Arnold Scaasi (1930 – 2015) In the highly competitive fields of jewelry, fashion, and accessories, designers sometimes take unusual steps to become noticed; none more so than Arnold Scaasi who reversed the spelling of his family name from Isaacs to Scaasi to give it a more exotic flair. A Canadian fashion designer, Scaasi was born Arnold Isaacs to a Jewish family in Montreal, Quebec, Canada.
His father, Samuel, was a furrier and his mother, Bessie, studied opera. Arnold’s New York Times obituary revealed, among other things, one of his earliest memories: When dressing his mother, “[He ordered her] to pin a corsage of gardenias on her evening bag rather than wear it on her shoulder.”
He attributed his interest in fashion to his stylish Aunt Ida Wynn who, when visiting the family, arrived with trunks full of Chanel and Schiaparelli dresses.
Arnold attended the Cotnoir-Capponi school in Montreal, spent his last year at the Chambre Syndicale in Paris, and then apprenticed at the House of Paquin before applying for a job with Christian Dior. Dior promised him a job in three months, but Scaasi was impatient. When Dior hemmed and hawed, Scaasi recalled that Dior said: “Why don’t you bring fashion to America? America is the future.”
So Arnold moved to New York, working briefly under Charles James. In the early 1950s, Scaasi’s designs began appearing in print ads including one for General Motors that was photographed by Edgar de Evia.
During this shoot he met Robert Denning, who suggested he reverse the spelling of his last name to give his designs ‘an Italian feel.’ Under his new name his creations appeared on the December 1955 cover of Vogue. This was the factor that inspired Scaasi to create his ready-to-wear line the following year.
In 1958, Scaasi won the prestigious Coty Fashion Critics 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.
Because he did relatively little for the mass ready-to-wear market, Scaasi wasn’t as well known to the average customer as contemporaries like Oscar de la Renta or Liz Claiborne.
He did design some high-end, ready-to-wear clothes for specialty stores, telling Women’s Wear Daily in 2007 that he was creating a new ready-to-wear line because “women were stopping me in airports and asking me [to do this] at dinner parties.”
For a spectacular price, his socialite and celebrity clients got one-of-a-kind clothes — carefully constructed, tailored to their precise size, highlighting their best points and camouflaging their worst. He was known for taking dozens and dozens of measurements of clients’ bodies.
In his 2004 book, “Women I Have Dressed (and Undressed),” Scaasi described some of the things he made for Elizabeth Taylor: “A spectacular white satin ball gown with a rhinestone design of arches over the entire dress. … A long black velvet cape to go over it … A coral and turquoise petunia printed silk short dress with a cape coat in turquoise cashmere. … A beautiful short black chiffon number that was totally covered in tiny leaves and flowers with diamante clusters.”
Throughout the 1960s, in defiance of the general trend for more affordable clothing, Scaasi focused on designing occasion-wear for high-end clientele. After setting up his own couture salon in 1964, he indulged his preference for unashamedly flamboyant frocks. Bright pink stripes, lemon-yellow zig-zags and extravagant floral patterns were combined with fur, feathers, ruffles, bows, beads and sequins with spectacular and occasionally outrageous results.
Scaasi was often quoted declaring, “I am definitely not a minimalist.”
In 1969, one of Scaasi’s more risqué designs came to wider attention when he dressed Barbra Streisand for the Academy Awards. When she stepped up to the stage to receive the Best Actress award for “Funny Girl,” she seemed unaware that her black glittery Scaasi pantsuit, complete with an oversized Peter Pan collar, was transparent.
Scaasi went on to work alongside Cecil Beaton on the lavish costumes for the Vincente Minnelli filming of the Lerner & Loewe Broadway musical fantasy, “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever,” which starred Ms. Streisand and Yves Montand. Scaasi went on to create costumes for “Loving Couples” (1980), starring Shirley MacLaine and Susan Sarandon, and “Kiss Me Goodbye” (1982), with Sally Field and James Caan.
However, it was for his dazzlingly adorned high-end gowns that Scaasi was best known, His clients included five First Ladies: Jackie Kennedy, Mamie Eisenhower, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton, and Laura Bush.
One of his deep regrets, he wrote in his memoir, was asking Jackie Kennedy to pay wholesale for frocks he designed on spec for when she entered the White House in 1961. He wrote that he should have given them to her in exchange for the publicity. “That was probably the dumbest decision I ever made in my life!” he wrote.
Mrs. Kennedy chose Oleg Cassini as her official designer.
Scaasi’s success brought a series of license agreements in the 1950’s not only for jewelry, but also for furs, fragrances, ties, bridal wear, sleepwear, accessories, and dresses.
Scaasi designed fashion jewelry from 1958 to 1965. One line – known as The Scaasi Jewel Collection – for the hair, neck, and ears matched the famous butterfly prints he designed in Paris.
In the 1950s, Mimi di N (Mimi Di Nascemi) and Scaasi partnered briefly for a line of costume jewelry. Scaasi also teamed with Jacques Jewelers who were known for their platinum and 18K gold metal base jewelry embedded with diamonds, pearls, and gemstones. The Jacques Jewelers association helped Scaasi gain celebrity status in jewelry. For the production of this line, Scaasi chose the base metals, stones and designed the pieces to fit his fashions.
Scaasi’s costume jewelry designs –like his fashions- were big and bold. Some were decorated with large cabochon stones, using base metals of gold and silver plating and often with striking and startling color combinations of simulated pearls, superior Swarovski rhinestones, and synthetic stones supplied from Germany.
Scaasi jewelry complimented his clothing creations and used the Mark, “Jewelry by Scaasi.”
In 1965, Scaasi sold his jewelry factory to Kenneth Jay Lane who had been designing shoes and shoe ornaments for Dior, then designing rhinestone buttons and shoe ornaments for Scaasi.
Scaasi designed an original couture collection twice a year that he presented to clients and the fashion press. While the average woman rarely had use for Scaasi’s fashion excesses nor was able to afford them, actresses and singers were drawn to 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, as well as for Streisand, Taylor, Claudette Colbert, Sophia Loren, and Natalie Wood.
In July 2010, Scaasi announced his retirement after fifty-five years in the dress business. At that time, he was more widely known for selling costume jewelry on the Home Shopping Network (HSN) and for criticizing First Lady Michelle Obama’s style. At the time of his retirement, he had been making custom gowns, about 20 each month.
Scaasi was once described by the writer Bob Morris as “New York’s last great couturier,” since few designers were still interested in the high level of craftsmanship that Scaasi brought to his creations.
“I’m sure there are a lot of little dressmakers around making clothes for people, but I don’t know that women want to be bothered as much anymore,” he said at the time. “They are happy to get something off the rack.”
In September 2010, a Scaasi retrospective opened at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. For that exhibition, he donated more than 200 pieces from his archives.
Other Scaasi museum retrospectives included a 2001 exhibition at The Kent State University Museum to celebrate the museum’s fifteenth anniversary. Other museums holding Arnold Scaasi designs in their collections are the Historical Society of Palm Beach County in West Palm Beach, Florida; the Grand Rapids Public Museum, in Michigan, the Museum of Lifestyle & Fashion History in Boynton Beach, Florida and the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.
Some of Scaasi’s remarks could be as outrageous as his designs. “American women lack the innate good taste of European women,” he told the Washington Daily News in 1958. “Designers have to trick American women into being stylish.”
Scaasi died of cardiac arrest at a New York City hospital on August 3, 2015 at the age of 85.