Few Oscar dresses have generated more discussion than Bjork's 2001 feathery swan tutu. The singer-turned-actress was dubbed the "ugly duckling" by some fashion pundits. But to Arnold Scaasi, designer to the stars and socialites, the dress was a hit.
"She was having a great time and you couldn't miss her," he says by phone from Palm Beach, Fla. "The designers did that dress especially for her; it didn't just happen out of the blue with a telephone call."
He notes that many designers don't have intimate contact with their clients. "When I designed from the sixites through the eighties, you were personally acquainted with the actress; you knew her and she knew you, so she could tell you what she wanted to look like, you could sketch it and she ended up owning the dress. Actresses are sent 50 dresses today and if one woman doesn't borrow the dress, then another will."
Although he didn't design Bjork's, Scaasi himself is responsible for one of Oscars' other most memorable dresses: a partly see-through, shimmering black and white pyjama top and bellbottom pants worn by Barbra Streisand in 1969. So dear are his dresses to him that when Streisand auctioned off much of her wardrobe on eBay in 2003, he reclaimed the Funny Girl ensemble. (He also bought the white mink-trimmed outfit she wore on a first date with Pierre Trudeau in 1970.)
In essence, the red carpet has been Scaasi's runway. Using voluminous laces and crepes adorned with ostrich feathers, beads and furs, he rarely employs restraint. When designing dresses for Mary Tyler Moore, Natalie Wood, Mitzi Gaynor and Diahann Carroll, Scaasi says, he followed no particular rules except that the dress be "beautiful and suitable."
Scaasi writes about such moments in his recent book, Women I Have Dressed (and Undressed!), published by Simon & Schuster. His most recent autobiographical effort (it follows the 1996 Scaasi: A Cut Above), it's a light-handed exercise in navel-gazing. Its seven-page index reads like a Six Degrees of Scaasi, as everyone from the Princess Aga Khan to Renée Zellwegger has crossed paths, if not shared precious moments, with this small-in-stature, but famously diva-spirited designer.
For more than 40 years, Scaasi has posed a couture conundrum: Does he help generate attention for his clients because of the dresses he designs, or do his clients' super-sized personalities demand equally extravagant dresses? Either way, he attributes his éclat to the belief that every woman deserves to wear something singular that best represents and flatters her.
He is undeniably interested in women as a species. The first time that I met Arnold Scaasi, he asked for my astrological sign.
Having done my homework, I answered, "Like you, I am a Taurus."
Born in Montreal as Arnold Isaacs, Scaasi has had a career that spans both made-to-measure and mass market (his collections were sold on the QVC shopping channel in the early 1980s). He has received countless industry awards as well as a retrospective organized by the Fashion Institute of Technology in 2002.
And yet Scaasi is known for making women feel at ease in their most unguarded states. "I'm not bitchy and I'm not mean," he laughs, by way of explanation.
Scaasi also believes that clothes make people feel better. "Women want to look pretty, and the best that they can. That's universal," he says. "I spent my career making what I thought were pretty clothes -- and I know that pretty is a terribly dirty word today -- but I think that was mainly it."
What about glamour? "I think glamour exists for the Golden Globes and the night of the Oscars and then everybody seems to fall apart and look really tacky," he says. "So unless there's an opening or a special event, people don't really care or know how to keep up their image."
He thinks it's unfortunate that the Oscars are increasingly about free publicity. And while John Galliano designs for Gwen Stefani, Zac Posen and Natalie Portman are chums and Marc Jacobs works closely with Christy Turlington, Scaasi has never had one muse so much as myriad reciprocal relationships.
First ladies have also long been Scaasi followers. He writes about designing strapless gowns for Mamie Eisenhower, who preferred to go braless, and not giving away a dress to Jacqueline Kennedy, one of his biggest regrets. Laura Bush chose Oscar de la Renta for this year's inauguration, but Scaasi has dressed the first lady since 2001, and regularly stays in touch with the senior Mrs. Bush. He also devoted a chapter of his book to Hillary Rodham Clinton, a woman he respects for her intelligence and evolution into a "good-looking, well-turned-out woman."
Scaasi will not be watching the Oscars tomorrow night. For him, the awards shows have obviously lost much of their lustre. Still, when asked if there is anyone left whom he would like to dress, he doesn't hesitate: Catherine Zeta-Jones.
"I love the way she looks; she's very elegant and she looks like a lady."