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Oleg Cassini; Created Jackie Kennedy's Look

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By Patricia Sullivan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 19, 2006

Oleg Cassini, 92, the dapper descendant of Russian aristocrats who married a movie star, designed clothes for a first lady and was the first to license his name to products from perfume to luggage, died March 17 at a hospital on New York's Long Island. His third wife, Marianne, said the designer suffered a broken blood vessel in his head.

Mr. Cassini was best known as Jacqueline Kennedy's couturier, creating 300 elegant outfits from simple A-line dresses to her iconic pillbox hats. Her Inauguration Day outfit, a pillbox hat and a fawn-colored wool coat with a sable collar over a matching wool dress, dazzled women around the globe, who rushed to find copies.

He reveled in the attention and bypassed the New York runway shows to take his creations directly to department stores. High-fashion mavens were aghast when he introduced colorful shirts for men and the short-lived Nehru jacket to U.S. and European audiences, but it was typical of his interest in mass audiences and mass marketing. He became a regular television talk-show guest.

The key to his fortune was his willingness to franchise his name. He licensed a perfume for Jovan ("designer fragrance for the subway set," sniffed one industry analyst), sunglasses, $1,200 wedding gowns and even an instant-coffee jar. The proceeds from those deals bought him a house in the Gramercy Park neighborhood of New York City that had been imported in 1848 by the Wells Fargo family, rebuilt and redesigned to resemble an Italian palazzo . He also owned a home on 50 acres at Long Island's Oyster Bay, designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Mr. Cassini designed with the panache of Hollywood, where he worked in his early years outfitting such stars as Betty Grable, Lana Turner and Ava Gardner. The small, debonair playboy, whose Old World manners, pencil-thin mustache and athletic prowess charmed the ladies, had many romances with famous actresses -- Anita Ekberg, Linda Evans, Jill St. John -- and dozens of models. Others he simply named "Monday" or "Tuesday," referring to the days of the week when he wooed them.

He was married four times, first to cough-syrup heiress Merry Fahrney and twice to Hollywood star Gene Tierney, with whom he had two children. After his third divorce, he was engaged to Grace Kelly, until she dumped him to marry Prince Rainier of Monaco. "I created the Grace Kelly look," he once said. "She dressed like a schoolteacher. I put her in elegant, subdued dresses."

He called Marilyn Monroe "the world's most marvelous marshmallow" and Jackie Kennedy "a hieroglyphic figure."

Washington Post fashion writer Nina Hyde noted in 1979 that he had a 10-inch drop, meaning his waist was 10 inches smaller than his shoulders. Most American men have a six-inch drop, at best.

"I have programmed myself to be at least 105 years old," he declared in 1995. "My life signs are of a 45-year-old man. From age 17 'til now I'm the same weight. It's an act of vanity but healthy vanity."

As the first-born scion of the Capizzucchi-Cassini family, he claimed to be "descended from Crusaders on the one side and Teutonic knights on the other." He was an actual Russian count and was enrolled at birth in the Imperial Guards, whose members were expected to be "master horsemen, swordsmen, chess-players and, also, I assume, passionate lovers, linguists, dancers, gourmets, etc," he said in his 1987 autobiography, "In My Own Fashion." He said his problems in later life often stemmed from the fact that he "was bred to be a man with a sword and ended up a man with a pin."

The family fled Russia during the revolution and ended up in Italy, where mother and son worked in the dressmaking trade. In 1936, Mr. Cassini moved to New York, where he continued to work as a designer. After his disastrous first marriage, excoriated by gossip columnists for his playboy lifestyle, he moved in the early 1940s to Hollywood and landed a job at Paramount, where he began wooing and dressing the stars. In 1941, he married Tierney and at the start of World War II became a U.S. citizen and enlisted in the Army. He served at a base in Kansas until the end of the war.

When Tierney was pregnant with their first child, an overzealous fan exposed the actress to rubella. Daria, the child, was born blind and severely retarded, and Tierney plummeted into depression. She divorced Mr. Cassini in 1947, but they reconciled and had a second daughter, Christina, who lives in Paris. The couple divorced a second time in 1952.

By then, Mr. Cassini had returned to New York to open a fashion house. A social acquaintance of the Kennedys, he persuaded them to employ him as the first lady's designer. He and the 31-year-old Jacqueline set about re-creating style with straightforward design, including sheath dresses and wool coats. "The other ladies wore fur coats, and they looked like bears," Mr. Cassini recalled years later.

In his 1995 book, "A Thousand Days of Magic: Dressing Jacqueline Kennedy for the White House," Mr. Cassini wrote, "All I remember about those days are nerves, and Jackie on the phone: 'Hurry, hurry, Oleg, I've got nothing to wear.' "

After the Camelot years, Mr. Cassini expanded into menswear and pioneered licensing. But he also kept his hand in as a designer, telling Brand Week magazine two years ago that " Pret a porter [ready-to-wear] today is so good it is equal to couture of 10 years ago."

A late convert to animal rights, he told the Los Angeles Times that he blamed himself for the loss of 250,000 leopards -- killed as women flocked to copy a coat he had designed for the first lady. "After that I said, 'I will do my best to redeem myself,' " he said. "St. Francis of Assisi has always been an inspiration to me. He was a playboy, too."

Classic Cassini designs still turn up on Hollywood's red carpet. "My preoccupation," he told People magazine last year, "is to make the woman look beautiful."


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