NEW YORK — Leaving Arnold Scaasi speechless is no easy task, but the designer's friends and admirers probably came as close as they ever will Wednesday night at a party in his honor.
Scaasi, this year's recipient of the National Arts Club's Gold Medal of Fashion, fell silent during friends' recollections of his half-century career — save for the occasional comment he shouted from his table. Once the speakers rested, the designer said, "I don't think I'll be able to get through the door because my head is so swelled."
The honor was one to linger over for the Canadian, who has been designing women's clothes since he cut off the sleeves of his mother's evening dress when he was four. But, Scaasi, being Scaasi, he did so with his signature humor, telling the crowd, "I was in tears several times and whatever."
If anecdotes about Gypsy Lee Rose visiting his showroom or dressing Diahann Carroll weren't enough to remind him of his past, all he had to do was glance at some of the guests' attire. Speakers Dr. Joyce Brown and the NAC's new fashion committee director, Chrishaunda Lee Perez, and author Barbara Goldsmith turned up in Scaasi dresses. Kitty Carlisle Hart said she wore a Scaasi dress to the London opening of "My Fair Lady" years ago. Even First Lady Laura Bush told Scaasi to add her to his list of admirers in a letter that was read aloud.
Scaasi's longtime friend Liz Smith recalled how she once said he has dressed and undressed more women than Warren Beatty, and Beatty called her up to ask her about that. Smith described how the designer cast his magic on her — "a person who used to wear bobby socks when she worked for Mike Wallace. He always made me look better against my will," she said.
Scaasi even made Barbra Streisand's behind famous by dressing her in a black, sheer, body-hugging dress when she took home an Academy Award in 1968. "I think she ought to go back to Arnold — the way she looks now," Smith quipped.
Whether arranging for Roosevelt Island's Renwick Ruin to be illuminated, doctoring his housekeeper/chef Glendina Weste's dinners, insisting Literacy Partners' annual dinner be a black-tie affair or purchasing Louise Nevelson's prized wooden sculpture and putting it on his Beekman Place living room ceiling, Scaasi has held fast to his attention to detail, Smith said. While greeting a tableful of guests, who were seated on the red lacquered chairs he requested, the designer apologized for the tall floral displays. "I forgot about the video," he said, referring to the recap of his 50-year career.William Ivy Long clued in the crowd to how he and Wendy Wasserstein were invited to Scaasi's dinners, where they consumed "gallons of vodka," leaving them hard-pressed to piece together the evening's antics the following day. "We couldn't remember who said what. That tells you the level of hospitality."
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