Oleg Cassini

Fashion designer who created a look for Jackie Kennedy that was imitated around the world


Oleg Loiewski (Oleg Cassini), fashion designer: born Paris 11 April 1913; married 1938 Merry Fahrney (marriage dissolved), 1941 Gene Tierney (died 1991; two daughters; marriage dissolved 1952), 1971 Marianne Nestor; died 17 March 2006.

At one time Oleg Cassini was the best-known fashion designer in the world. Debonair, slim and moustachioed, he was already known to film fans for his sleek, figure-fitting screen costumes, his marriage to the film star Gene Tierney and his romances with beautiful models and actresses including Grace Kelly, when in 1960 he was chosen by Jacqueline Kennedy, wife of the President-elect John F. Kennedy, as her personal couturier and the "Jackie look" became a fashion sensation.

Cassini himself was a former aristocrat whose family had been forced to flee revolutionary Russia, and he was as well-known for his flamboyant personality and arrogance as for his designs. "I was adored by women, I must confess," he wrote in his memoirs.

Born Oleg Loiewski in Paris in 1913, he was the son of Countess Marguerite Cassini (daughter of Tsar Nicholas II's ambassador to the US) and Count Alexander Loiewski, a diplomat at the Russian embassy. He and his younger brother Igor (who became the Hearst newspaper gossip columnist "Cholly Knickerbocker" and coined the phrase "jet set") were raised in Florence, where their mother opened a dress salon after the Russian revolution.

Oleg started sketching clothes at the age of 13, and though he studied political science at the University of Florence, he also took drawing lessons at the Accademia di Belle Arti in Florence, studied under the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico and won five first prizes in 1934 in an international fashion competition in Turin. Although he still had diplomatic ambitions, money problems forced him to follow in his mother's footsteps, and he opened a dressmaking salon in Rome. ("In those days to be a designer was almost as bad as being a tailor. I thought it was the end.")

Three years later, taking his mother's advice to use her surname for its celebrity value, he sailed to the United States, taking 20 costume sketches, and worked for several fashion houses before opening his own studio, Oleg Inc. In 1938 he wed the cough-drop heiress Merry "Madcap" Fahrney - he was the fourth of her eight husbands - and in 1940, after their divorce, set out for Hollywood, where he talked himself into a job at Paramount studios, designing clothes for Claudette Colbert, Dorothy Lamour and Veronica Lake, usually without credit.

In 1941 Oleg Cassini eloped with the beautiful Gene Tierney, to the chagrin of both her studio, 20th Century-Fox, and her family - her father filed a law suit for a breach of contract with the Tierney family corporation established to control her earnings. "I think Gene has gone Hollywood," he told the press. "It's unfortunate she married a man of this fellow's notoriety."

Cassini designed Tierney's costumes for Josef von Sternberg's exotic movie, The Shanghai Gesture (1941), but for a time he was boycotted by the major studios. Becoming a US citizen in 1942, he served in the US Cavalry in the Second World War and was finally accepted by Hollywood, but Tierney's fragile emotional state was exacerbated when she caught German measles while pregnant, and their daughter Daria was born blind and mentally retarded. It later transpired that an infected fan of the actress's in military service had broken quarantine to see the star at the Hollywood Canteen and shake her hand. (Agatha Christie was to use the incident as the theme of her thriller The Mirror Crack'd From Side to Side.)

When Tierney told the studio head Darryl F. Zanuck that she would not star in The Razor's Edge (1946) unless her husband designed her clothes, the mogul surprisingly relented and let Cassini design the costumes for both Tierney and Anne Baxter. "I think I did some of my best work in that picture," he said.

There was one dress in particular, a slim black one with fringes, suggesting the flapper style of the 1920s but appropriate for any era. It was very décolleté, with spaghetti straps and a matching cape. I later included something like it in my early collections and did quite well with it.

Zanuck then decreed that Cassini could design all his wife's clothes, including those for the films That Wonderful Urge (1948), Whirlpool (1949), Where the Sidewalk Ends (1950), The Mating Season and On The Riviera (both 1961). Cassini himself was given an acting role (as a designer) in Otto Preminger's Where the Sidewalk Ends, for which he designed a dress cited by one magazine as "the most risqué of the year", a form-fitting gown of red velvet, "very décolleté, the bosom quite exposed and sustained by a clever manipulation of spaghetti straps - Gene said she couldn't walk more than six steps in it. Marilyn Monroe would later be photographed in it." Though Cassini and Tierney divorced in 1952, they retained a close friendship for the rest of her life, and she continued to wear his clothes.

In 1950 Cassini set up his own New York fashion house on Seventh Avenue, and shortly afterwards began an affair with Grace Kelly, to whom he was unofficially engaged until she told him that she was marrying Prince Rainier of Monaco. He also became friendly with the politician John F. Kennedy and his family, and in 1960 Jackie Kennedy, wanting to have an American-based designer, named him her personal couturier.

One of his first ensembles for Mrs Kennedy was a beige wool coat with a small sable collar, accompanied by a matching pillbox hat, an outfit she wore for her husband's inauguration in January 1961, and which women copied worldwide. "The other ladies wore fur coats, and they looked like bears," recalled Cassini. For the inaugural gala, he created in contrast a ravishingly glamorous white satin dress. Cassini made an estimated 300 outfits in the 1,000 days he was Jackie Kennedy's designer, a time, he said of "fabulous chaos".

Realising the business opportunities of his appointment, Cassini became one of the first designers to pursue licensing agreements, his name appearing on products from luggage to nail varnish. After her husband's assassination, he saw Jackie only rarely ("It was hard for her to be with the people who had been part of her life in the White House"), but when she died in 1994, he described her as "a woman of extremely good taste, a marvellous influence in the arts, in furniture, in food and in clothes".

Cassini said that his clothes were, above all, about women.

My philosophy is this: do not tamper with the anatomy of a woman's body; do not camouflage it. I don't want every woman to look like a little boy.

In later years, he became an advocate of animal rights and in 2006 launched a range of designer fake furs, stating,

Six or seven months after the inauguration, Jackie asked me for a fur coat. I stupidly said leopard would be very elegant. So I made the coat and it was copied everywhere, and resulted in the death of many animals. I feel guilty to this day.

Cassini cited the Duke of Windsor as the best-dressed, most elegant man of the 20th century, saying, "At one time I thought myself the second best-dressed, after him, but he had it." Of his own designs for women, he said,

Among American designers, I would have to say I am one of the best. Because I think you should be judged on your best work, not every collection. For me, the triumph was Jackie.

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