This French-born American fashion designer created some of the most memorable moments in fashion and film.
Arriving in America in 1936 with his worldly possessions being listed as a tuxedo, two tennis rackets, a title and talent, Oleg Cassini went on to design some of the most iconic dresses of his time – from Hollywood to the White House.
Born in Paris as Oleg Cassini Loiewski, the elder son of Countess Marguerite Cassini and her husband, Count Alexander Loiewski, a Russian diplomat, the family was forced to flee the violence of the Russian Revolution in 1918, leaving behind their wealth, lands, homes and nationality. After moving to Denmark and then on to Switzerland, the family were invited to Greece by the Greek royal family. While travelling through Italy on their way to Greece, they read about the revolution in Greece and settle in Florence.
In his early youth, he suffered a major accident, almost losing a leg, and spent a year in bed recovering, studying history and reading books. He developed a love for history and the mysticism of Native American Indian tribes. He also discovered American culture through the American movies playing during this time in Italy. He would later quip, “The American Cowboy is the best dressed man.”
Cassini went to school and had to learn to speak Italian. At that time, he only spoke French, Russian and Danish and is quoted on the subject of adjusting to his new-found culture, “I had to adjust from caviar to linguini”. His mother, Marguerite Cassini founded her fashion house in Florence with many of the American clients she retained from her days in Washington as the daughter of the Russian Ambassador.
Already accustomed to the international flavour of his upbringing Cassini sailed to America in 1936 and arrived in New York on Christmas Day.
He briefly worked as a political cartoonist in Washington DC upon his arrival, and prior to traveling to Hollywood in California, Cassini began playing tennis at the West Side Tennis Club. After winning a doubles tournament, his partner from the tournament introduced himself as the head of Paramount Pictures who was, “looking for another designer”. Cassini brought his sketches to the studio the next day and got the job as a full designer for Paramount Pictures. In 1941, he designed his first look for the star of I Wanted Wings – newcomer Veronica Lake.
He went on to work for all the major film studios and dressed numerous movie stars and celebrities over the course of his career including Rita Hayworth, Betty Grable, Joan Crawford, Marilyn Monroe, Natalie Wood, Ursula Andress, Jayne Mansfield, and in later times Renée Zellweger and Kim Basinger.
Cassini really shot to fame, however, when he was appointed by Jacqueline Kennedy as her exclusive couturier in 1961 and dubbed him her “Secretary of Style”. This provided him with a position of prestige, to which he rose effortlessly.
“We are on the threshold of a new American elegance thanks to Mrs. Kennedy’s beauty, naturalness, understatement, exposure and symbolism,” Cassini said when his selection to shape the entire look of the First Lady was announced.
“I dressed Jackie to be a star in a major film, which she was, the most famous first lady of all time. I became her secretary of style”.
Utilizing the technique and high fashion fabrics of French couture, Cassini’s unique designs for Jacqueline Kennedy ushered in a new era of timeless simplicity based on clean lines and crisp forms and opulent and luxurious fabrics. He brought American design to the world stage as the First Lady’s identity became synonymous with sophistication and taste. The “Jackie look” that he created was copied by women all over the world. Cassini visualized her as an American Queen and as Mrs Kennedy herself said, “Oleg dressed me for the part”. The publicity that Cassini’s work for Jacqui Kennedy received led women from 18 to 80 to copy the look of simple, geometric dresses in sumptuous fabrics and pillbox hats with an elegant coiffure. Meticulously tailored and featuring oversized buttons and boxy jackets, as well as occasionally dramatic décolletage. Cassini designed a reported 300 outfits for the First Lady, including a much-copied coat made of leopard pelts and a Swiss double satin white gown decorated by a single cocarde which she wore to the Inaugural Gala Ball in 1961. This was Jacqui Kennedy’s first official appearance as First Lady Elect. The ball was hosted by Frank Sinatra and the dress was subsequently named one of the “50 Dresses that Changed the World” by the design museum in England. In 1961, the New York Herald Tribune announced that, “According to Tobe’s most recent coast to coast survey, the best known name in American fashion is Oleg Cassini.”
However, the pressures of the fashion world remain the same today as they did then.
“All I remember about those days are nerves, and Jackie on the phone ‘Hurry, hurry, Oleg, I’ve got nothing to wear’,” he wrote in his 1995 book, A Thousand Days of Magic: Dressing Jacqueline Kennedy for the White House.
Cassini is also considered the father and innovator of designer licensing. Quoted as saying that he took his inspiration from Leonardo da Vinci, he put his name and his magic touch on everything from fashion to fragrance, Cassini gave millions of Americans a little bit of aristocracy to call their own. A minimalist designer, he always felt that “Simplicity is perfection” and that “Clothing is an envelope for the body” using classic shapes and forms to highlight a woman’s beauty.
His name adorned everything from luggage to nail polish, as well as special luxurious coupé versions of the 1974 and 1975 AMC Matador automobile. The outside, stripes, wheel covers and a crest mark the Matador as Cassini’s. Cassini himself helped promote the car in AMC’s advertising.
A 1983 Gallup poll stated that the top three best known designer names are Cassini, Chanel, and Dior.
His success in menswear began in 1967, when he created deep tonal shirts for men adding special colors where there had only been white. The sales of dress shirts rose dramatically, and the look was launched on the NBC Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson. Oleg signed on Johnny Carson, the first celebrity model, and created the ‘Johnny Carson’ line of men’s wear. In 1968, the Peacock Revolution is hailed by Newsweek, wherein Cassini is credited with leading a revolution in men’s fashion worldwide. Nehru suits, The Blazer Look, The Blue Jean Look, The Western Look, The Battle Jacket Suit, and the Turtleneck with Tuxedo are subsequently launched by Peter Lawford modeling the look on the national TV show, The Mike Douglas Show. In 1968, Cassini returned to Italy and created Italian print collections and in 1969, he was awarded the Award Eccellenza in Disegno Milano, Italia. He often featured personally in advertisements for his fashion line, which won many industry awards. One advert in particular stood out – featuring Cassini in jacket and tie sans shirt stating, “Oleg Cassini had to make his own shirts. Nothing around was good enough for him”.