Arnold Scaasi, at 85; fashion designer

Designer Arnold Scaasi walked with two models at his studio in Paris in 1972.
Alison Lerrick/AP FILE/1972
Designer Arnold Scaasi walked with two models at his studio in Paris in 1972.

NEW YORK — Designer Arnold Scaasi, whose flamboyant creations adorned first ladies from Mamie Eisenhower to Laura Bush and film stars from Elizabeth Taylor to Barbra Streisand, has died. He was 85.

Mr. Scaasi died Tuesday at New York-Presbyterian Hospital of cardiac arrest, said a longtime friend, Michael Selleck.

Until he closed his dress business in 2010, Mr. Scaasi — which was his given surname, Isaacs, spelled backward — specialized in made-to-order clothes, favoring ornate, brilliantly colored fabrics and trimmings like beads and feathers.


‘‘Fashion, it’s really about feeling good,’’ he told the Associated Press in 2002, when the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology showed an exhibit of his works. ‘‘It should be fun to get dressed. I like exciting and pretty clothes that help women feel exciting and pretty.’’

Get Fast Forward in your inbox:
A look at the news and events shaping the day ahead, delivered every weekday.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

While ‘‘less is more’’ was usually not his credo, perhaps Mr. Scaasi’s most famous outfit was a flimsy lace pantsuit designed for Streisand’s Oscar appearance in 1969, when she was co-winner the best-actress award for ‘‘Funny Girl,’’ with Katharine Hepburn. It featured bell-bottom pants and matching top in spangly black lace, with white collar and cuffs.

Strategically placed patch pockets covered her breasts, but the effect of the thin fabric in bright light created the impression of nudity from some angles.

But Mr. Scaasi denied the intent was to shock, saying only that he told Streisand: ‘‘We have to do something very modern — really of today,’’ since to that point, moviegoers had seen her only in costumes from another era.

Mr. Scaasi’s most important legacy will be that of ‘‘his profound individuality,’’ Parker Ladd, the designer’s husband since 2011 and his partner of 54 years, said in a telephone interview Tuesday.


‘‘Everyone who committed to his clothes will feel that way, and museums and history will remember him that way.’’

Mr. Scaasi was born in 1930 in Montreal. His father was a furrier, and he became interested in art and fashion at an early age.

He trained both in Montreal and Paris and worked for designer Charles James — famed for his glamorous, sculptural gowns — in New York before opening his first ready-to-wear business in 1956.

Over the years he won numerous awards, including the 1996 lifetime achievement award from the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

Because he did relatively little for the mass ready-to-wear market, he wasn’t as well known to the average customer as contemporaries such as Oscar de la Renta or Liz Claiborne.


But he did design some high-end ready-to-wear clothes for specialty stores, telling Women’s Wear Daily in 2007 that he was creating a new ready-to-wear line because ‘‘women were stopping me in airports and asking me at dinner parties.’’

Meanwhile, for a spectacular price, his socialite and celebrity clients got one-of-a-kind clothes — carefully constructed, tailored to their precise size, highlighting their best points and camouflaging their worst.

In his 2004 book, ‘‘Women I Have Dressed (and Undressed),’’ Mr. Scaasi described some of the things he made for Elizabeth Taylor: ‘‘A spectacular white satin ball gown with a rhinestone design of arches over the entire dress. . . . A long black velvet cape to go over it — it was fab. . . . A coral and turquoise petunia printed silk short dress with a cape coat in turquoise cashmere. . . . A beautiful short black chiffon number that was totally covered in tiny leaves and flowers with diamante clusters.’’

Mr. Scaasi was a young man when he had his first White House client: Mamie Eisenhower. The first lady favored strapless evening gowns, he wrote: ‘‘I was very pleased that Mrs. Eisenhower wanted to look so stylish.’’