The Courtly Couturier

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.”

“He does flattering and well-made dresses for a definite coterie of followers,” adds Kal Ruttenstein of Bloomingdale’s. “He’s the original niche marketer.”

Scaasi, born in Montreal in 1935, credits this love of couture dressing to seeing his first muse, Aunt Ida, with her clothes by Chanel and Schiaparelli. At 17, he moved to Paris to study at the Chambre Syndicale and apprentice at Paquin, a prominent couture house. From the strength of his sketches, he was offered a position with Christian Dior but didn’t want to wait three months to begin. “You are talented,” he says Dior told him. “Why not go back to the United States, where the future is, and bring fashion to America?”

In New York, he worked for Charles James, the extravagant couturier, and a few years later, had put his own label on clothes that were riotously colorful and boldly shaped.

“You’d see women at showrooms gasping, even screaming,” says Stan Herman, president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, which gave Scaasi (via Barbara Bush) a lifetime-achievement award in 1997, his second award from the organization. “And he’d pull off these unusual sleeves and amazing pleating. I was in awe of him. I was just starting out as a designer, picking up pins, and he was changing the world.”

As bold as his constructions were, his pronouncements were even bolder.

“A woman who is secure can wear any color she wants,” he declared to the Washington Daily News in 1958. “American women lack the innate good taste of European women. Designers have to trick American women into being stylish.” At a time when a million women owned mink stoles, he told the New York Times they looked “silly” and that women “might as well be wearing their hair down to their waists.”

This big entrance as a brash young star (with an imposing Italian-, not Jewish-, sounding name) signaled a new era, in which designers would no longer be under the thumb of fashion-house owners. Like Dior, Balenciaga, and Norell (and Cher), he became a one-name wonder, telling everyone from Joan Crawford to Streisand what to wear. “Barbra,” he said about the diva for whom he once made a wedding gown in black at her request, “needed to dress like a contemporary young person after Funny Girl and Hello, Dolly.” Louise Nevelson wanted nothing but drama. “You’re the Empress of Art,” he told the artist, whose sculpture is on his dining-room ceiling. “And we will dress you as an empress.” He designed couture, then ready-to-wear, and licensed his name for sunglasses and perfumes. Finally, he realized he loved just designing privately for the women he adored.

Back in 1962, meanwhile, he met Parker Ladd, a publishing executive for Charles Scribner and Sons, at a dinner party. “You were wearing kid gloves and a three-piece suit in July,” says the very pleasant and very tall Ladd, who has joined Scaasi at Le Cirque.

“In those days, I’d do anything for fashion,” says Scaasi.

“When I saw you, I thought you were English and that we could just have a fling and you’d go home and I’d never see you again,” Ladd says.

“Hmmph,” Scaasi replies.

The couple celebrated their fortieth anniversary at Le Cirque last July. Mayor Bloomberg proclaimed it their day. Liz Smith declared in her column that their long, public, and civic-minded same-sex marriage was almost as significant as Stonewall.

“At our age, being out about being gay is not chopped liver,” says Ladd, who is the producer and host of Open Book on A&E.

Scaasi and Ladd turn their attention to more pressing matters: the dames in the room and the idea of luring them to a charity party. The Scaasi-retrospective opening party will benefit the Breast Cancer Research Foundation.

“Did you ask those ladies if they’re coming to your party?” Ladd asks.

“We’ll do it on the way out,” Scaasi says. “Who is that waving to me with the dark hair?”

“Louise Sunshine, I think,” Ladd says.

“But isn’t Louise a blonde? Is that Cynthia Boardman over there? We should put her on the list and invite her, too.” Helen Gurley Brown stops by. She can’t come. “I have to give a speech in Chicago,” she says. Scaasi tells her maybe next time. When it’s time to leave, he turns to Kissinger. “Good-bye, Nancy,” he tells her. “I love your hair short like that. You look like you’re going riding.”

“I wish,” she replies.

“Good-bye, ladies,” he tells four socialites. “What are you talking about?”

“We’re covering lots of topics, Arnold,” Louise Grunwald murmurs. “And there will be quite a few more as soon as you’re out the door.”

Scaasi’s in a pretty good mood. At least he is until he surveys the scene outside on Fifth Avenue. “Look at the people on the sidewalks,” says Scaasi, whose most recent high-profile client is Laura Bush (he’s also designing gardens as a new outlet for his buoyant creativity; one for a residential building on the East Side and, if all goes well, another for the Brazilian Court in Palm Beach). “You don’t know what or who these people are from how they’re dressed. They’re like sheep. It’s yucky. We’ve gotten into such a low, depressing moment in fashion that I have no interest in designing clothes anymore.”

But that doesn’t mean he doesn’t like looking at clothes, especially when they’re his. It’s later that afternoon, and he’s stepping through the still-under-construction exhibit at FIT. “Can you believe this Liberty print,” he says about one dress, already in place on a mannequin, that looks like an explosion in a hothouse. “And Gayfryd’s dress for the Feather Ball was a real eighties dress,” he says of another. “It has silver lamé, rosebud petals, feathers, and when I was making it, I didn’t think it had enough of everything, so I put on some more!”

For every dress he made for every great woman, there’s a vivid memory.

“You used to be able to see someone on the street and know where she was coming from,” Scaasi says, with only a hint of lament for a once-upon-a-time world, when you didn’t have to be a bad boy to be a design star or a wan nymphet to be an “It” girl.

He moves through FIT’s museum at a fierce clip, a little cupid on overdrive, stirring up tiny clouds of dust – or is it glitter? – as he goes. He’d like to show the museum’s conservator how to hang his dresses properly (and on satin hangers, please). “Shouldn’t this coat be dry-cleaned?” he asks. “This would look better like this, but I know I don’t have to tell you that.” Oh, and he’d like to make a suggestion to the exhibition-production coordinator about the height of a display platform. The coordinator nods and smiles. “Fashion designers tend to be very hands-on with our exhibitions,” he says after Scaasi has moved on. “That’s why we like doing shows about dead designers.”

Ladd, with an affectionate grin, watches the little love of his life carrying on. He’s been through this countless times, and things always turn out the better for it.

“Arnold’s whole life is details,” he says. “And when people care as much as he does, you have to respect them.”

And, of course, obey them, too.

The Courtly Couturier