For Haute Couture, Just Spell Isaacs Backward

updated 06/15/1981 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 06/15/1981 AT 01:00 AM EDT

I'm the best dressmaker in the U.S. today," crows Arnold Scaasi, the 5'6", Canadian-born master of haute couture. Modesty is not among designer Scaasi's strong suits, but in this case he just may be right. For, unlike fashion giants Halston, Calvin Klein, Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta, who all turn out ready-to-wear fashion, 50-year-old Scaasi is the last name practitioner who relies solely on the nearly lost art of made-to-order haute couture. "Scaasi is unique in this day and age," coos Austine "Bootsie" Hearst, a member of the Best Dressed Hall of Fame. "He's the only big designer left in America who does what Paris has been doing forever."

Now the Reagan White House vogue for elegant evening clothes has blessed Scaasi with added cachet. "This is his moment," declares New York Times fashion arbiter Bernadine Morris. Although he has never dressed the present First Lady (Mamie, Jackie and Lady Bird were customers), Scaasi has made evening gowns for such Reagan royalty as Betsy Bloomingdale, Jane Dart, Leonore Annenberg and Irene Dunne. Twice a year Scaasi discreetly seeks new converts at the fashion shows he stages for Saks Fifth Avenue in San Francisco, Chicago, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and Houston. During a feverish day in Houston a few weeks back, he booked more than $100,000 worth of orders. A Scaasi doesn't come cheap—his dresses start at $2,800 and soar to $6,000.

His private showings dazzle with money and beauty. One recent get-together at his rarefied Fifth Avenue atelier assembled Diahann Carroll, Mrs. Douglas MacArthur, Georgiana Bronfman, Joyce Susskind and Barbara de Portage. Scaasi has also made frocks for Mrs. Johnny Carson, Sophia Loren, Lauren Bacall and Barbara Sinatra—who ordered nine inaugural outfits. Raves friend and client Polly Bergen: "Arnold has designed many of my working clothes and evening gowns for 20 years. His dresses are ageless."

An early Scaasi conquest was diva Joan Sutherland who, when she first arrived at his salon in 1961, was a husky 170 pounds. The designer talked her into making her first appearance on the New York stage in a floral ball gown with an apricot-colored coat lined in the same flowery print. When Sutherland opened her coat, Scaasi recounts, the audience gasped. "For the first time in her life," he says with a dramatic pause, "I think she felt pretty."

Scaasi doesn't take on just anybody. When Barbra Streisand, fresh from her success in Funny Girl, asked him to make her some outfits, he turned her down flat. "She wasn't my kind of customer then," he explains. Scaasi quickly relented, became her sole designer and for the 1969 Academy Awards made her a black tulle jump suit covered with clear sequins and lined with flesh-colored marquisette. "She looked fabulous," he says. Alas, neither Scaasi nor Streisand had reckoned on the fact that overhead lighting and photographers' flashbulbs made the star look absolutely nude.

The designer grew up as Arnold Isaacs (Scaasi is Isaacs spelled backward) in Westmount, a wealthy Jewish enclave in Montreal where his father, Sam, an ex-furrier, had grown rich buying real estate. "I wasn't interested in sports," Arnold remembers. Instead he drew clothes. When he was 13, he moved to Melbourne, Australia, where he lived with his Aunt Ida, a dedicated fashion plate who was dressed by Schiaparelli and Chanel. After high school he studied dress design for a year in Paris' Chambre Syndicale. Then, in New York, he made an appointment with the now legendary dress designer Charles James. While waiting for James in an East Side art gallery, he was electrified by the sight of Joan Crawford walking into the room. "To this day," Scaasi says, "I remember how she was dressed—in a black broadtail coat, black velvet hat and long black tulle veil." On the spot he decided, "I'm not going back to Montreal." Instead he took a $45-a-week job with James and moved into a rooming house on the Upper East Side. When he later turned free-lance and wrote home asking for some dishes, his affluent mother sent a set of Crown Derby and an enormous candelabrum. "She had no idea of the way I was living," he says.

Scaasi's first major success came in 1955 when he went to work for Dressmaker Casuals, a major coat-and-suit house. His designs rated a full-page newspaper ad, "Coats and suits by Scaasi," which also announced his fashionably Italianate name. He started doing free-lance work for hat designer Lilly Daché, and two years later put together his first ready-to-wear line. It, too, was a smash hit, but Scaasi still nurtured dreams of making custom clothes. In 1963, after a long talk with his friend Norman Norell, he decided to take the plunge.

He has lived not to regret it. He long ago made a sweep of the design accolades, winning the Coty, Winnie and Neiman-Marcus awards. With a staff of 35 dressmakers and tailors plus five assistants, he earns well over a million dollars a year. Scaasi, who has never married, lives like a prince. His Central Park South duplex apartment and his 22-room summer house on Long Island are stocked with art by Dubuffet, Picasso, Léger and his good friend sculptor Louise Nevelson (whom he also dresses). In town, lunch is either at Le Cirque or La Cote Basque with a lady client, turned out in the very latest Scaasi. And if she isn't, she will be very soon. And what will that cost? "My clients," says Scaasi with a smile, "don't ask the price."

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