Oleg Cassini Conveyed Elegance and Mystique

ByABC News
March 18, 2006, 4:13 PM

March 18, 2006 — -- In the late 1960s, I interviewed Oleg Cassini when he was in Chicago promoting his line of designer everything. A shrewd businessman, Cassini was the first designer to put his name on products from luggage to nail polish. He said later it made him a millionaire.

Two things remain vivid from that interview: Cassini, who died Friday at age 92, was a picture of trim elegance -- and he credited Jacqueline Kennedy with making him more famous than he might have been.

Like every other reporter that day, I was less interested in his business than in his relationship with Jackie.

Cassini had been a designer for decades by 1961, but it was that Inauguration Day that made him truly famous. The new first lady wore a simple wool dress, wool coat with a sable collar, and a pillbox hat. It was the first of 300 outfits Cassini would design for Jacqueline Kennedy, and they helped her become the most glamorous woman in the world.

Other politicians' wives that bitterly cold January morning wore fur and someone described them as looking like "bundled up bears." Jackie looked simple and elegant in her Cassini-crafted clothes.

A few years ago, Cassini described how he visited the first lady shortly after the election while she was in a hospital after giving birth to John F. Kennedy Jr. She was surrounded, he said, by sketches from fashion designers all over the world.

"She said, 'Would you like to design for me?' " Cassini recalled. "I said no. And she said, 'What?' Probably the only person who ever said no to Jackie Kennedy. I said, 'You will lose so much time with all these people, you will have several designers to contend for time and all that.'

"I thought, 'You need one person,' " Cassini said. "So she said, 'You are the person.' That gave me chills."

Together, they created a uniquely American high fashion at a time when style was dictated by the fashion houses of Europe. It built on simple things, like A-line dresses, the black sheath, the pillbox hat -- all steeped in American fashion tradition. But there was elegance, especially in the gowns Jacqueline Kennedy wore to White House dinners and on state visits.