Born: Arnold Isaacs in Montreal, Canada, 8 May 1931. Education: Studied fashion design at école Cotnoir Capponi, Montreal, 1953, and at the école de la Chambre Syndicale de la Haute Couture Parisienne, 1954-55; apprenticed one year with Paquin. Career: Moved to New York, worked with Charles James, 1951-53; freelance designer in New York working for Dressmaker Casuals and Lilly Daché, 1955-57; opened own business, 1957; president/designer, Arnold Scaasi Inc., from 1962; designer, Scaasi couture collections, from 1962; designer, ready-to-wear collections, 1962-63, 1969, and from 1984; introduced signature fragrance and dressed First Lady Barbara Bush for inauguration, 1989; inked licensing deal with Warnaco for leisurewear, 1995; began designing for First Lady Laura Bush, 2001; debuted new leisurewear collection for QVC, 2001. Exhibitions: Retrospective, New York State Theater, Lincoln Center, New York, 1975; Scaasi: The Joy of Dressing Up, New York, 1996, then Ohio State University, 1998. Awards: Coty American Fashion Critics award, 1958; Neiman Marcus award, 1959; Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) award, 1987; Pratt Institute
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Clothes should be worn to make one feel good, to flatter and as a statement of personality. The overall effect should always be a well-groomed look, not sloppy…. This is not a matter of self-indulgence; when you know you look your best, you face the day and the world with great self-assurance.
It's most important that one chooses clothes that work for their lifestyle, both financially and psychologically…I try to design clothes that will flatter the female form. I create clothes that are pretty, usually with an interesting mix of fabrics. I like luxurious fabrics, great quality for day, opulence for evening dresses. I am definitely not a minimalist designer! Clothes with some adornment are more interesting to look at and more fun to wear.
I believe clothes should touch and define the body at least in one spot. Most of my clothes have a defined waist and hipline, with some movement below the hip. Bustlines are always defined and I am known for low décolletage—either off-the-shoulder, strapless or simply scooped-out necklines. Sweetheart necklines are also flattering and I use them constantly. I prefer using color to black and white though sometimes black and/or white are most dramatic. Shades of red, pink, turquoise, violet and sapphire blue can be more flattering and exciting to look at.
At one point in my career I used an enormous amount of printed fabrics and found them wonderful to work with. However, in recent seasons my eye has changed and the prints seemed to have faded from fashion. Before long, the print craze will probably return as women— and designers—get bored with solid fabrics. In place of prints we are using more embroideries to give texture and life to the fabrics.
Lastly, clothes should be fun with a dash of fantasy. Scaasi creations are the champagne and caviar of the fashion world, as a very prominent Queen once said, "Let them eat cake!" I do hope I won't have my head chopped off for these thoughts!
As a young apprentice to Charles James during the early 1950s, Arnold Scaasi was imprinted by James' concentration on "building" an evening dress as a sculpture. This early training led Scaasi to construct dresses in the round and to approach design as three-dimensional form. The influence of James has been a lifelong inspiration for Scaasi; another was the richness of the fabrics and furs used during the 1950s, when the prerequisite for women was to be perfectly dressed from head to toe.
Scaasi began to rethink his objectives after juggling a career during the late 1950s and early 1960s that included menswear, children's wear, and costume jewelry, in addition to ladies' ready-to-wear and custom designs. He decided to focus strategically on couture dressmaking at a time when Paris couture was beginning to suffer. It was 1964 when Scaasi debuted his collection of eveningwear. He was able to take the freedom of the youth-obsessed 1960s and channel the energy into designs that featured keen attention to details and the workmanship of couture dressing.
Scaasi emphasized sequins, fringe, and feathers as trims, substituting new fabrics to create an ostentatious signature style that included minidresses, trouser suits, and the use of transparency. Barbra Streisand wore a memorable Scaasi creation to the 1969 Academy Awards. His customers have often been the celebrated rich and famous—Elizabeth Taylor, Ivana Trump, Blaine Trump, Joan Rivers, Barbara Walters, and many other glamorous clients have favored Scaasi for years.
During the 1970s, styles changed to a more body-conscious, pared-down way of dressing. Scaasi, true to form, turned to dressing women who still loved to be noticed, such as artist Louise Nevelson. It made sense to Scaasi to continue creating what he was known for and what he loved to do. The basis of his work has been a combination of cut, color sensibility, and fabric selections recalling a past elegance yet which continue to speak to his clients' most current desires.
The 1980s, the Reagan era, ushered in a renaissance of upscale dressing perfect for the Scaasi touch. He dressed First Lady Barbara Bush for the inaugural ball and designed her wardrobe for the week of festivities. Never one to concern himself with everyday dressing, Scaasi dressed the urban woman who attends parties, galas, charity balls, and elaborate dinners. His customer is affluent and has a personality enabling her to wear a Scaasi creation. Often described as lavish, sumptuous, and magical, Scaasi's evening gowns are worn for making a sensational entrance.
Fashion editor Bernardine Morris' book, Scaasi: A Cut Above (1996) traced the designer from his beginnings to wardrobing such elite clientéle as singer Aretha Franklin, actresses Joan Crawford and Elizabeth Taylor, and socialites Brooke Astor and Charlotte Ford. Simultaneous with the publication of the book, the New York Historical Society presented Scaasi: The Joy of Dressing Up, a showcase of Scaasi's four decades accommodating the varied tastes of actresses, First Ladies, and many other memorable clients. Featured in the collection were two drop-waist off-the-shoulder gowns, a wedding dress, and an afternoon suit trimmed in fur with matching hat.
Drawing on his 75 scrapbooks for past successes, Scaasi expressed his delight in seeing people enjoy the experience of dressing well in couture ensembles, which tends to require numerous tedious fittings. The 1996 New York retrospective coincided with his Lifetime Achievement award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America, presented by Barbara Bush. Two years later, Ohio State's College of Human Ecology opened a three-month exhibit, a reprise of the New York tribute. Curator Gayle Strege accented the line's elegance and rich taffetas, lace, chiffons, velvets, satins, and jerseys.
In 1999 Scaasi helped satisfy the spunky American buyer hungering for a change. In explanation of his philosophy, he stressed to Women's Wear Daily writer Bernadine Taub that designers must listen to their clientéle. He summarized his own philosophy of assisting women to appear at their best: "A look doesn't happen out of the air—it comes from what someone wants or needs." One needy customer brought Scaasi immediate media acclaim. He reportedly rescued Laura Bush from the fashion scrap heap in 2001 after the inauguration of her husband, George W. Bush. To upgrade her down-home Texas wardrobe to a snappier, more photogenic look, he made suits and a coatdress for a state tour of Europe. To enhance her appearance for the media, he created ensembles stressing vivid, cheerful shades of tomato red, green, lapis, and turquoise.
Midyear 2001 was a financial success for Scaasi's Leisure Collection for QVC, which sold 4,500 pieces netting $250 million. His line showcased rose prints, leopard stripes, and tropical flora in at-home caftans and patio dresses. According to the Washington Post, he informed critics that he aimed for a feminine, pretty look, warning, "If you don't want those kinds of clothes, don't come to me."
updated by Mary Ellen Snodgrass