NEW YORK — During the Kennedy administration, Oleg Cassini made many a trip to the White House. Now, nearly 60 years later, he is suiting up another first lady — this time a fictional one.
The 92-year-old designer has created a score of outfits for Kim Basinger, who plays first lady Sarah Ballentine in 20th Century Fox’s forthcoming political thriller, “The Sentinel.”
But Basinger didn’t choose Cassini solely for his White House experience. She sought him out after recently coming across a 1993 magazine clip where he had singled her out as a Hollywood beauty. Cassini hadn’t forgotten her, either. “I remembered the way she looked and her picture, the one with [Mickey] Rourke,” said Cassini, referring to her notoriously risque performance in the 1986 flick “Nine 1/2 Weeks.”
The designer is right at home in Hollywood. Cassini got his start in fashion by designing costumes for marquee-gleaming actresses like Dorothy Lamour, Veronica Lake, Rita Hayworth, Natalie Wood, Ursula Andress, Grace Kelly and Gene Tierney. An impeccably dressed man-about-town, he dated Betty Grable, was engaged to Kelly and married Tierney.
In the early Forties, Cassini, a deft athlete, used his tennis skills to make Hollywood connections at the West Side Tennis Club, a popular hangout with movie types in Cheviot Hills, Calif. After winning a doubles tennis tournament with a stranger he had been matched up with, Cassini began talking to the man and learned he was a Paramount Pictures executive. He tipped off the aspiring designer to an opening in the studio’s costume department and after working through the night making samples, Cassini scored a job. There, he met Edith Head, “a fabulous talker” and “one of the most talented politicians” he’d ever encountered.
By the late Forties, Cassini had established such a presence that Jack Warner asked him to head up Warner Bros.’ wardrobe department, but he declined. Instead, the nimble designer decided to give Seventh Avenue a whirl.
While Basinger might not be familiar with all the ins and outs of his Tinseltown days, Cassini said, “She knew I handled the big stars in Hollywood.”
Coincidentally, Cassini claims in his autobiography to have created Lake’s look, which Basinger adopted for her role in “L.A. Confidential.”
For the actress’ role in “The Sentinel,” Cassini drummed up outfits for her first 12 scenes, including a backless dress with a jacket, a military-looking blue suit and pale blue suit with a camisole. He will also deck out the 51-year-old Academy Award winning actress for premieres for “The Sentinel.” The designer is considering offering dresses and suits inspired by Basinger’s character at retail, possibly for spring 2006.
One of his jackets is featured prominently in the opening scene, but Cassini declined to elaborate since the film is still being shot in Toronto. He did not dress the film’s other stars, Michael Douglas and Kiefer Sutherland, or Eva Longoria, who has a supporting role. The film is scheduled to be released next year.
While Cassini remains widely known for the crisp, colorful first lady looks he provided for Jacqueline Kennedy, he said he did not submerge himself in old photos before setting out on this latest project.
“I never go back. I try to go forward,” he said.