NEW YORK — Here’s a piece of advice about being a fashion designer, coming from the last place one might expect it.
"You have to remember what you’re doing is a service," Arnold Scaasi told a class of 250 Fashion Institute of Technology students last week, answering a question about how he handles some of the notoriously demanding women he has dressed over the past 50 years.
"If you are going to do this and work on a one-on-one basis with your customers, you have to really like people," Scaasi said. "You’re kind of like a psychiatrist. Within 15 to 20 minutes, a woman you’ve never met before is standing in front of you half-naked."
But aren’t they difficult, the students asked. "I think they’re all difficult," Scaasi said, "but I love it."
Now, that’s an awfully diplomatic answer coming from a designer who’s been known at times to be a bit overbearing himself. By his own admission during this hour-long course, Scaasi advised the students never to deal with underlings, but always to go straight to the top if they want to get ahead, like he did. Back in October, when FIT hosted a retrospective of his career, Scaasi had its museum staff up in arms by opening night, when an exasperated curator, watching the designer work the dignitaries as they filed through its revolving doors, described him as a "ham."
But service aside, a healthy ego is at the heart of most designers who have had as long and as successful a career as Scaasi, who, at 71, is still active with his custom design studio and employs a licensing agent, whom he pointed to in the crowd, looking to strike a new ready-to-wear venture. He’s even designing a gold gown for Joan Rivers to wear during her annual Academy Awards show next month.
It just takes a certain amount of charm to pull off that combination of gall and humility, and Scaasi’s got charm to spare, sizing up the students and engaging them with the tales of his career, then checking to see how their expectations compared with his own experience starting out as a designer in the Fifties.Scaasi was somewhat surprised to learn that half the students at the event were studying to work in merchandising programs rather than becoming designers. Few students indicated they wanted to design, let alone as dressmakers.
"One of the things I learned when I opened my business in 1956 was that if you’re a great merchandise manager, people will be scared of you," said Scaasi, opening a door to the other revelations he discovered on his journey from Montreal to Australia as a child, to Paris, where he worked for Paquin, and then to New York, where he was hired by Charles James.
On the mysterious dressmaker James, Scaasi said, "he was more than a little nutty," although he learned many secrets from the designer, such as how to steam a dress over a head form to make it fit properly over the bosom.
On his first trip to the White House, for a state dinner hosted by Mamie Eisenhower: "It was mind-blowing, not only because it’s so big and beautiful, but because you feel like you are walking into history."
On his inspiration: "Every fabric takes its own shape. You can’t make a bell dress with chiffon or a dress that moves out of taffeta."
On young designers today: "I find it astounding to hear people today saying, ‘I want someone to invest in my company.’ I started with the $2,000 I had saved, and when that was up, I worked harder until I made some more."
But he really impressed the class with a tongue-in-cheek tour of some of the famous gowns he designed over the years, the point of which was to remind them of one of the first lessons he learned: If a dress cannot be worn somewhere, then it has no meaning.
For the artist Louise Nevelson, who always complained of being cold, he designed a patchwork coat of paisley shawls lined with chinchilla to keep her warm as she constructed her enormous sculptures. For Barbra Streisand’s trip to Canada to woo Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, he designed a white snow-queen ensemble "for making love in the snow," he said. When Elizabeth Taylor received an award at Lincoln Center, back when she had shocks of gray hair at her temples, he made a gown of silver and black leaves to match.And that inaugural gown for Barbara Bush? Don’t get him started. "This was one of the happiest moments of my life," Scaasi said. "Can you blame me?"
The students couldn’t get enough. Nor could Scaasi, who peppered a few audience members with questions of his own, looking for that spark of enthusiasm for fashion he knew so well as a young man.
"I want one of the men to ask a question," he said, and then found his prey. "You. No, you. Don’t look around. Did you enjoy this?"
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