Longtime Hollywood costume designer Ray Aghayan, 83, died Oct. 10 at his Los Angeles home.
This story first appeared in the October 17, 2011 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
Aghayan died of kidney failure, according to his partner, Bob Mackie.
Aghayan made his mark by dressing such starlets as Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand, Julie Andrews and Diana Ross. It was the flattering, classic dresses he designed for Garland’s variety show in 1963-64 that made others take notice. “All of a sudden the clothes he was designing didn’t look like costumes. They looked good on her, which they didn’t always before,” Mackie said. “After that, everybody started calling.”
Aghayan saw things another way, telling WWD in 1963, “What you call her ‘new sportiveness’ is really just an outgrowth of the way she prefers to dress.”
The on-set joke was that Aghayan was the only worker who made it through the entire season with the notoriously difficult Garland. “He loved Judy but that was hard a bit. And he loved Barbra. He didn’t mind the ones that were kind of tough,” Mackie said.
Even when he was in declining health three weeks ago, he designed clothes for his good friend Ross for a series of concerts.
As for favorite celebrities, Aghayan said in the 1963 interview, “Who is truly elegant among the personalities? After Audrey Hepburn, I really can’t think of anyone. It’s really so easy to dress well when you can afford the best designers, but I’ve seen Miss Hepburn arrive for a fitting at Western Costume wearing Levi’s, a simple shirt and a 98-cent kerchief — and she looked great.”
Aghayan and Mackie were nominated for Academy Awards in costume design for “Lady Sings the Blues” in 1972 and “Funny Lady” in 1975. Aghayan also earned a nomination for “Gaily, Gaily” in 1969. And in 1967 they shared an Emmy, the first awarded for costume design for “Alice Through the Looking Glass.” (The pair first met in 1962, when Mackie turned up at NBC to show his portfolio.)
Born in Tehran, Iran, Aghayan literally grew up surrounded by fashion. His mother served as a couturier for the empress of Iran and the Reza Pahlavi family. And at the age of 13, Aghayan created his first dress for a member of the royal court of the shah of Iran.
Hooked on American movies, he convinced his mother to send him to California to try to become an actor. “There wasn’t a big calling for 5 [foot], 4 [inch] Persian boys in Hollywood so he started producing and directing little shows. Because budgets were so tight he wound up doing costumes, too,” Mackie said.
“He wasn’t interested in doing that but since his mother had dressed the royal family in Iran, he just knew how.” Mackie said. “Then he started going for directing jobs and they would tell him he didn’t get the part but did he want to do the costumes. He had a whole couturier attitude about how to dress.”
Nicknamed “The Persian Prince,” Aghayan relished being the boss and being waited on. But he also had a knack for motivating people to do their best work, Mackie said.
Having studied theater and put on period plays in college, Aghayan kept up that interest by piling through biographies, especially ones about Tinseltown types, actors, directors and studio heads. As a consultant for the Academy Awards show for years, he would suit up troupes for the program’s musical performances, as well as actresses and presenters. “That was in the old days before they were throwing clothes at everyone,” Mackie said.
Aghayan never lost his fascination with American films and would often tune into the Turner Classic Movies channel, regaling Mackie with the background story about the cast and producers.
Having smoked almost his entire life, Aghayan had a gravely voice that often made others laugh when he didn’t necessarily intend to. A natural cook, whose specialty was Persian dishes, Aghayan disliked following recipes. “People would always give him recipes which he never read,” Mackie said.
A Brooks Brothers shirt and khakis was his uniform of choice, and Aghayan, who became an American citizen, always made a point of voting in political elections. In step with that true-blue spirit, he designed the costumes for the opening and closing ceremonies at the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.
Not the type to hang his hat on any of his accolades, Aghayan often spoke of films he and Mackie should have done or had to pass up due to other work commitments. “He wished he’d done more. He’d talk about that a lot,” Mackie said.