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Arnold Scaasi, Legendary Fashion Designer To First Ladies And Celebrities, Dies At Age 85

He was known for some of the most unforgettable looks of Oscar history.

Arnold Scassi, the legendary designer for scores of first ladies, celebrities, and socialites, died on Tuesday in a New York hospital from cardiac arrest, the New York Times reports.

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Scaasi was known for his extravagant gala gowns worn by everyone from Laura Bush to Bette Midler, Elizabeth Taylor, and Barbra Streisand. A true maximalist at heart, Scaasi’s flamboyant made-to-order clothing often included ornate trimmings like beads, fur, feathers. His love of exoticism and flourish was present in every aspect of his life, right down to his invented surname, which is Isaacs spelled backwards.

“With a Scaasi, you have to dress and want to make an entrance,” Joan Rivers once said in a New York magazine profile of Scaasi. “You don’t relax in his gowns. If you want to relax, get a Barcalounger.”

‘A Celebration of Oscar Fashion.’ A retrospective of famous and infamous Oscar gowns at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science. Arnold Scaasi for Barbra Streisand(41st. Oscar)Photo: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Scassi is perhaps best remembered for dressing up Barbra Streisand in the scandalous sequined and bell-bottomed sheer pantsuit that she tripped on en route to accept her Academy Award for Funny Girl in 1969. Streisand was a longtime friend and collaborator of Scaasi, who also created some of her vibrant costumes–including her wildly patterned dresses and zig-zag patterned motorcycle outfit–for the movie “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever.”

Scaasi was born in Montreal in 1930 to Samuel Isaacs, a furrier, and Bessie Isaacs, who studied opera. Already making fashion critiques at the age of four when he cut off the sleeves of his mother’s evening dress, Scaasi began to pursue fashion in earnest at 14 after visiting a stylish aunt in Australia. He went on to study at Montreal’s Cotnoir-Capponi School of Design and work for Charles James in New York before opening his own couture salon in 1964. His coterie of clients included old Hollywood movie stars (Elizabeth Taylor, Lauren Bacall, Joan Crawford) socialites (Brooke Astor, Ivana Trump) and a slew of first ladies across party lines (Mamie Eisenhower, Barbara Bush, Hillary Clinton).

One first lady notably missing from his clientele list is Jackie Kennedy. In his 2004 bestselling memoir, Women I Have Dressed (and Undressed!) he describes asking Kennedy to pay for the day dresses he designed for her instead of giving them to her in exchange for publicity. Kennedy paid for the dresses but later made Oled Cassini her official designer.

Scaasi was presented with the Council of Fashion Designers of America Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996. In 2002, he was the subject of a 47-year retrospective called “Exuberant Fashion” the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology.

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About the author

Meg Miller is an associate editor at Co.Design covering art, technology, and design.

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