Son of a Montreal furrier, Arnold Scaasi attended the Cotnoir Capponi school of fashion design in Montreal, followed by the École de la Chambre Syndicale de la Couture Parisienne. After further training in the Paris atelier of Paquin, on the advice of Christian Dior, he decided to try his hand in New York City.
Enamoured of the city upon his arrival in 1953, he truly learned the basics of the profession with Charles James. Working alongside the American couturier, he refined his methods of making evening gowns, experimented with draping and, most importantly, discovered the subtleties of working with wealthy clients.
Scaasi—his last name, Isaacs, spelled backwards—had immediate success with his first ready-to-wear line in 1956. By the end of 1958, he had won the Coty American Fashion Critics Award for best designer of the year. In the 1960s, he built a reputation as a celebrity couturier. In addition to custom-made creations, he designed ready-to-wear collections for women, men and children, as well as jewellery. Despite this success, in 1964 he stopped making ready-to-wear to focus on his custom clients, saying that he preferred making luxurious and dramatic garments that suited their lifestyles. His sumptuous, refined evening gowns in ornate, brightly coloured fabrics were very popular with American women who attended galas, charity balls and banquets. His sculpted dresses, embellished with sequins and feathers, or cleverly draped, featured a style that attracted Broadway, TV and movie stars like Arlene Francis, Mitzi Gaynor, Barbra Streisand, Diahann Carroll, Mary Tyler Moore and Elizabeth Taylor, as well as socialites like Ivana Trump and first ladies Mamie Eisenhower and Barbara and Laura Bush.
Among his most memorable creations were the translucent pantsuit worn by Barbra Streisand when she received her Oscar for Funny Girl in 1969 and the gown worn by Barbara Bush to her husband’s Inaugural Ball in 1989.
Scaasi was honoured with several awards, including the Council of Fashion Designers of America Award in 1987 and the Dallas International Apparel Fashion Excellence Award in 1992. In 1996, he was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America. A retrospective of his work was presented at New York City’s Lincoln Center in 1975. His archives and many of his designs are held by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, which presented a retrospective exhibition in 2010-2011.
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Cynthia Cooper, McCord Museum