||19-03-2006 04:50 AM
March 19, 2006
Oleg Cassini, Designer for the Stars and Jacqueline Kennedy, Dies at 92
Mr. Cassini in his New York City office in 1961. Although he designed clothes for Hollywood stars and women of great wealth, throughout his career he also saw to it that his name appeared on ready-to-wear fashions that were affordable to average women.
Oleg Cassini with the actress Grace Kelly in 1955.
Oleg Cassini in 2001.
By RICHARD SEVERO and RUTH LA FERLA
Oleg Cassini, a son of impoverished Italian and Russian nobility who achieved fame and wealth as a fabulously successful couturier based in New York, designing clothes for some of the world's most glamorous women as well as middle-class shoppers, died on Friday on Long Island, where he had a home. He was 92.
His death was announced by his wife, Marianne Cassini. He also had a home in Manhattan.
Mr. Cassini had the longest career of any designer in America, covering seven decades. He achieved perhaps his greatest fame as the official wardrobe designer for Jacqueline Kennedy when she was first lady; he also designed clothes for Joan Fontaine, Joan Crawford and other Hollywood stars and women of great wealth. But throughout his career he also saw to it that his name appeared on ready-to-wear fashions that were affordable to average women.
He did not stop with women's dresses and gowns. The Cassini signature was also available, under license, to the makers of women's hosiery, hats, shoes, gloves, girdles, jewelry, furs, swimsuits, sportswear and sunglasses. And he did not overlook clothing for men: slacks, neckties, underwear, belts and sweaters. He even marketed linens for the bathroom and bedroom.
As Mr. Cassini himself was quick to profess, he was above all about women. He adored them, he said. He loved thinking about how he might drape fine cloth on them, how much to reveal and how much to keep secret. "My philosophy is this: Do not tamper with the anatomy of a woman's body; do not camouflage it," he told The New York Post in 1961. "I don't want every woman to look like a little boy."
Mr. Cassini inveighed against the sack dress and other shape-concealing fashions put forward by the French in the early 1960's. His own label, introduced in 1950, was predicated on "an incredibly hourglass, body-revealing, high-impact, one might go so far as to say quite sexually charged clothing," said Hamish Bowles, the European editor at large for Vogue magazine. "His aesthetic, however, remained always within the framework of 1950's propriety."
Mr. Bowles showcased many of Mr. Cassini's designs as the curator of "Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years," at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2001.
Mr. Cassini spent a lifetime talking and listening to women, and many of them returned the favor, flocking to greet him at public appearances into his 10th decade.
An avowed admirer of Casanova, he courted women in his private life as well. He called his models the harem. But he denied that his relationship to women was in any way predatory. "I needed affection, and I did it the old-fashioned way," he said "I earned it."
He loved to recount his loves. "There were always beautiful girls," he wrote in his autobiography. He pursued and married Merry Fahrney, heiress to a cough syrup fortune. After that marriage failed, he pursued and married Gene Tierney, the actress. And when that marriage failed as well, he was always seen in the company of heiresses, debutantes, showgirls, ingťnues. Between, before or after those two marriages, he dated young starlets like Betty Grable and Lana Turner and actresses like Ursula Andress and Grace Kelly, to whom he was briefly engaged.
"He was a true playboy, in the Hollywood sense," said Diane von Furstenberg, the fashion designer and a friend of Mr. Cassini's. "Well into his 90's, he was a flirt."
Oleg Loiewski Cassini was born on April 11, 1913, the son of Marguerite Cassini, an Italian countess, and Alexander Loiewski, a Russian diplomat descended from a long line of Eastern European nobles. Countess Cassini's father, Arthur Paul Nicholas, Marquis de Capuzzuchi di Bologna, Count de Cassini, was born in Trieste but went to Russia and worked for the czar in various capacities, including diplomatic posts in China and the United States during the administrations of William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt.
Oleg had a younger brother, Igor, who became a society columnist for The New York Journal-American and other Hearst newspapers, writing under the name Cholly Knickerbocker. He died in 2002. In addition to his wife, the former Marianne Nestor, whom he married in 1971, Mr. Cassini is survived by two daughters, Daria Cassini and Christina Belmont, and four grandchildren.
Oleg might have inherited his interest in clothes from his father, who always wore shoes made by Loeb of London and suits by Brandoni of Milan and claimed to own 552 ties. Alexander also liked the name Cassini and agreed with his wife that they should use it and drop Loiewski.
The family was living in Copenhagen when Oleg was born in a Paris hospital; his father was then first secretary of the Russian Embassy in Denmark. But after the czar was overthrown in the revolution of 1917, Alexander was left jobless and impoverished, his property in Russia having been seized by the Communists. So the family settled in Florence, where Oleg's mother began working for the Countess Fabricotti, who owned a fashion salon.
Mr. Cassini's mother designed a line of hats for the countess and developed a formula for success in the fashion business. She ventured up to Paris twice a year, looked at the new French fashions, sketched them, and took them back to Florence, where ingenious Italians would make them for less money.
Oleg also loved to sketch, and his mother later started sending him to Paris, where he sketched the French fashions before returning to Italy. He took drawing lessons at the Academia Belle Arte in Florence, studied under the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico, and won five first prizes in 1934 at an international fashion competition in Turin.
