Cassini added celebrity to fashion

Appreciation

March 20, 2006|By BARBARA THOMAS | BARBARA THOMAS,LOS ANGELES TIMES

Fashion legend Oleg Cassini will forever be remembered as the man who created the "Jackie look," the signature wardrobe he created for first lady Jacqueline Kennedy in the early 1960s. But the Russian-born designer, who died Friday at age 92, was much more than that: a Hollywood playboy, a savvy businessman and a pioneer in making his own name a sought-after brand.

"He understood the power of marketing, branding and licensing, and was one of the first designers to diversify," said Hamish Bowles, Vogue magazine's European editor at large and the fashion historian who curated the 2001 Metropolitan Museum exhibition Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years.

The dapper designer died at a Long Island hospital of intracerebral bleeding less than a month before his 93rd birthday, said his widow, Marianne, president of Oleg Cassini Inc.

He was "a beautiful Renaissance man and a fantastic witness to the 20th and 21st century," she said.

As famous for his colorful lifestyle as he was for his clothes, Cassini was married to Hollywood star Gene Tierney and engaged to Grace Kelly - before she became a princess. As "secretary of style" to America's most stylish first lady, Cassini foreshadowed a time when designers would be defined by their celebrity clients.

As a businessman, Cassini was an innovative leader in the fashion industry. He was the first to understand the power of franchising his name, with as many as 50 licenses, including sunglasses, watches and children's clothes. He bucked tradition by refusing to show with other designers during the New York seasons, instead taking his designs directly to the public, exhibiting his collections in stores and becoming a regular television guest on The Tonight Show and The Mike Douglas Show.

He understood there was wealth to be had in ready-to-wear instead of high fashion. He was the first to introduce brightly colored shirts for men and was responsible for the short-lived trend of the Nehru jacket.

His "Jackie Look" became his signature - A-line dresses, boxy jackets, sheaths and geometric necklines. It was the source of great pride for the designer.

By dressing the first lady, the immigrant galvanized an American fashion sensibility. He took conservative staples, such as the shirt dress, the simple shift and the wool coat, and made them into new American classics. And he made them sexy.

But Cassini's reputation as man about town overshadowed his credibility as a serious designer.

Cassini seemed destined to lead a fast life, from his beginnings as the son of Russian aristocrats who fled the country in 1917 and settled in Florence, Italy. Cassini would study art and opened a tiny salon, getting orders from the European aristocracy and American debutantes.

Cassini was briefly and disastrously married to cough syrup heiress Merry Fahrney; he was the fourth of her nine ex-husbands. After their divorce, Cassini moved to Hollywood in 1940, where he worked in the costume departments of Paramount Studios and Twentieth Century Fox.

He designed costumes for Veronica Lake, Marilyn Monroe and Tierney, whom he married in 1941. They divorced in 1952. His name was linked to a number of beautiful women, including Anita Ekberg, Linda Evans, Jill St. John and dozens of models. Perhaps the most famous name of all was actress Grace Kelly, to whom he was unofficially engaged for two years before she married Prince Rainier of Monaco.

Cassini opened his own fashion house in 1950, but it wasn't until President John F. Kennedy asked him to be the official designer for his wife that he achieved his greatest success.

Barbara Thomas writes for the Los Angeles Times. Newsday writer Anne Bratskeir contributed to this article.

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