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NEW YORK —?Much of what has been written about Oleg Cassini in recent years has portrayed one of fashion’s living legends as boastful, egotistical or downright credit mongering — all of which are accurate, but not entirely complete.
Having turned 90 last month — a birthday spent meditating and sketching bridal designs — Cassini is the oldest working fashion designer in America, and most probably the world, which would surely be something to brag about except that in place of the boastful old man one would expect to meet is instead a spry, twinkle-eyed, kind and clever one without a trace of bitterness.
Well, maybe just a little bitterness, but that will come later. First, straight to the good stuff.
Cassini, who is being honored at the Council of Fashion Designers of America Fashion Awards on June 2 with its first “board of directors’ special tribute,” is perhaps in such a benevolent mood lately because of a new woman in his life. Yes, the devilishly charming man who swept Gene Tierney off her feet in the Forties, then wooed and became engaged to Grace Kelly before she left him for a prince, still has the libido to chase after and catch a beautiful woman. He’s dating one right now, who is 32.
“I have a relationship with one woman,” Cassini said. “I am condensing all my efforts on one. She is as beautiful physically as any of the famous ones, but she remains anonymous simply because she doesn’t want people to know about us. I understand that, because I would have married her, but I’m not a good partner for a young woman. But she thinks I’m number one.”
Ah, romance. For some, it remains elusive, but not Cassini, who has often been accused of being excessive in his affections for women, which he said could explain some of the broader criticism that has come his way over the years. Competitors weren’t jealous of him strictly professionally, but also personally. So what does this Don Juan dressed in dark jeans as tight as pipe cleaners; cowboy boots, and a navy triptych of turtleneck, shirt and cashmere sweater have that ordinary men do not?
“When it comes down to the basics, I think I smell good,” Cassini said. “I happen to have very good skin and I’m very clean. My own cologne is very good. But my feeling is that, with the thought toward sex, I always believed that you cannot conquer a woman. She decides and all the rest is propaganda. If a woman looks at you, in three or four seconds, the basics are there and she can say ‘I could or I could not.’ Then there is a ballad and the rest may be romantic, or it could be a friendship.”
Cassini swaggered down a block of East 63rd Street, where he is renovating a five-story limestone town house to become a showcase for the various licensed collections that will likely carry his name into fashion perpetuity, like active sportswear, bridal collections and an inexpensive, powerful fragrance. “It’s more like a mausoleum,” he said, ducking into an Italian restaurant he considers his kitchen for a plate of gnocchi and a glass of expensive red wine. He eats heartily, talks openly and laughs with gusto — no wonder the women he passes on the street still turn and stare.
“I am a 90-year-old man who lives like a 50-year-old man,” said Cassini. “I do sports, I play golf. I got a hole-in-one two months ago, and the next day, I did the same thing, but the ball bounced out of the hole. It would have been one of the most shocking things to happen in golf.”
Cassini credited his longevity to two things: his athleticism and his connection to women, both with a wink. But what people misunderstand about him, he claimed, is that most of the women in his life were only friends. As an immigrant to the U.S. during the Depression and the child of Russian nobility who grew up penniless in Italy, he discovered a landscape in New York where every turn of the corner raised the competitive stakes. At least in Italy, where he studied painting before commercializing his talent as a fashion designer, the aristocratic class he dressed during the reign of fascism treated him as an equal.
“When I came here, I always had to prove myself to men,” he recalled. “But with women, we instantly got along. I didn’t have to do anything except be myself. I owe a great debt of gratitude to women, and it is in a quasi-religious way that I worship them because they saved my life. It’s women who made me a designer.”
Reflecting on a career that has spanned seven decades, Cassini said he considers this current moment of recognition by the CFDA a fair achievement, and he pointed out that he is neither too cynical nor bitter from recent battles to appreciate it.
“Emotionally, I have discovered that to be kind has its own rewards, even if you are attacked,” he said. “Don’t be bitter inside of you, because it shortens your life. I try to be a good fellow. The truth is, I am very touched.”
Believe it or not, he even has a 12-year plan for continuing to work, since it’s kept him alive this long. So Cassini wakes up every day, does a series of chest exercises, walks to appointments, doesn’t smoke and eats no meat except for once every couple of weeks.
“I have a theory that if you are not killed by diseases by the age of 70, then nature gives you carte blanche for the next 20 to 30 years,” Cassini said. “I control my mind and my body. I refuse to age. That allows you to remain exceptional. I’m trying to figure out what to do with this unexpected bonanza of being so fit at 90.”
