If all salesmen’s jobs were like this, Willy Loman would still be alive today. But high-fashion designer Arnold Scaasi is hardly any old drummer lugging a scuffed sample case. When he takes to the road to show his latest frothy frocks or to plug his new perfume, “Scaasi,” the first thing he does is pack his black Gucci luggage. Next, he summons his chauffeur, Hector, and his customized Lincoln Town Car for the ride to the airport. Whatever the destination, life is at least a bowl of cherries—and often a bowl of iced caviar. In Atlanta, Scaasi attends a dinner for 500 to benefit that city’s ballet; in Cleveland, it’s cocktails with patrons of the Lyric Opera; in San Francisco—where Mayor Art Agnos declared Feb. 13 Arnold Scaasi Day—the diminutive (5’6″) dressmaker was feted at a $375-a-plate ball that featured Scaasi-clad society matrons packed bow-by-truffle into the Museum of Modern Art. “His dresses are more ladylike than the other designers’,” purred Vera Carpeneti, a 60ish siren in velvet and satin. “You’re dressed just right when you wear a Scaasi.”
The creator of the legendary see-through bell-bottoms that Barbra Streisand wore to the Oscars in 1969, Scaasi has had a new lease on fame since he landed another celebrity Babs—First Lady Barbara Bush. Scaasi’s recent resurgence can be traced in part to the moment the First Lady stepped into the inaugural ball last year wearing her beautiful Barbara Blue gown—a velvet-and-satin Scaasi creation in Mrs. Bush’s favorite sapphire tint. The two have since formed a mutual admiration society. “She’s a very warm, giving, intelligent lady with a great sense of humor,” says Scaasi. The First Lady, who has anointed him her “favorite” designer, said that “it would have been a different year [without] my precious Mr. Scaasi” when she donated her inaugural dress to the Smithsonian Institution in January.
That connection, and his designs, have helped turn Scaasi into a mezzanine idol. During a one-hour stint at San Francisco’s I. Magnin department store, where he autographed photos of himself and sold more than $2,000 worth of his fragrance, ordinary ladies introduced themselves in quavering voices. Constance Edwards, a collection agent, left the store giggling. “I told him he was handsome,” she said. “He told me to stick around.”
Scaasi’s way with women extends from hoi polloi to the hoity-toity. At January’s Girl Scout Council of Greater New York gala—an upper-crust shindig that this year saluted Scaasi—Blaine Trump, Marylou Whitney, Gayfryd Steinberg, Patty Davis Raynes and the rest of nouvelle society rushed the stage in full Arnold regalia. “There’s nobody else like him,” says Trump, a client for six years. “He wants to make sure you’re happy with whatever you bought. He’s nutty that way.” Trump once made a last-minute decision not to wear a particular Scaasi to a White House dinner. “I told him the front wasn’t quite right,” she says. “He said, ‘Come right over.’ ” She did—on her way to Washington. Says Trump: “He grabbed scissors, took a slice out of the dress, stitched it down, and it was perfect.”
One of the secrets of his success, Scaasi says, is being “part dressmaker, part psychiatrist. You have to have a special personality to be on a one-to-one basis with a client.” The shrink in him strokes the fragile egos of the “thin women who think they’re too fat” and the “beautiful women who think they look terrible.” The dressmaker ignores changes in fashion and sticks with flattering styles—curvy dresses with faux jewels, combustible color combinations and sugary flounces and flourishes.
Although he was born Arnold Isaacs in Montreal 58 years ago—his father was a furrier, his mother a homemaker—Scaasi says that he dates “the beginning of my life” from the day he began an extended visit to a fashionable aunt in Australia, when he was 14. Inspired by her sense of style, he decided to become a dress designer. Scaasi went on to study in Montreal and Paris, where his first job was a $50-a-month apprenticeship at the House of Paquin. Arriving in Manhattan in 1953, he found work with Charles James, a designer known for sculptural shapes and odd behavior—such as making clients wait years for clothes.
