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A Silver-Haired Cassini Puts More Polish on Sterling Career

June 14, 1985|BETTIJANE LEVINE | Times Staff Writer

Oleg Cassini, dressed for jogging, sits in his Beverly Hills Hotel suite accepting calls in three languages from Rome, Paris and New York, planning new ventures, making dates for tennis and dinner, preparing to tape a Merv Griffin show on which he'll present his new line of dresses.

"Linda Evans is out of town? Too bad," he says, "I'd hoped maybe to see her." (He dated Evans, he recalls, when both were between spouses.)

He is tall, slim, silver-haired, silver-tongued and extraordinarily charming. But that, of course, comes with the territory for an authentic blueblood (son of an exiled Russian count), whose ancestry dates back to the first crusade, whose New York town house bears his family's coat of arms and whose country house (on 44 acres) was designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany.

Lest this put anyone off, he is also a man who relinquished his title to become an American citizen in 1942, who fought for America in World War II, who was first to use black models in his New York fashion shows during the early 1950s (which led to cancellations by many of his Southern accounts) and who prides himself on his love and knowledge of things "authentically American."

Cassini's name rings a bell even to yuppies who weren't born when the designer was a guest of the Kennedys at the White House every weekend.

Even teen-agers seem to know that he was Mrs. Kennedy's "official designer"--the man who, in his own words, dressed the President's wife "like a princess, in a simple beige cloth coat," when all around her were waddling about in furs.

But his image, other than that, is slightly murky in the public mind. Some think of him as the name on ties their fathers wore or confuse him with his brother, Igor, a former gossip columnist.

Many don't know that Cassini was married to actress Gene Tierney for 10 years, almost married actress Grace Kelly, has costumed more than 30 films, has reportedly sold more than a billion dollars worth of merchandise with his name on it and calls himself the father of franchise fashion. Though this makes him sound like a living fossil, Cassini says he has, in a sense, "just begun." In fact, he adds, a 1982 Gallup poll to determine the world's best-known designers revealed that he was fourth on the list, right behind Dior, Cardin and Saint Laurent.

"And I am most visible of them all," he says. "My face is recognized from Hollywood to New York; every bellhop, cab driver and stewardess seems to know me.

"It is mysterious," he sighs. "Just when I am getting on in age, the world is opening wide. In a sense, I wish all this had happened before. My geometric growth is very recent."

No matter. Cassini is definitely alive and well--and startlingly fit for a man who's in his seventh decade.

Cassini is an ambiguity. By his own admission, his life has been lived in reverse order, the exact opposite of most top American designers.

"At 22 I was already bored with the social part of life. I was accepted everywhere. I had what designers like Bill Blass and Ralph Lauren had to work for years to get. They went through the typical stages of the American dream. They worked hard and spent their energy in order to get accepted socially, to buy ranches and houses--things with which I started out."

What Cassini didn't have at the beginning, however, was credibility as a hard-working designer and creative businessman. The Paris-born son of a Russian diplomat father and an artist-designer mother, he spent his youth in France and his teen years in Italy, where he first showed talent for design. After apprenticing in Paris with Jean Patou, he started a dress company in New York, then came to Los Angeles around 1940, where, he remembers, he considered buying the Beverly Hills Hotel, which was then available at $175,000.

His title and continental charm weren't worth much in Old Hollywood. In fact, they were liabilities. He was considered a dilettante and a rogue, he says, especially after he eloped with Tierney. Eventually, he was accepted and went on to design for films such as "The Mating Season" and stars such as Tierney, Lana Turner and Rita Hayworth.

Ten years later, when his marriage broke up, he left for New York to begin again.

This time, he built a dress business, which he says became "the most successful on Seventh Avenue in the early 1950s." But again, he was bored, confined. It wasn't enough.

"A revolution was needed," Cassini recalls. "To me, Leonardo da Vinci was the first great revolutionary because he refused to be pinned down. Da Vinci could paint, sculpt, design armor, pottery, castles. There, I told myself, was real versatility."

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