After 55 years of dressing some of America’s most well-coiffed women, Arnold Scaasi has quietly shuttered the doors of his East 52nd Street made-to-order salon.
Known for his outspoken nature and highly social ways, Scaasi said he now prefers to relish his lifestyle of Palm Beach winters and extended Long Island summers interspersed with stays in his Beekman Place apartment. “I just think it was time. I thought 55 years was pretty good,” the 79-year-old designer said Monday. “I mean, I don’t feel older, but I know I’m getting older.”
He will continue to design costume jewelry for HSN.
During his multidecade career, Scaasi has befriended and designed dresses for women including Joan Crawford, Joan Rivers, Barbara Bush, Barbra Streisand, Barbara Walters, Elizabeth Taylor and Mary Tyler Moore. His dealings with such well-known clients was detailed in a 2004 Scribner biography “Women I Have Dressed and Undressed.” Those and other exchanges remain the highlight of his career. “Working with the women was beyond a doubt the best part. They were all very nice and very appreciative of what I was doing. If somebody was not nice, I found a way and told them I wouldn’t do clothes for them,” he said. “Many were friends or became friends.”
In 1958, Scaasi was one of five designers to be honored with a Coty American Fashion Critics’ Award at the Metropolitan Museum of Art — the precursor to the CFDA awards. The Montreal-born designer got his New York career up and running by working for Charles James. In the late Fifties, Scaasi opened an atelier in a Stanford White-designed West 56th Street town house that specialized in eveningwear for celebrities, socialites and political wives. During his career, Scaasi suited up such former first ladies as Mamie Eisenhower, Jackie Kennedy, Lady Bird Johnson, Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton — and famously criticized Michelle Obama’s style last year for being “amiss.” As for his favorite clients, he pointed to the “wonderful and elegant” Edna Morris, a familiar face in thoroughbred horse racing and New York’s social scene for more than 50 years. Decidedly more risqué was Streisand, who caused a stir by wearing a black see-through, sequined pantsuit at the 1968 Academy Awards. An image of that outfit will grace invitations for the opening-night party for “Scaasi: American Couturier,” a retrospective of the designer’s work that bows at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts Sept. 25. Last year, in seeming preparation for his retirement, he revealed that more than 200 of his creations had been donated to the museum.
As for the state of fashion today, Scaasi said, “I am amazed by the price of clothes. That really shocks me. A lot of these clothes look like what we used to call housedresses and they are $2,000 and up,” he said. “They don’t look like anything special. They just look like ordinary clothes that you would wear on weekends or to work.”
It comes as no surprise that the publicity-loving Scaasi doesn’t begrudge designers for their extroverted personas. “They probably do that because the stores want to be able to promote their merchandise,” he said. “We used to say, ‘A bad photo is better than no photo.’ ”
And even though his studio has officially closed, Scaasi doesn’t appear ready to give it all up just yet. Before hanging up the phone Monday, he said, “I just got a call from a woman who needs a dress for her son’s wedding and engagement party. I need to find a workroom to do it, so maybe it never stops.”