By  on April 11, 2006

NEW YORK — Even in the winter of his 56-year career, Oleg Cassini exercised the entrepreneurial spirit of a designer who was just getting started.

His wife, Marianne Nestor-Cassini, who succeeded him as president of Oleg Cassini Inc., is carrying out his plans with the hope of giving the brand more international punch.

The fact that Nestor-Cassini was the designer's wife came as quite a surprise to many in the industry when the designer died March 17 at the age of 92. And not only were they married, but the marriage had lasted 35 years. For decades, Cassini cultivated the dashing, man-about-town image, a beacon to ladies everywhere. During an interview a few years ago, Cassini acknowledged he was having a relationship with one woman, but he denied they were married. "She remains anonymous simply because she doesn't want people to know about us," he explained.

But his widow said their marriage was not as clandestine as it may have appeared. "It wasn't on the cover of People, but it wasn't a big secret," said Nestor-Cassini, adding that all their friends knew. "We're just very private. I don't think anyone would say he was shy, but he was terribly shy."

A private memorial for the designer is set for tonight in the St. Regis Hotel's Versailles Room on what would have been his 93rd birthday.

Tireless until the end, Cassini, who as a younger man jogged from his Gramercy Park home to his Upper East Side office, had lined up initiatives for the next several months. The designer's collection of suits is being introduced at Lord & Taylor, Harrods and other select stores. Harrods will also unveil his collection of couture bridal dresses retailing for upward of $8,700 at the end of the month. The Sexy Woman Collection by Oleg Cassini, his first go at plus-size bridal dresses, also bows this spring. The company is going forward with the existing design team who worked side-by-side with Cassini and will draw from the many samples, sketches, designs, fabrics and ideas he left behind.

"Every day he had a new idea and a new plan," Nestor-Cassini said. "He had enormous energy. We've been working with him for so long that we kind of inherited those strengths and feel very driven. We're trying to be upbeat because he would have wanted things that way."Some of the designer's other projects are also coming to fruition. Cassini's wedding dresses will be among those featured this fall in a Rizzoli photography book titled "The Wedding Dress," and the publisher has another about his life in the works that is tentatively titled "Icon of Style." One of Cassini's wedding dresses is featured on the cover of Brides magazine, which hits newsstands today. When "The Sentinel" is released in movie theaters April 18, Kim Basinger's first lady character wears a few Oleg Cassini ensembles. The idea of returning to the White House if only fictionally was something that pleased the designer. After all, it was dressing Jacqueline Kennedy during her White House years that put him on the map.

"He always said what he did for her was making the world's most expensive T-shirts," Nestor-Cassini said. "He told Larry King the dress she wore to the Inaugural gala was a T-shirt dress in the most sumptuous fabric. But he said she could wear T-shirts so well — she had fantastic shoulders and great arms. He was a minimalist designer. To him, simplicity was perfection. He liked to say, 'A dress is an envelope for the body.'"

Simple as Cassini's designs were, his business plans were extensive. The designer had been looking for a New York location for a freestanding store, and that, as well as introducing stores in Europe and the U.S., remains an objective. The development of other products, such as Italian-made cashmere and sportswear, is also being pursued.

Nestor-Cassini is also considering whether to reinterpret some of the prints Cassini helped Gimmo Etro develop in the Seventies and Eighties, when the Italian company was gaining steam and using them for a furniture collection. That is something that Pucci has done successfully, Nestor-Cassini said, adding that her husband and Emilio Pucci became friends as teenagers and skied together on their high school team. There are also plans to open three or four men's wear freestanding stores in China this year, and introduce the couture bridal collection to the Far East and the Philippines, and possibly the U.S.

Cassini has a personal tie to the Philippines. Noting that he owned a few hundred pairs of shoes, his wife laughed, "He was not quite Imelda Marcos," and added, "actually, he was very friendly with her. She called him 'The Maestro.' She invited him to the Philippines."That knack for sobering up a joke with historical fact was something that Cassini had mastered. In another twist, at the time of his death, the designer was working on a customized suit for the current Philippines president, Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, to wear to the opening of the Oleg Cassini boutique at Rustan's in the next month or two. The designer's products have been sold there for more than 40 years.

That's almost as long as Cassini had been married to Nestor-Cassini, whom he met in Europe. Eager to learn a few European languages and see some of the historical sites she loved to read about, Nestor-Cassini left her native Florida and moved to Paris to model after graduating from high school. She landed cover shots for magazines such as Marie Claire, Marie France, Jardin du Monde and Jours de France. Being in the City of Light made it easy to hop on a train to work in Milan or London.

"I wanted to learn how to speak French, Italian and Spanish and I wanted to travel to see what the world was like then," she recalled. "I also was very interested in history. It was a great learning experience. Reading, traveling and living in a country you learn more than you could from any lesson. Modeling was the vehicle to experience all these things. I needed a reason to go there to pay the bills."

She first encountered Cassini on a night in Paris around 1970, and an argument ensued about the exact location of Charles Martel's Battle of Tours. The designer had a keen interest in history, which appealed to the American model. He peppered his conversation with historical tidbits and read history books to relax, often reading about one subject in three different languages to get a more balanced view. Once they concluded that each was partly right about the Battle of Tours, Cassini suggested that they go on 10 dates "and then we'll either have a great friendship or a great romance."'

It wound up being the latter, and the pair wed in 1971. His bride started spending more time sitting in on design and business meetings than posing for photographers. "It was so interesting to listen to Oleg's creative ideas that the other stuff gradually faded away — as often does for people," she said. "Oleg was always a lot of fun. He had very unusual and creative ideas."In the late Fifties or early Sixties, Bonwit Teller balked when Cassini said boots, not shoes, would be a better licensing deal. "Oleg told them, 'What I think will be important is boots.' That just shows you how advanced he was. Look at how important boots are today," Nestor-Cassini said. "But sometimes it is not so easy to get a point across when an idea is very advanced." His idea to sign Johnny Carson as a celebrity model in 1967 — a first for a designer — was not well-received initially, even though the "Tonight" show host already had an audience of millions. "People he worked with said, 'Oh, that's just another one of your crazy ideas,'" Nestor-Cassini said. "Eventually, Johnny had to get Oleg to release him from his contract" so that he could sign with the then-Hart, Schaffner & Marx.

In the late Eighties, he created the Cassini Competitor Collection awards and presented them to Ted Turner, Michael Jordan, Mario Andretti, Burt Reynolds, Burt Bacharach, Bob Hope and others. The designer even persuaded Jordan to fly in on the red-eye to appear on the "Today" show and Regis Philbin's talk show to help plug the awards, Cassini's wife said.

"I think he was the youngest person I ever met," Nestor-Cassini said. "Sometimes you'd say, 'Well, is that possible?' and if he didn't do it, someone else would do it in six months. Licensing, celebrity models, drawing inspiration from history — those were all things Oleg was doing decades ago. He always was a young designer. He always thought young. He never thought old."

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