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The Courtly Couturier

Arnold Scaasi has been a fashion dynamo for over 50 years, dressing the ladies who lunch -- and live in the White House -- in his showstopping gowns. Now, as a retrospective of his work opens, a look at the man Liz Smith calls he who "must be obeyed."

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In front of a stately old apartment building on Beekman Place, the cars are waiting like carriages at a royal ball. One chauffeur is feather-dusting a silver Mercedes. Behind the building, a Versailles-like garden with a fountain overlooks the East River.

It's early morning, and Arnold Scaasi emerges from the building in big blue-tinted aviator glasses and a perfect gray Savile Row suit. With Napoleonic dignity, he lowers his five-foot-six frame into a black Lincoln with scaasi on the license plate and classical music playing softly inside. Moments later, he arrives at a midtown law firm for a board meeting of Literacy Partners of America to discuss their gala in May.

The last to arrive, he settles himself down at the end of a conference table filled with publishing pooh-bahs and corporate CEOs, his bespoke red-and-white-striped shirt with matching tie adding a burst of color to an otherwise gray atmosphere. Though he's the smallest man in the room, he has the biggest personality, not to mention a reputation as a fund-raising firebrand. Liz Smith, another Literacy Partners board member, calls him he who "must be obeyed."

The entire table leans in for his report.

"Oy-yoy-yoy," he whines. "I just have this feeling inside me that it's going to be tougher to sell tables this year, and I can't tell you why. If anybody has any idea of who to honor, particularly extraordinarily rich people, we'll honor them."

"That can't be the only criterion," says Jane Friedman, president and CEO of HarperCollins.

"Look," says Scaasi, "this benefit raises half our annual budget." The designer has been scaring up money for Literacy Partners for eighteen years. He sits back in his chair. "And that's all I have to say."

A bit blunt? It's nothing new. Even the toniest people tolerate the arch delivery and sharp-witted opinions of New York's last great couturier, whose retrospective, "Exuberant Fashion," opens next week at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology. A man who studied under Charles James, and who has dressed Mamie Eisenhower, Natalie Wood, Elizabeth Taylor, Aretha Franklin, Mary Tyler Moore, Barbara Bush -- and, of course, Barbra Streisand in the Funny Girl Oscar outfit that appeared to showcase a nude derriere -- Scaasi is as much the Sun King as he is the courtly courtier.

Barbara Bush says he makes the world a more glamorous and interesting place. Mario Buatta, the society decorator, admires his creativity and precision: "He's like an eighteenth-century character who should be wearing a big powdered wig and a big bow in the back."

"His handmaidens all bow to him," says Joan Rivers. "Even if we do need a little help getting up these days." Rivers laments that her friend's genius and the romantic glamour that is his calling card are undervalued in a culture fixated on looking young, thin, and relaxed. "With a Scaasi, you have to dress and want to make an entrance," she says. "You don't relax in his gowns. If you want to relax, get a Barcalounger." His exactitude, she adds, is stunning. "He knows what he wants, and he gets it," she says. "I wouldn't want to work for him, but maybe that's why I want to wear his perfect clothes."

Josh Patner, the designer who co-founded Tuleh, worked for Scaasi in the eighties. "He threw a pair of shears at me once, and it was like being slapped by Gloria Swanson on a soundstage," he says. "How could you have a more exquisite fashion moment than that? He's a thoroughbred designer who's unambiguously himself and who has earned his diva-osity." Scaasi, who appreciates the homage but doesn't remember Patner, denies that he ever threw shears at anybody.

"Well, maybe a ruler," he says. "But I doubt it."


Le Cirque. Could there be any place more removed from the hype of Fashion Week? Two days after the runway shows and parties have come to a close, Scaasi, who had nothing to do with any of it, is walking through the lobby of the Palace Hotel as if it were his palace. "People tell me Le Cirque is so grand and question why I come here," he says, striding into the restaurant. "Well, I don't care. I do things because they amuse me. I come here because the food is good and I can hear people talking. Young people at trendy restaurants like noise. I don't."

There is a plush hush to the place, but that doesn't mean it isn't full of haute air. Scaasi, who has a house account, pats Sirio Maccioni, the owner, on the cheek, and heads to his regular table. Nancy Kissinger is sitting just to the right of Scaasi's Turnbull & Asser French cuff.

"Your hair's so cute, Nancy. Did you cut it?" he asks.

"No," says Kissinger. "My hairpiece is in my handbag."

"Well, it looks great," he says. Like Bill Blass, he knows how to talk to the ladies and listen to them, too. But, of course, he's different from Blass, who embraced the look and lifestyle of both city and country dressing. Scaasi, the son of a Canadian furrier who changed his name from Isaacs, is more purely the couture guy. "It's one of the reasons I never did sportswear," he says. "I'm interested in the way women dress in the evening."

"And he's as interested in who wears his dresses as what they are," says Harold Koda, the chief curator of the Costume Institute of the Metropolitan Museum, which has dozens of Scaasi gowns in its collection. "He's playful with his clients and can't help telling them what's good for them, and that's how it should be."


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