Arnold Scaasi Dies at 85; Dressed Stars and Socialites, His ‘Scaasi Girls’
By ALEXANDRA JACOBS
AUG. 4, 2015
Arnold Scaasi, the Canadian clothing designer whose exuberant creations were worn by generations of first ladies, socialites and Hollywood stars, died on Tuesday in Manhattan. He was 85.
Michael Selleck, a longtime friend and an executive at Simon & Schuster, said Mr. Scaasi died of cardiac arrest at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center shortly before 2 a.m.
“I am definitely not a minimalist!” Mr. Scaasi once declared, acknowledging his fondness for bright colors, prints and embellishments like ruffles, bows, bugle beads, fur, feathers, fringe and paillettes. “Clothes with some adornment are more interesting to look at and more fun to wear.”
The proprietor of a long-running atelier in Midtown Manhattan, Mr. Scaasi was known for bringing the techniques of the French couture to prominent American women. Among them were Barbra Streisand, who wore a sheer, sequined, broadly bell-bottomed pantsuit designed by Mr. Scaasi to the 1969 Academy Awards, and Barbara Bush, who appeared in a puffy-shouldered blue velvet Scaasi gown for the presidential inauguration of her husband, George Bush, 20 years later.
Mr. Scaasi also designed formal wear for the first ladies Mamie Eisenhower, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush. Joan Crawford, Joan Rivers, Elizabeth Taylor, Diahann Carroll and Mary Tyler Moore were all “Scaasi Girls,” as his most devoted clients were called. Ms. Moore appeared in a well-known ad campaign called “Me and My Scaasi.” He also made clothes for the sculptor Louise Nevelson, a close friend; flocks of debutantes; and even an order of nuns.
One of his longest collaborations was with Ms. Streisand. It was he who designed the pantsuit, famous for its translucency and billowing legs, that she tripped on en route to the Oscar stage in 1969 to accept the best actress award for “Funny Girl.” He also created some of her costumes for the 1970 film adaptation of the musical “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,” in which she starred.
Diminutive and dapper, recognizable by his generous swoop of hair, Mr. Scaasi mixed easily with both the swans of high society and the pillars of Washington.
One of his deep regrets, he wrote in a 2004 memoir, “Women I Have Dressed (and Undressed!),” was asking Jacqueline Kennedy to pay wholesale for frocks he had designed on spec for her when she entered the White House in 1961, rather than giving them to her in exchange for the publicity. “That was probably the dumbest decision I ever made in my life!” he wrote.
Mrs. Kennedy made Oleg Cassini her official designer.
It was a rare diplomatic misstep. Mr. Scaasi was known for his solicitude with clients, allowing them to weigh in on necklines and sleeve lengths, for example, or ensuring that they did not show up at events wearing the same dress as someone else. On request he handed over the pattern for a belted midi-length jumper to the mother superior of an order of Catholic nuns in Pittsburgh (though not without thinking, as he wrote in his memoir, “Lady, do you ever have chutzpah!”). He was also adept at public relations, knowing how to work the news media by meting out details of his clients’ design choices before a big event.
One client and close friend was the gossip columnist Liz Smith, with whom he and Parker Ladd, a retired publishing executive and his partner of more than 50 years, long presided over the Literacy Partners Gala at Lincoln Center, a grand fund-raiser for adult-literacy programs.
He was born Arnold Isaacs in Montreal on May 8, 1930. He later reversed the spelling of his last name at the suggestion of the interior decorator Robert Denning, whom he had met while contributing clothes to a General Motors ad campaign in 1954.
His father, Samuel, was a furrier and his mother, Bessie, had studied opera; one of his earliest memories, he said, was ordering her to pin a corsage of gardenias on her evening bag rather than wear it on her shoulder. It was his glamorous Aunt Ida Wynn who inspired him to go into fashion, he said; she would visit the family with trunks full of Chanel and Schiaparelli dresses.
He attended the Cotnoir-Capponi school in Montreal, spending his last year at the Chambre Syndicale in Paris, and then apprenticed there at the house of Paquin before applying for a job with Christian Dior. Dior promised him a job in three months, but Mr. Scaasi was impatient, and when Dior hemmed and hawed, as Mr. Scaasi recalled, Dior said: “Why don’t you bring fashion to America? America is the future.”
So he moved to New York, working briefly under Charles James before going out on his own in 1956. Two years later, he won the Coty Award for greatest achievement in creative design by an American. By 1960 he had set up shop in a Stanford White townhouse at 56th Street near Fifth Avenue.
Mr. Scaasi’s success in the United States was built on essentially dressing women for the ballroom. While he dabbled in ready-to-wear and introduced many licenses for accessories, men’s wear and perfume, his skills in made-to-order were the center of his business, which relied on a clientele with plenty of money and leisure time. In the 1980s his reputation was recharged when the society figures Gayfryd Steinberg and Nan Kempner gravitated (or should one say levitated) to his aesthetic.
His designs drew generously from the past, often incorporating into his silhouettes castoff embellishments like peplums and petticoats. Many designers returned to a version of the 1950s-style pouf, or bubble skirt, in the late 1980s; Mr. Scaasi’s double-layered version was called, with a nod to Marie Antoinette, a “brioche.”
The average woman may not have had use for such fripperies, nor been able to afford them, but actresses and singers were drawn to Mr. Scaasi’s flamboyance. He began his work with show business personalities in 1955 by designing for Arlene Francis, the actress and panelist on the game show “What’s My Line?” He later designed for Joan Crawford when she was making public appearances for Pepsi, and for Claudette Colbert, Sophia Loren and Natalie Wood.
Mr. Scaasi had homes in Manhattan; Palm Beach, Fla.; and Quogue, on Long Island, sharing them with Mr. Ladd, whom he met at a dinner party in 1962. In July 2011 they held a lavish celebration at Le Cirque in Manhattan to celebrate their long relationship. Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg and Martha Stewart were among the guests. Mr. Scaasi and Mr. Ladd were married that September.
“We had a long haul,” Mr. Ladd, his only immediate survivor, said in a telephone interview on Tuesday, attributing their success in love to “sheer enjoyment of each other’s personalities.”
In 1996, Mr. Scaasi was honored by the Council of Fashion Designers of America with a Lifetime Achievement Award in a ceremony that also presented him with an opportunity to display his characteristic aplomb.
“The minute he stepped on stage, these fur activists started shrieking, and he just stood there until there was a lull,” recalled Simon Doonan of Barneys, who was in the audience. “And then he said, very calmly, ‘Well, I guess those weren’t Scaasi Girls.’ ”
Correction: August 6, 2015
An obituary on Wednesday about the clothing designer Arnold Scaasi misstated part of the name of a fund-raising event over which he and others presided. It is the Literacy Partners Gala, not the Literary Partners Gala. The obituary also omitted part of the name of an organization that honored Mr. Scaasi in 1996. It is the Council of Fashion Designers of America, not the Council of Fashion Designers.
A version of this article appears in print on August 5, 2015, on page B14 of the New York edition with the headline: Arnold Scaasi, Who Dressed Generations of Prominent Women, Dies at 85. Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe