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Cassini, Oleg

dress cassini’s kennedy american

B. April 11, 1913

Birthplace: Paris, France

Awards: Mostra della Moda, Turin, 1934
         Honorary Doctor of Fine Arts, International College of Fine Arts, Miami, Florida, 1989

Oleg Cassini-Loiewski grew up in Saint Petersburg, Russia. He was born into nobility (his father held the title of count); his grandfather served the czar as minister to China and later to the United States; and his father was the secretary of the Russian Embassy. After the Russian Revolution, the Cassini family relocated in Florence, Italy. It was in Florence that Cassini was exposed to fashion through his mother who opened a dress shop, the Maison de Couture. As a child Cassini enjoyed the leisurely life of nobility, learning to ride, fence, play tennis, and play the piano. He also developed a talent for designing costumes for masquerade parties. Between 1931 and 1934, Cassini attended the University of Florence, while selling his first creations in his mother’s dress shop. After his studies, Cassini received an apprenticeship with the Parisian designer Jean Patou.

In 1936 Cassini immigrated to the United States. Because the Italian currency restriction allowed him to take only $100 out of Italy, by the time he arrived in New York all he had was $25, a tennis racquet, and a dinner jacket. Poverty was a new experience for the count and surviving in Depression-era New York was difficult. To make money, Cassini played in tennis tournaments along the East Coast, which allowed him to mingle with the elite. He tried to retain a position as a fashion designer, working for Jo Copeland in 1936, William Bass in 1937, and James Rotherberg in 1938 and 1939, but he never achieved any measure of success.

Cassini’s entrée to the fashion arena finally came through the movie industry. Cassini signed a seven-year contract with Paramount and worked for other studios, and he designed wardrobes for some of the most glamorous stars including Veronica Lake, Grace Kelly, Marilyn Monroe, Gene Tierney, and Natalie Wood. In 1942 Cassini, now a U.S. citizen, postponed his design career to serve his newly adopted country in World War II. After the war, Cassini found investors to provide him with the finances to found his own business in 1950. His first collection was so popular with U.S. buyers that he wrote enough orders to pay back his investors and become sole owner of Oleg Cassini, Inc.

By 1960 Cassini was a well-known, well-respected American designer, and as a longtime friend of John F. Kennedy, he was granted the much-coveted position as Jacqueline Kennedy’s official designer. Jacqueline Kennedy had always been dressed by the finest couturiers in Paris, but now, as First Lady, she felt it was important to promote American fashions and American fashion designers. Cassini consulted with Jacqueline Kennedy on fabrics, colors, and silhouettes to determine the best garments for all her social appearances. He purchased only the best fabrics from Europe for her creations. This new position demanded so much of his time that he had to devote a separate workroom to her wardrobe. To ensure proper fit, Cassini housed three dress forms and employed a fit model with the first lady’s body measurements. Cassini was also in charge of accessorizing each outfit, either by designing the pieces himself or by arranging for them to be made.

Together, Cassini and Jacqueline Kennedy created many memorable garments which captured the essence of 1960s femininity and the imagination of the American public. The “Kennedy look” created by Cassini featured boxy jackets with slim skirts for day, long strapless fitted dresses for evening, and her personal favorite, a two-piece ensemble consisting of a fitted dress and short jacket with a detachable Russian sable collar. Each ensemble was always completed by Cassini’s original creation, Kennedy’s signature pillbox hat. All of Cassini’s designs for the first lady were simple and sophisticated. The combination of Cassini’s elegant designs and Kennedy’s grace brought worldwide attention to the American fashion industry.

In 1963 Cassini introduced his first menswear collection. Cassini’s men’s collection broke from the traditional white dress shirt and introduced colored dress shirts paired with traditional three-piece suits. During the 1970s, Cassini designed a line of tennis clothes for Munsingwear and a line of swimwear for WaterClothes.

Cassini’s popularity waned after his association with Jacqueline Kennedy ended, and he began transitioning from designer lines to licensed products. He introduced dresses under the Dress Emporio Oleg Cassini label licensed to He Ro Group, Ltd., and the Cassini Dress Studio label licensed to Dress Industries. Cassini licensed outerwear under the Oleg Cassini Couture label, active wear under the Oleg Cassini Actis label, and sleepwear under the Cassini Intimates label. He also entered into a licensing agreement with Aspects Handbag Company to produce day and evening handbags and launched a fragrance, A Love That Never Ends.

Cassini also continued to expand his men’s business through licensing agreements. He licensed dress and sport shirts to Boonshaft, Inc., then to Burma Bibas, and finally to the Wilk Shirt Corporation. In 1996 Cassini signed a licensing agreement with the Chicago-based Gingiss Formalwear to design a line of tuxedos and formal-wear accessories. This line would become one of Cassini’s most popular licenses, providing stylish, yet moderately priced formal wear to over forty retail stores and 200 franchises.

Cassini, who was once known as the White House “Secretary of Style” for his role in the creation of the Kennedy-era Camelot, is now known primarily for licensing. His name appears on a wide range of products including men’s and women’s moderately priced fashions, ties, luggage, children’s wear, makeup, shoes, and umbrellas. In the 1960s, Cassini dressed the woman who was the closest thing that America has ever had to royalty. Today he lends the cachet of his name to fashions for middle-class America.

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