Arnold Scaasi, Who Dressed Five First Ladies & Barbra Streisand, Dies at 85

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Arnold Scassi with Barbara Bush in 1997 at the CFDA Awards Gala. 

By Rosemary Feitelberg

Arnold Scaasi, a designer and confidante to a bevy of First Ladies and New York insiders, died today at New York-Presbyterian Hospital.

Scaasi, 85, died of cardiac arrest, according to the columnist Liz Smith, a longtime friend.

By his own account, Scaasi dressed five First Ladies — six, if you add in Lady Bird Johnson, whom he puts in a separate category. His White House days go way back, to Mamie Eisenhower, whom he first dressed in 1960, “then on to Jackie Kennedy before she went into the White House, as the Senator’s wife, and also after. And then, of course, Barbara Bush, who I still dress to this day, and Mrs. Clinton and Laura Bush. Is that the right order?” he asked in a 2009 interview with WWD.

First Lady Barbara Bush n a navy and royal blue Arnold Scaasi gown at her husband’s 1989 inauguration. Photo: Bettmann/CORBIS

Indeed it was, with one omission: “Somewhere in there was Lady Bird Johnson,” whom the designer views differently than the others precisely because he didn’t deal with her directly. Rather, President Lyndon Johnson would somehow happen upon a Scaasi design “and would tell his secretary, you know that wonderful girl from Texas, and he would say, ‘I like that for my wife.’

Related: Arnold Scaasi’s Front Row View on First Ladies

Then First Lady Hillary Clinton wearing a black ruffled Arnold Scaasi gown to the 20th Annual Literacy Partners Gala in 2004. Photo: Robin Platzer / Contributor

Although Scaasi made his way in New York City and lived in Beekman Place for decades, he donated more than 100 garments and sold his archives to the Museum of Fine Arts Boston in 2009. Known to be jawdropping frank, Scaasi grabbed attention at that time when he chose to sell the archives for what was believed to have been a six-digit sum instead of donating them, as has been more the norm for designers of a certain age.

First Lady Laura Bush in a multi-colored Arnold Scaasi gown in 2002. Photo: The White House / Handout

The museum’s new trove includes the see-through black tulle sequined ensemble Barbra Streisand wore to the 1969 Academy Awards, a black sequined spiral gown for Joan Crawford and a short gray flannel number for Brooke Astor. A donation by benefactors Jean and Frederick Scharf allowed the MFA to buy drawings from more than 500 collections. Giving up Streisand’s outfit was the one piece that gave him pause. “I was afraid it would wind up in a vault somewhere, and it would never be seen,” he said.

The designer is survived by his husband, Parker Ladd.

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