A Silver-Haired Cassini Puts More Polish on Sterling Career

Times Staff Writer

Oleg Cassini, dressed for jogging, sits in his Beverly Hills Hotel suite accepting calls in three languages from Rome, Paris and New York, planning new ventures, making dates for tennis and dinner, preparing to tape a Merv Griffin show on which he'll present his new line of dresses.

"Linda Evans is out of town? Too bad," he says, "I'd hoped maybe to see her." (He dated Evans, he recalls, when both were between spouses.)

He is tall, slim, silver-haired, silver-tongued and extraordinarily charming. But that, of course, comes with the territory for an authentic blueblood (son of an exiled Russian count), whose ancestry dates back to the first crusade, whose New York town house bears his family's coat of arms and whose country house (on 44 acres) was designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Lest this put anyone off, he is also a man who relinquished his title to become an American citizen in 1942, who fought for America in World War II, who was first to use black models in his New York fashion shows during the early 1950s (which led to cancellations by many of his Southern accounts) and who prides himself on his love and knowledge of things "authentically American."

Cassini's name rings a bell even to yuppies who weren't born when the designer was a guest of the Kennedys at the White House every weekend.

Even teen-agers seem to know that he was Mrs. Kennedy's "official designer"--the man who, in his own words, dressed the President's wife "like a princess, in a simple beige cloth coat," when all around her were waddling about in furs.

But his image, other than that, is slightly murky in the public mind. Some think of him as the name on ties their fathers wore or confuse him with his brother, Igor, a former gossip columnist.

Many don't know that Cassini was married to actress Gene Tierney for 10 years, almost married actress Grace Kelly, has costumed more than 30 films, has reportedly sold more than a billion dollars worth of merchandise with his name on it and calls himself the father of franchise fashion. Though this makes him sound like a living fossil, Cassini says he has, in a sense, "just begun." In fact, he adds, a 1982 Gallup poll to determine the world's best-known designers revealed that he was fourth on the list, right behind Dior, Cardin and Saint Laurent.

"And I am most visible of them all," he says. "My face is recognized from Hollywood to New York; every bellhop, cab driver and stewardess seems to know me.

"It is mysterious," he sighs. "Just when I am getting on in age, the world is opening wide. In a sense, I wish all this had happened before. My geometric growth is very recent."

No matter. Cassini is definitely alive and well--and startlingly fit for a man who's in his seventh decade.

Cassini is an ambiguity. By his own admission, his life has been lived in reverse order, the exact opposite of most top American designers.

"At 22 I was already bored with the social part of life. I was accepted everywhere. I had what designers like Bill Blass and Ralph Lauren had to work for years to get. They went through the typical stages of the American dream. They worked hard and spent their energy in order to get accepted socially, to buy ranches and houses--things with which I started out."

What Cassini didn't have at the beginning, however, was credibility as a hard-working designer and creative businessman. The Paris-born son of a Russian diplomat father and an artist-designer mother, he spent his youth in France and his teen years in Italy, where he first showed talent for design. After apprenticing in Paris with Jean Patou, he started a dress company in New York, then came to Los Angeles around 1940, where, he remembers, he considered buying the Beverly Hills Hotel, which was then available at $175,000.

His title and continental charm weren't worth much in Old Hollywood. In fact, they were liabilities. He was considered a dilettante and a rogue, he says, especially after he eloped with Tierney. Eventually, he was accepted and went on to design for films such as "The Mating Season" and stars such as Tierney, Lana Turner and Rita Hayworth.

Ten years later, when his marriage broke up, he left for New York to begin again.

This time, he built a dress business, which he says became "the most successful on Seventh Avenue in the early 1950s." But again, he was bored, confined. It wasn't enough.

"A revolution was needed," Cassini recalls. "To me, Leonardo da Vinci was the first great revolutionary because he refused to be pinned down. Da Vinci could paint, sculpt, design armor, pottery, castles. There, I told myself, was real versatility."

He decided to license his good name, which he signed on everything from watches to cars--a futuristic move that eventually made fortunes for him and all who came after. But for years, he remembers, "nobody understood the idea. I put the whole system out of balance and replaced it with a new system. Not everybody liked it then, or now. Not everyone has the energy for it. But I believed in it. And as with all pathfinders, I had a truly terrible time. Even the lawyers didn't know how to make contracts for such things as this."

One gets the impression, hearing him reminisce, that in the early days of his franchises, he lost more money and friends than he made.

Again, no matter. It was done. And, at his zenith, Cassini's refined script was signed on 60 categories of what he calls "fashion and art-tech items." Recently he has "restricted" himself, he says, to only 40 franchises. But they are plums.

He says his dresses alone do about $30 million retail; his entire business operation (including fashion hosiery for Hanes and fashion luggage for Airways) brings in about $350 million retail a year.

