If you were alive and into fashion in the 80’s you knew who designer Arnold Scaasi was. His beautiful evening wear could be found on first ladies, actresses and my mother. I still can’t believe he died this past Tuesday (OK, he was 85)…and at the same hospital where I had my babies. Born Arnold Isaacs, the designer changed his surname to Scaasi for business purposes in the mid-50’s because it’s what Jews did (I can say that because I’m Jewish). He once declared “I am definitely not a minimalist!” which is why he gravitated to bright colors, prints and embellishments like ruffles, bows, fur, feathers, fringe, beads and paillettes. “Clothes with some adornment are more interesting to look at and more fun to wear.” And there was no greater time to go to town than the Regan Era 80’s!
One of his most unforgettable early works were the sequined pajama ensemble worn by Barbra Streisand to the 1969 Academy Awards where she won the Oscar for Best Actress for her role in Funny Girl. The Canadian born, but essentially New York designer also designed the unforgettable royal blue and navy gown Barbara Bush wore for President George H.W. Bush’s U.S. Presidential Inaugural Ball in 1989. Scaasi also dressed Jackie Kennedy, Laura Bush and even Hillary Clinton. Most importantly (to me) he dressed my mother. She owned a ‘fer sure, totally 80’s purple silk linen evening dress with huge shoulders and an even bigger bow that is still as vivid in my memory as when she actually wore it. I am pretty sure she still has it hanging in my old bedroom closet.
You can read more about Scaasi by doing a little research, but I have my own memories of the Scassi era.
It’s no secret I have been obsessed with fashion ever since I can remember. This is before anyone even really thought it was cool. There were no blogs, just magazines … and I read them all. Back in the early and mid 80’s my mother would come to Manhattan to do most of her shopping since we lived outside of Buffalo, NY where designer clothes were pretty much non-existant. At the time they were not available in Buffalo either so you had to go to NYC or Toronto. My mother had a personal shopper in Manhattan who could get her in to the designer showrooms to buy her better clothes (this was not uncommon) and I loved accompanying them both on these excursions. I adored this woman. She was a true New York character.
So towards the end of my senior year of high school in Buffalo we had to do a two week “Senior Project.” I spent one of those weeks walking (and losing) dogs for the SPCA in Buffalo and another in New York City staying at this personal shopper’s home where she scored me a week-long “internship” in the fashion district. I spent a few days “working” at Scaasi and a few days working at Calvin Klein (back when Calvin actually ran the show).
I will never forget the flamboyancy at Scaasi and meeting the man himself. I was basically an intern for his intern (which meant I didn’t do a thing except maybe file), but I have a vivid memory of being in his office (which was over-the-top), being around the designer and even talking to the man – the enigma. He could not have been nicer to this 17 year-old nobody (me) who was just taking up air and space in his office. He personally picked out the purple dress my mom bought and I loved it so on her. She looked beautiful in it (well everything she wore) and I even wore it a few times myself.
The following fall I was off to Simmons College in Boston to embark on my degree in fashion merchandising because that one week in NYC solidified my conviction that I had to work in fashion. I could not draw worth a shit so in those days you were either a designer or in merchandizing if you wanted to work in fashion. I didn’t think I had the skills to write about it so working for a magazine was out. Well here I am, doing just that and still loving fashion and the history of fashion which now Scaasi is a valued member.
When I go back for a visit in a few weeks I will be sure to Instagram a picture of the purple dress with the giant bow if it is indeed still hanging in my old closet.
– Lauren Dimet Waters
Sources and photos: WWD, NY Times and my own
Tags: 1969 Oscar, 80s fashion, Arnold Scaasi, Barbara Bush, Barbra Streisand, bows, Clothes with adornment, First Lady Fashion, gowns, Hillary Clinton, Internship Calvin Klein, Internship Scassi, Jackie Kennedy, Laura Bush, personal shopper, Regan 80s Era, ruffles, Scaasi Dresses, Scaasi Girls, Sequined Pajamas