Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Designing women

Arnold Scaasi (at left, in his heyday) isn't, I think, a man known for keeping his opinions to himself.

"Women should always wear bright colors," the fashion sage announced from his throne at the press opening of his new show at the MFA. "They say to me,  'No, I can't wear that, that's not my color!'  But what does that mean? If that's not your color, change your lipstick!" Scaasi quipped, to widespread laughter.

"Yes, just change your lipstick . . . " he repeated softly to himself, then suddenly froze.  "Like that thing you're wearing," he sniffed, pointing an accusing finger at a hapless curator (who was wearing an earth-toned sweater over black).  "What is that? What is that color - brown?  Is that brown???  Why are you wearing that?  It does nothing for you!"

"Oh, Mr. Scaasi!" she laughed in a slight panic, before managing a bemused roll of her eyes.

"It does nothing for you, NOTHING!  I'm serious, don't wear it, it looks terrible," he insisted, then scanned the rest of the room with a gimlet eye.  Everyone held their breath; you could tell he didn't like what he saw.  "You there, you," he shouted to an attractive young woman busily taking notes.  "Who are you writing all that for?"

"Stuff," she answered.

"Stuff . . ?" he repeated.

"Stuff Magazine," she replied.  "I'm the editor.  And I love my outfit!" she announced to the room, perhaps pre-emptively.

Scaasi didn't, you could tell, but he let it slide, preferring to move on to other victims (he cast one contemptuous look at me, but my polo shirt didn't even rate a put-down).

"Mr. Scaasi, I have a question!" another sweet young thing cried.

"Yes?" he purred, happy to hold court.

"I'm doing graduate work in the impact of innovation on the new product development process," she began, "and I was wondering if you could give me any insights into what kind of innovative mindset you've applied to your new product development over the course of the growth of your business in the global marketplace?"

Scaasi's eyes were glazing over.  "New - product - what . . . ?"

"Your new product development process," she repeated brightly, adjusting her glasses. "In the globalized economy, we're all aware of how important innovation can be, moving forward.  You know, moving forward. In the global economy.  Could you - "

But the oracle was prepared to speak.  "I am for color," Scaasi announced in a softly imperious tone.  "I am for pretty things.  For what is flattering."  He paused for a moment, considering this, before beaming with a profound satisfaction.  "Yes.  That's what I'm for."

Arlene Francis said she wore "this old thing" to the market.
And that is what he was for; the evidence was all around us.  It would be hard to call Arnold Scaasi much of a revolutionary; he basically adopted his couture from the profile and drape of Adrian (of MGM fame).  But he was an Adrian for his own time, updating those Art Deco gowns into the jet-set lingo of the 50's and 60's; just as classical architecture was simplified into the fa├žades of Lincoln Center,  so Scaasi stripped Adrian down into a flatter, but voluptuously cut, vision of "modernity."

The designer's fans like to chat up the depth of his relationships with his clients.  Given his interactions at the MFA, I wonder what those relationships were really like!  But he did have quite the customer list, from five First Ladies to the cream of New York and Hollywood society.  He may have had to reverse his Jewish surname, "Isaacs," into the Italianized "Scaasi" to get them, but once hooked, Scaasi's women remained loyal.  And thus, though he dabbled successfully in ready-to-wear, he never had to launch the kind of mass-market label that brought attention (and millions) to designers like Ralph Lauren and Calvin Klein (both Jewish, and from the Bronx, btw).

Still, like Adrian, Scaasi usually stuck to the designs he knew best, whoever was going to wear them; he liked tight bodices that flared out into billowing curtains of silk or tulle (as in the ensemble at right, for Arlene Francis).  He then added richly embroidered accessories, or an elegant jacket, which again was cut close to the shoulders, but opened out into a luxurious cascade.  The Scaasi woman was streamlined - and, to be honest, somewhat synthetic.

Because amusingly enough, Scaasi's choice of fabric wasn't always what we'd think of as luxe today - in some ensembles, silk and mink rub shoulders with a lot of plastic; there's a literal artificiality to much of his artifice.  But then in the 50's and 60's, such fabrics were brand-new, and had their own brief chic.  And when the material wasn't strikingly original, the ornamentation often was; some frocks at the MFA are embroidered with coral, or encrusted with a glittery something-or-other called "metallic matelasse" (like his famous "see-through" ensemble for Barbra Streisand, at left, which sparkled with foil).

Still, as a symbolic interpreter of social change - which is pretty much the only deeper interest fashion has - Scaasi hardly existed; his designs from the 80's don't look all that different from those of the 50's (they're just heavier).  Of course maybe that's his own kind of social comment - things don't change much at the top of the food chain! Or perhaps shifts in social roles don't seem to exist in Scaasi's world because he wasn't so much a commenter on society as a part of it.  And though he branched out into pantsuits, and seemed to want to conjure a sense of power for his women, Scaasi never strayed far from a little girl's vision of Parisian glamour; even Barbra's nudie bell-bottoms have a princess bow tied at the top, and polka dots and fairy feathers adorn many of his creations.

Of course the squarest iconography can be teased into dazzlingly "hip" configurations in the right hands, and Scaasi worked that kind of magic pretty often.  One of the best pieces in the MFA show is one of his simplest, although that simplicity reveals just how sure his touch could be.  When she saw the "little black dress" (above right) that Scaasi had designed for her, Natalie Wood squealed that it was "the sexiest dress in the world!"  And was she far wrong?  With its baby-doll bows scattered over a see-through sheath, this mini is a masterpiece of tease and taboo.  Looking at it you think, who cares what it means - and no wonder Scaasi had so many clients!

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