Even this is not enough. He has always been, after all, a rebel, a risk taker and a wit. To show humorous distaste for Balenciaga's shapeless chemise dresses in 1959, Cassini sent one of his models down the runway in a burlap sack from which hidden potatoes came crashing to the floor.

Such things were simply not done in those days, when fashion was a "religion" to America's urban upper-middle class and the French designers were its gods.

Cassini was beyond all that. His social status was greater than his business success. He scoffed at couture because he simply didn't care. And he designed feminine, body-revealing styles that Middle Americans snapped up by the thousands, even if New York social climbers did not.

Cassini was quoted, in those years, as saying his best ideas occurred to him while on the golf course or the dance floor of El Morocco (a fancy Manhattan nightclub), where he was photographed with some of the prettiest women in the world. And it was perhaps this roguish aspect of his life that appealed to both the Kennedys.

"I got along with President Kennedy because I always had a beautiful woman on each arm, and he loved beautiful women too," Cassini recalls.

Jackie liked him, he thinks, because he had the continental graces that came with his lineage. "She referred to me as 'the real thing,' " he recalls. "They were a beautiful young woman and young man. That was the package."

But the package needed packaging. And Cassini says that Mrs. Kennedy's fashion look, which caused a worldwide craze, was more costumery than design. He credits his success to his Hollywood experience.

"I studied the project like I would study a script, a story line. I saw Jackie not as a woman who needed an elegant wardrobe, but as a character in a plot, someone who needed to project a single, consistent look . . . the look of a young, elegant, credible, unsupercilious American beauty. Therefore, I designed things with dramatically simple lines. We were writing a story with her clothes."

Cassini says he socialized at the White House "every weekend for a year, most of those times surrounded by lovely women" who he brought with him. "The President liked that," he recalls.

But he is not a reprobate or a rogue, he explains. "I do not use people--men or women. To take segments of time from a woman's life is one of the cruelest things a man can do."

In fact, he has never enjoyed being with social types who have little to do but dress up and party, he says.

"I loved Hollywood actresses because they were doers. They had discipline. They got up extraordinarily early every morning, they studied scripts, they worked hard. They were not the leisure class. They were real women, not society girls.

"Gene Tierney. Grace Kelly. Both those women worked very hard."

He was in love with Kelly, he says, but her family was opposed to the match. "I was much older than she, I was divorced and she was Catholic. They said it couldn't work."

Of her marriage to Prince Rainier, Cassini says: "Most Americans are naive geopolitically. To Grace, being the princess of even a small principality was better than anything else. It was the equivalent of being Queen of England. It was too good a script for her to pass up. I had no country. I only had Seventh Avenue. And I am convinced that she made the right choice, although I never knew whether she enjoyed it in the long run. Only she knew that."

Cassini has certainly endured through many eras, his acuity intact, his ambition undimmed. Fashion, he says, is the best way to read what's happening in the world. The many different looks now available to men and women are simply an indication of the splintering social fabric in which we live.

"We are in the Post-Atomic Era," he says, "with all the terrors that brings. Our banking system is menaced; society is breaking apart."

And "from reading fashion," he says, he has deduced that America is now split in half. There are now two kinds of people in this country: those who believe in keeping fit and those who don't.

"Naturally, those who keep fit wear a different kind of clothes from those who don't. The fitness buffs have different figures and probably different images of themselves. I, for instance, am still 31 inches in the hips. I can wear clothes a university kid would wear. (He plays tennis, golf, sails and skis on a fairly regular basis, he says.)

"It has nothing to do with age. There are women who look wonderful forever. And there are girls who at 16 lose their muscle tone."

Based on this theory, Cassini has started a "revolutionary" men's clothing line for athletes.

"It's called Competitor, and it changes menswear from camouflage to enhancement," he explains, adding that he's actually "changed the traditional cut and dimensions of menswear patterns to reflect the needs of American males of any age who exercise regularly.

"Athletic men generally have well-developed legs, small hips, big shoulders and backs. Clothes are not tailored for their body structures. I'm friends with Frank Gifford and a lot of other active men, and they say they can never find clothes that fit."

His ad campaign for the line will feature men such as race-car driver Danny Sullivan, football player Mark Gastineau, television tycoon and sailboat racer Ted Turner and comedian Bob Hope, who Cassini says "is a terrific golfer and looks fantastic. He's the ultimate competitor in sport and in life."

Maybe so. But Cassini himself is right up there with Hope. In addition to his new menswear line, slated for U.S. distribution, he is beginning an even more ambitious fashion project in Italy, where he will design and manufacture clothes. "I want to be valid in Europe, to make clothes in Italy and present them there. I want an Italian empire to parallel the size of my American empire. It will be the crowning glory of my career, to go back to Italy where I started when I was 16."

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