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.
Less than a year after the inauguration, she accompanied her husband to France. Clothed by Cassini, her wardrobe -- whether it was for a school visit with France's first lady, Mme. Charles DeGaulle, or an elegant banquet at Versailles -- took Paris by storm. Kennedy even began remarks at a luncheon by saying, "I am the man who accompanied Jacqueline Kennedy to Paris."
"When I designed for Jackie," said Cassini, "my idea was to pinpoint the greatness of Jackie's figure and the youthfulness as a first lady."
She was 31 when her husband was elected president.
Cassini had a long life before Camelot. The son of a Russian countess and the czar's ambassador to the United States, he was born in Paris and raised in Italy where he first began designing women's clothes. He came to the United States in 1936 and eventually found work as a costume designer in Hollywood.
He was better-known, however, as a debonair playboy who married screen beauty Gene Tierney and was once engaged to Grace Kelly. He was linked with dozens of other women.
Cassini mostly lost touch with Jacqueline Kennedy after Kennedy's assassination in 1963. But his innovation continued, as Cassini introduced bright colors for men and focused on bridal wear before most designers did.
He also had some forgettable moments: Cassini was responsible for the popularity of the Nehru jacket for men.
He refused to join runway shows in favor of marketing directly to consumers.
Cassini had watched during the Kennedy presidency as everything he designed for Jackie was immediately knocked off or copied in some way.
"There was not a young woman in the world," he said, "that didn't want to look like Jackie Kennedy."
Once, he designed a leopard-skin coat for her. Later, he said he greatly regretted being personally responsible for the death of 250,000 leopards. The public had scrambled to emulate the first lady.
"A designer is like a doctor for a woman," Cassini said last year. "He has a specific job, and if he is doing it well he will have the gratitude of the woman for the rest of his life."