Oleg Cassini, described on the jacket of his 1987 autobiography as “Jet Setter Supreme” and “friend and lover to celebrities galore,” is 91 years old. He was in-house designer to Jackie Kennedy during the White House years, husband to Gene Tierney (“en passant,” he says), fiancé to Grace Kelly (“another one of my victims”), and the first American to figure out just how rich you can get from licensing your name. Now Cassini, so famous for his boxy suits and pillbox hats, is launching Oleg Cassini Sport: casualwear for the Juicy Generation. Amy Larocca caught up with him at the Upper East Side townhouse where he works.
Your vintage gowns are red-carpet gold. Why go for sportswear?
It was a necessity. A designer has to have the authority to design a line, particularly if the other designers do not have this authority. And with being sportif, I have this authority. I come to that conclusion because I am involved in many sports very actively. I do tennis, golf, skiing. I drive my own horses in a race. And I always have. Tennis, anyone? There is no doubt about my qualifications.
Did you ever think about being a professional athlete instead of a designer?
At the very beginning of my career, when I opened my business in Italy, I was also a ranked tennis player. I had won many tournaments. To be an athlete was my first choice. Second choice: designer. However! There was more money in being a designer at that time. The athletes were not making the money they make today. I’m talking about 1933.
So it doesn’t bother you that people dress so informally now?
I go with the times! My job is to anticipate what is going to happen next. Every poor designer can go with things that are popular at the moment. But the trick is to anticipate. For the time being, with the mood of the nation and the fact that we have a terrible war in Iraq, and the fact that we have a complication of all sorts, and the economy is really not what it should be, people want to be liberated. The nation, it seems to me, is very tight. It’s nervous. So the clothes need to be completely casual. You are an attractive girl, but I am wondering if you are feeling a little tight? You can be casual, and then you can go and do what you think is important. The ladies who lunch together in opulent suits might meet for a sandwich in a pair of jeans.
But didn’t Juicy Couture already anticipate this look?
Juicy Couture is very clever. It has some similarities to my line, but I don’t know who this Juicy is. Does she know sports?
Would Jackie have worn these clothes?
She needed these clothes in her most important moments! She was at the beach all the time. These clothes are simply the result of people thinking these kinds of clothes should exist.