Two years later, Arnold was ready to move on but found no offers. “Everyone said Charles James was so eccentric that I must be eccentric, too, to have worked for him,” Scaasi recalls. He started free-lancing, making clothes at home—in one case, trading a gown for a used Cadillac, his first car. A great leap forward in Scaasi’s career occurred when two friends, in charge of print advertisements for Fisher automobile bodies, hired him to make eight dresses at $1,000 per for women in the ads. On the credits, an inspired stylist reversed the spelling of Arnold’s last name to make it sound more glamorous. “I got a call in the middle of the night,” Scaasi remembers. “I was told, ‘The clothes are wonderful, the pictures are wonderful, and you have a new name.’ ” He liked it and made it legal.
As his reputation grew, Scaasi opened a ready-to-wear business in 1956. Within three months he had landed a Vogue cover, followed by a line of furs for Ben Kahn, children’s clothes, men’s sweaters, ties, jewelry and women’s sportswear which failed “because my idea of sportswear was a sable-lined coat”). He bought a grand Stanford White house and divided it into a store, an atelier and an apartment. But, while money flowed in, something was missing. “I did nothing but work, and I wanted to have some fun,” he says. He shut down everything except his made-to-order business and continued in that mode until 1984, when Saks Fifth Avenue persuaded him to broaden his output. In addition to custom dresses—which bring from $6,000 to $25,000 per—he now designs mass-produced collections of cocktail and evening wear, wedding gowns and furs. He says he’s happy to be a workaholic again, “because I’ve had all the fun and I’m older.”
Mrs. Bush, whom he met at a White House dinner in 1987, is his fourth First Lady. Mamie Eisenhower, Jacqueline Kennedy (who bought off-the-rack dresses at Bergdorf Goodman before Scaasi became a private couturier) and Lady Bird Johnson all sprinkled the White House with Scaasis. Barbara Bush last visited his Fifth Avenue salon in March to shop for spring. “She chooses her own clothes from the collection,” says Scaasi. “She knows herself completely. She’s exactly what you see—no different with anyone.”
Such constancy is also a Scaasi trait. Although he recently purchased a Manhattan co-op overlooking the East River—reportedly for $5 million—he has lived in his soon-to-be-former apartment, an unextravagant midtown affair, for 27 years. His other homes include a Palm Beach getaway and an 80-year-old Long Island weekend house, the exterior of which his late friend the artist Louise Nevelson convinced him to paint black. A wall of the house was dominated by a large Nevelson sculpture; a discerning art collector, Scaasi also owns a Picasso, a Monet and a Dubuffet.
At home, which he shares with his Irish terriers, Sean and Kate, Scaasi is a creature of habit. He rises at 7:30 and reads the morning papers over a glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice, a cup of decaf and a bowl of Special K with a sliced banana. He dresses at 11—always in a suit of his own design custom-made by Edward Sexton in London. Then it’s off to Le Cirque, La Côte Basque or La Grenouille for lunch with one of his ladies, back home for an afternoon of sketching, and out again for the evening—usually dinner, the theater or a party.
Even on weekends on Long Island, where a live-in housekeeper and a few day workers make life comfortable, he has a hard time being casual. “I’m about to get up the nerve to invite Arnold to my house upstate,” jokes friend Mary Tyler Moore. “But I don’t have enough helpers. And he has to be prepared to buy a pair of jeans.” Though she has known Scaasi for a decade, Moore only recently became a client. “I couldn’t afford his couture until I sold my company,” she says.
What the dear dollars buy are “something nobody else has,” says senior social doyenne Brooke Astor, 85, who was recently fitted for a full-length floral organdy dress. She likes his clothes because “they make me look 25 years younger.”
Consideration for his clients knows no bounds. Long after the dress is designed, altered and beloved, the owner might receive a call from the ever watchful couturier to warn of the possibility of an embarrassing encounter at one black-tie gala or another (at least one such call was made in vain, with the result that Barbara Walters and Patty Raynes showed at the same party in identical Scaasis). More often Scaasi is able to save his clients from the heartbreak of sartorial duplication. Before President Bush’s Inauguration, Scaasi phoned Brooke Astor, who promised to keep her similar inaugural dress in the closet. “I didn’t wear it for a year,” she says. “But Mrs. Bush put hers away in the Smithsonian, and now I’m wearing mine like mad.”
—With additional reporting by Liz McNeil in San Francisco