Arnold Scaasi Put an American Stamp on Couture

Photo: Horst P. Horst/Corbis

Even when it came to the subject of surnames, Arnold Scaasi understood the importance of adding a flourish. The designer — who, WWD reports, passed away yesterday at the age of 85 — was born Arnold Isaacs, a name he later reversed to Scaasi, giving an air of exoticism to his prosaic Canadian upbringing. (He even emblazoned the name on a vanity license plate.)

He was already making (nonverbal) fashion proclamations at age 4, when he cut the sleeves off his mother’s evening gown. As a teenager, he expanded his ideas on style via a stylish aunt who wore Vionnet, Schiaparelli, and Chanel. After studying at Montreal’s Cotnoir-Capponi School of Design (which was affiliated with Paris’s famed Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture), he turned down a job working for Christian Dior, preferring to make his mark Stateside.

It was this refusal that would, in a way, define Scaasi’s career: Rather than join the Paris couture establishment, he would create an American version of glamour. He became a protégé of Charles James, the legendary British-born, New York–based couturier who applied innovative sculptural techniques to his gowns — a tactic Scaasi would later apply to his own work. The designer developed a lifelong taste for overstatement: “I am not a minimalist designer!” he once declared. “Clothes with some adornment are more interesting to look at and more fun to wear.”

Now that throwing on some haute athleisure practically constitutes dressing up, Scaasi’s is a much-lamented art. In a New York Magazine profile, Rivers summed up the designer’s approach perfectly: “With a Scaasi, you have to dress and want to make an entrance. You don’t relax in his gowns. If you want to relax, get a Barcalounger.”

In 1956, coasting on his momentum after a coat he designed made the cover of Vogue’s Christmas issue, Scaasi launched his namesake ready-to-wear line. Eight years later, he made the unusual move of abandoning ready-to-wear — he found Seventh Avenue too youth- and trend-driven — and started his own couture salon. He dressed a stunning variety of women: divas (Barbra Streisand, Bette Midler, Beverly Sills, Aretha Franklin), anchorwomen (such as Barbara Walters), Old Hollywood stars (Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Crawford), comedians (such as Joan Rivers), socialites (Carolyne Roehm, Ivana Trump), and artists (such as Louise Nevelson). He also outfitted an array of First Ladies across party lines, from Mamie Eisenhower to Hillary Clinton. He devoted a chapter to Clinton in his tell-all, Women I Have Dressed (And Undressed), admitting that he was initially reluctant to outfit her since he had worked for so many Republican First Ladies. “I’m still wild about Barbara and Laura [Bush],” he concluded, “but after all, a guy has to play the field a little.”

He is perhaps best remembered for dressing Streisand in a filmy jumpsuit to collect the 1969 Oscar for Funny Girl — a move that caused shock waves at the time. He also provided her wackadoo wardrobe in On a Clear Day, You Can See Forever — zigzag-print caftans have never looked better.

Though he may have been old-fashioned in his approach, Scaasi was early to adopt certain now-commonplace moves in his career. He was one of the first to use trunk shows as a way to build his clientele and embraced licensing back in the ‘50s. He introduced a signature fragrance in 1989, and began designing a QVC line in 1993, back when TV shopping still had a whiff of the déclassé. While his designs remained resolutely old-school, his business model was anything but. But even as he innovated in those areas, he remained faithful to his initial impulse: to make women look, not cool, but simply great.

Click through the slideshow to see some of the prominent women who wore Scaasi’s designs.

Arnold Scaasi Put an American Stamp on Couture