. Cassini added banners with his family’s regimental insignia and centuries-old furnishings from William Randolph Hearst’s San Simeon.

His home became the centerpiece of his business, photographed for ad campaigns featuring “the Renaissance look from the House of Cassini.” His licensed products, including men’s wear, were grossing up to $350 million at retail and he closed his Seventh Avenue showroom.

Cassini weekended at his expansive Oyster Bay, N.Y. estate where he had horses, ducks, a dozen dogs, a couple of pot-bellied pigs and a bunch of chickens. The latter were initially taken in with the hopes of setting up a chicken farm to ease his escalating Long Island property taxes.

In the late Eighties, he introduced the Cassini Competitors’ Collection awards to Ted Turner, Michael Jordan and others, and launched “Conversations with Cassini,” a talk show on A&E.

For the rest of his life, Cassini focused on his licensed products. Probably his most successful franchise was his Black Tie eveningwear label, which once totaled $100 million. In 2005, he still had 23 licensees with a volume of $10 million to $12 million.

In 1981, he told W magazine that the highlights of his career were “designing for Jackie” and “inventing the concept of the designer franchise.”

“They called me ‘El Greedo’ every time I signed a new license,” he said, “but the next wave of designers benefited from my idea. For that, they’ll sing ‘For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow’ at my funeral.”

A wake will be held Wednesday from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Frank E. Campbell Funeral Chapel in Manhattan, and funeral services will be held Thursday morning at the Cathedral of the Sign.

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