Even then there was a hint of the style he would bestow on Mrs. Kennedy. He designed a woman's suit in the manner of a Cossack uniform, featuring the large buttons that three decades later were frequently seen in Mrs. Kennedy's wardrobe.
It was in 1936, during the Depression, that Mr. Cassini and his brother, Igor, left Florence for New York. Oleg had almost no money, but soon found work as a junior designer and rented a tiny apartment on East 62nd Street in Manhattan. In the late 1930's, he moved to Hollywood and found a job at Paramount Pictures, where he was paid $250 a week ó a princely sum then ó to design wardrobes for the stars of B movies, including a sarong for Dorothy Lamour.
In 1942, Mr. Cassini became an American citizen and decided, along with the actor Victor Mature, to join the Coast Guard as an enlisted man, even though he saw himself more as a dashing cavalry officer, having become an expert horse rider in his own right. With the help of his well-connected second wife, Gene Tierney, he extricated himself from the Coast Guard and transferred to the Army cavalry. He soon earned his lieutenant's bars, but was dismayed to learn that the Army was phasing out horses.
After his discharge, he moved back to New York and set about to establish himself as a designer. He was good at it, and in 1948, he gave a showing of evening clothes at his salon at 16 East 55th Street. The New York Times covered the event and noted that his offerings included a navy double-breasted coat-dress with unpressed pleats and gowns "in electric colors like purple or poppy red." He worked in fine silk, sheer organdy and changeable taffetas, The Times said.
His fame grew, but Miss Tierney's grew faster, and in Hollywood, they began to call him Mr. Gene Tierney. He took a shot at acting in 1950 with a cameo role in the movie "Where the Sidewalk Ends," starring Dana Andrews. Miss Tierney played a model; Mr. Cassini, a dress designer.
In 1960, Jacqueline Kennedy named Mr. Cassini her principal designer. Mr. Cassini had thought a great deal about her, he said, before convincing her of the wisdom of that appointment. He spoke of her "sphinx-like quality and her eyes, which were classically, very beautifully set." His training as a Hollywood costumer served him well.
"He very much understood the notion of creating a persona, a visual identity for Mrs. Kennedy," said Mr. Bowles, the Vogue editor. Saying that the Kennedys were the first political couple to emerge in the television age, he added, "Oleg very clearly understood the demands of that age, that clothing needed to be read from a distance, had to have a clarity of line and strong color."
One of his first ensembles was a fawn beige wool coat with a small sable collar, accompanied by a matching pillbox hat. Mrs. Kennedy wore the ensemble to her husband's inauguration. Soon, it seemed, women all over the world were wearing A-line dresses and pillbox hats.
Over the years, he claimed primary credit for introducing the Nehru jacket to Americans, watching it wax and wane. He developed a line of men's suits named after Johnny Carson, and watched that market wax and wane, too.
In his autobiography, "In My Own Fashion" (Simon & Schuster, 1987), he also said he created the Grace Kelly look. He said he designed dresses for Miss Kelly, one of America's most beautiful actresses, that set off her patrician good looks. He also began a relationship with her and desperately wanted to marry her. He was certain she wanted to marry him, despite the reservations of her lace-curtain Philadelphia Irish family. But in the end she agreed to marry Prince Rainier of Monaco.
Mr. Cassini had his critics. Some said he was still stealing French designs, just as he had for his mother, but there was no evidence that he ever stole anything when he designed for Mrs. Kennedy. Those designs, scholars say, were the result of a collaboration with Mrs. Kennedy, who took a strong hand in choice of silhouette and style.
When she accompanied President John F. Kennedy to Paris, she wore a pink-and-white straw-lace dress with a matching cape for a reception at Versailles. The French rhapsodized about how pretty she was. Mrs. Kennedy also attracted attention when she wore a strapless Cassini dress with encrusted jewels for the unveiling of the Mona Lisa at the National Gallery in Washington.
After the Kennedy years, Mr. Cassini turned his attention to other ventures, introducing men's pink undershorts and dress shirts the color of raspberries. As he got into his 70's, he began to slow and his work did not command the attention it once did. But he enjoyed something of a resurgence in the fall of 2001, when he introduced Oleg Cassini Sport, a collection of silk warm-up suits, satin-lined hooded tops and abbreviated dresses, some of them loosely based on his design archives of the 1960's.
Part of a licensing partnership with Rousso Apparel group, the collection was followed by Oleg Cassini Weekend, a clothing line designed for travel. He also maintained a highly successful bridal business.
Those ventures, and more than 40 other licensees, earned Mr. Cassini the distinction of being the oldest living designer in America, and perhaps the world.
In recent years, Mr. Cassini sought to burnish his image, renovating a five-story limestone town house on East 63rd Street, decorated like a medieval redoubt. He intended the building to be a showcase for his collections.
He also saw his popularity restored. In the last years of his life he was showered with awards from the fashion world. And his regard for women never waned. When some 700 guests lined up to shake his hand during a reception for him at Lord & Taylor on Fifth Avenue last winter, he told Women's Wear Daily: "All these women, young, middle-aged, some old, they had this idea of me being the ultimate vision of fashion. For them, I am somebody."