Cassini is not shy about calling his career exceptional, considering the impact of the wardrobe he created for Jackie Kennedy and the designs he created in Hollywood before that. He also pointed out that he was among the first — he remembered being the first — of a generation of designers who built their businesses through licensing and trunk shows and became celebrities. Volume-wise, Cassini’s was never such a powerhouse, with sales fragmented by the millions through dozens of companies making neckties, fragrances, suits, shirts, sportswear and possibly his most lucrative Black Tie eveningwear label, which approached $100 million in the good years, before a years-long battle between Cassini and the licensee, the He-Ro Group that ultimately went under. But his greatest achievement might have been the sheer longevity of a brand built virtually from scratch. After striking out on Seventh Avenue upon his arrival in 1936, he headed west to work for Paramount Pictures, where he met and married Tierney. He joined the army days after the attack on Pearl Harbor and served in the cavalry and then military intelligence. After the war, he finally opened his own business in New York in 1950, which was an instant success.
“In my dreams, when I was a young fellow in Rome, I was mad about everything American — cowboys and all that,” Cassini said. “I wanted to go to America and be a famous designer, marry a beautiful woman — a big star maybe — and to be a millionaire. All these things came true in the end. I have made only one mistake in my wish list. I should have wished to be a billionaire.”
Cassini’s strength in fashion arguably came from his ability to correctly anticipate the future, designing clothes that were appropriate for a situation or that became part of the narrative. His designs for Kennedy’s international travel to Canada and India were prime examples of this, impressing the locals or making the First Lady stand out in a crowd as detailed in the correspondence between Jackie and Cassini. That was another time, and Cassini has been long gone from the runway scene, but his name still has a resounding impact in some unusual places, such as the bridal industry, where he is one of the top-selling resources through David’s Bridal, part of The May Department Stores Co., which will sell his designs in 200 doors this year.
“You would think a man of my age would carry on a customer base of women my own age,” he said. “Of course, women of my age are all dead. Where I’m strong is with a young woman. A bride is a very young woman and so the customer base keeps changing to a younger woman. What do I attribute this to? I think I’ve made myself a spot in the firmament of design. Some people like what I stand for, what I’ve done, and the memory of what I did for Jackie and a lot of what I did for movie stars.”
But the world seems very different to Cassini than it did in the Fifties, when he was fooling around with Grace Kelly in Monte Carlo on the set of “To Catch a Thief,” or hosting up to three trunk shows every day at a Saks Fifth Avenue or Neiman Marcus store around the country, where maybe 500 women were screaming and yelling his name. “Some women thought I was attractive and they were beginning to become fans,” he said. “It was a very strange experience, but I enjoyed it.” Looking at how designers market themselves today, Cassini said he doesn’t get it.
“Most of the designers today are inept at presenting their collections,” he said. “In view of the tremendous effort they make and the talent they show, when it comes to explaining what they do, they are too timid. They are bashful. They make a few steps with a model at most on the runway, but my technique was talking to the buyers and explaining what I was doing.”
So that boastfulness was all part of the plan, or at least it kept Cassini in the public eye for so many years, anyway. Interestingly, one of his deepest regrets in life is having once rejected the services of Eleanor Lambert as a personal publicist, a move he said was insensitive and cost him a great deal of press. He’s always gotten plenty of ink, though, and two years ago, Cassini was back in the papers for comments he made in response to an exhibit on Jackie Kennedy’s wardrobe, curated by Hamish Bowles at the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He felt it implied that his work for Kennedy was a ruse for copying French designers.
The mere mention of the show continues to cause Cassini to wince, which raises the question: Why does he still care?
“When you work very hard for something, you want to have full credit,” Cassini said. “I did a tremendous amount of effort there, but people always thought things came too easily to me. Beware of that in your life. I have a style that people think is just a lot of fun, taking out girls and sailing on yachts, but a lot of hard work went behind that.”
Vanity, he added, isn’t such a bad thing for a designer, because a designer should want to have the best possible image of himself if he’s going to tell other people how to dress. As for Cassini’s image, he’s always seen himself as that American cowboy.
“To me, a cowboy is the best-dressed man in the world,” he said.
So why hasn’t he just clip-clopped off into the sunset?
“I’m not Gene Autry.”