NEW YORK — For the man of the hour, it must have been overwhelming.
Well-wishers, old friends, long-lost acquaintances and complete strangers to Oleg Cassini poured into the National Arts Club Thursday to watch him pick up the third annual gold medal for fashion. And watch him they did. A stream of admirers wound their way through the historic club’s crowded rooms to meet the designer, who was tucked away on a sofa, chatting with the sea of guests.
Inscriptions on a photograph of Jackie Kennedy and her sister, Lee Radziwill, spelled out enthusiasm from a bygone era. “For Oleg, who made us the two best-dressed women in Asia,” Kennedy wrote. “Au revoir Givenchy, Bonjour Cassini,” Radziwill added.
In addition to dressing the former first lady in her White House days, Cassini was also heralded for his marriage to Gene Tierney and romance with Grace Kelly. A closer inspection of the evening’s program showed he was born a Russian count, worked as a Paramount Pictures costume designer in 1940, signed Johnny Carson as his first celebrity model in 1967 and designed a Matador car for American Motors in 1974, among other things. A few were impressed with Cassini’s personal style. William Norwich said, “I like his red velvet jacket. I just bought one from Alexander McQueen.”
William Calvert, Lavelle Olexa, Joanna Mastroianni, Carol Alt, Ruth Finley and Stan Herman, a Cassini employee in the Fifties, represented Seventh Avenue in the crowd of more than 400. For his part, Cassini cut his teeth in the fashion world at Jean Patou, noted Olexa in her remarks honoring him. She also mentioned how Cassini moved to Hollywood “with his tennis racquet, his talent and his immense charm.”
Having known Cassini since she got her start as a gossip columnist working for his brother Igor, who wrote under the moniker “Cholly Knickerbocker,” Liz Smith recalled the designer’s more rambunctious days. “I feel really sorry for all you young people. I doubt any of you ever saw the Kazatchok dance by the Cassini brothers in El Morocco. The Cassini brothers could do that dance every night and go home and have sex.”
“The Brothers Cassini were a phenomenon in New York society. Mrs. Vreeland said, ‘They had joie de vivre.'” Smith said. “They also had sex appeal and they were real gentlemen.”
“They not only liked women; they liked to fight for women and for the honor of women. At the least little thing, they would leap up and leave you at the table,” Smith said. “To know the two of them was to know that no one would ever mess with you.”
In business for 75 years, Cassini chalked up his longevity in part to sports and “the pursuit of happiness through women and the arena.” Referring to the former, he recalled how he finished second “by a whisker,” but beat a horse called Gianni Versace at his debut in professional standard bred horse racing with trotters in Yonkers, N.Y. Cassini encouraged the audience to follow his plan: “Exercise and desire, the burning desire, to always compete and to never be licked even by malady and such things.”