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Celebrity Designer Oleg Cassini


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Fashion Designer Oleg Cassini

by Polly Anderson

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Oleg Cassini

NEW YORK, New York - Oleg Cassini, who designed the dresses that helped make Jacqueline Kennedy the most glamorous first lady in history, died Friday, March 17. He was 92. Cassini died in a Long Island hospital from a broken blood vessel detected in his head, said Senada Ivackovic, marketing director for Oleg Cassini Inc.

In a later statement, his wife, Marianne Cassini, said he had been in excellent health until complaining of a serious headache. He had been busy with work that day, attending meetings, reviewing designs and writing letters. Later at their Long Island home, he complained of a severe headache and was taken to the hospital where he was pronounced dead.

Jacqueline Kennedy, only 31 when her husband was elected president, was the pinnacle of style in the White House years from 1961 to 1963. Her simple, geometric dresses in sumptuous fabrics, her pillbox hats and her elegant coiffure were copied by women from 18 to 80 worldwide.

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Oleg Cassini

Cassini said that shortly after John Kennedy was elected, he persuaded his wife that she should use him as the creator of her total look, rather than one of many designers. The one-time Hollywood costume designer turned couturier had been friendly with the Kennedy family for years.

"We are on the threshold of a new American elegance thanks to Mrs. Kennedy's beauty, naturalness, understatement, exposure and symbolism," Cassini said when his selection was announced. The fashion establishment was shocked, according to Women's Wear Daily journalist John Fairchild.

Fairchild wrote in his 1965 book "The Fashionable Savages," "Everyone was surprised. Oleg Cassini had been around for years. He was debonair, amusing, social, but none of the fashion intellectuals had considered him an important designer."

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Grace Kelly and Oleg Cassini out for a drive during their engagement

Cassini was born in 1913 in Paris to wealthy, aristocratic parents, an Italian countess and a Russian diplomat, who were later forced to flee their homeland after the Revolution. They settled in Italy, their fortune gone, but his mother gained some success as a dressmaker and her son eventually decided to begin his designing career, operating a fashion boutique in Rome.

Cassini moved to the United States in 1936. "He arrived with a tennis racket, a tuxedo and talent and he made it into an empire," said Marianne Cassini, a former model and now president of Oleg Cassini Inc. He held various design jobs in New York before going to Hollywood and beginning to design costumes for Paramount Studios in 1940.

Taking advantage of a social contact he made at a tennis tournament, he started with the film "I Wanted Wings," starring Veronica Lake, his wife said. Cassini went on to dress some of Hollywood's most famous actresses, including Natalie Wood, Marilyn Monroe, Grace Kelly, to whom he was once engaged before she became a princess.

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Actress Gene Tierney dining out with her husband

designer Oleg Cassini

Cassini married actress Gene Tierney in 1941. "It was what I'd dreamed about all my life. It was like a bolt of lightning," Cassini said. "She was radiant, just glowing, the most marvelous girl imaginable. It was fairy tale love and we floated, surrounded by magnificient people in beautiful clothes. I wanted the moment to last forever." They divorced in 1952.

"He was a man's man and a ladies' man," Marianne Cassini said. "He was a tremendous creator in women's wear and tremendously creative in men's wear."

After serving in the U.S. Army during World War Two, Cassini opened his own design house in New York's Seventh Avenue fashion district. His business grew to include two especially well-known clients -- Jacqueline Kennedy and Johnny Carson, popular host of the "Tonight Show."

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Oleg Cassini with his wife, Marianne at the Council

of Fashion Designers of America Awards in 2003

Marianne Cassini said her husband knew the future first lady before she married John F. Kennedy in 1953. "They were very good friends," she said. "He knew her when she was a debutante. She had something special and they recognized it in each other. They made magic together."

He said he was initially stumped on how to approach the job before falling back on his Hollywood experience. "Suddenly it came to me, this is like a film and you have the opportunity to dress the female star," Cassini wrote. "This was not so different from my old job in Hollywood, designing for motion pictures."

"In Hollywood, I was used to getting a script and a star and they'd say, 'Do it,"' Cassini told The Detroit News in 1995. "Now, with her, it was the same thing. I had to create a persona." Although the first lady sometimes wore clothes by others, Cassini provided the bulk of her wardrobe, later saying he had created 300 outfits in the less than three years of the Kennedy administration.

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First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in her trademark Oleg Cassini-designed

1961 Inauguration Day outfit complete with original pillbox hat

The strategy created a sensation from the beginning. Jacqueline Kennedy's Inauguration Day outfit of a fawn-colored wool coat with a sable collar, over a matching wool dress and a pillbox hat, launched millions of copycat outfits. "The other ladies wore fur coats, and they looked like bears," Cassini recalled years later.

Overseas trips were a particular challenge, with wardrobes carefully designed to echo the local culture. "The planning was constant, the logistical invasion of every country she visited, every party she attended - the cloth, the weather, the sensitivity of the people and what they wanted to see her in," Cassini said in 1995.

In his 1995 book, "A Thousand Days of Magic, Dressing Jacqueline Kennedy for the White House," Cassini recalled a constant sense of urgency during the White House years. "All I remember about those days are nerves, and Jackie on the phone: 'Hurry, hurry, Oleg, I've got nothing to wear,"' he wrote.

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Oleg Cassini

Cassini chronicled his days as couturier to the Kennedys' "Camelot" White House saying, "Jackie reminded me of an ancient Egyptian princess -- very geometric, even hieroglyphic, with the sphinx-like quality of her eyes, her long neck, slim torso, broad shoulders, narrow hips and regal carriage."

In the years following Kennedy's assassination, he saw Jacqueline Kennedy only sporadically. When she died in 1994, Cassini called her "a woman of extremely good taste, a marvelous influence in the arts, in furniture, in food and in clothes. She created fashion because she was who she was."

With the fame that came with his White House assignment came new business opportunities. He was one of the first designers to pursue licensing agreements that put his name on a large variety of products from luggage to nail polish. In the 1990s, Cassini launched a partnership with David's Bridal.

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Oleg Cassini

Cassini helped popularize the sheath dress, as well as the Nehru jacket and the turtleneck look for men. He was also a pioneer in licensing agreements that put his name on a range of products other than clothes. His dresses were displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2001 in its exhibit "Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years."

Cassini reflected on his life with The Associated Press in a 2005 interview. "I'm doing things the way I've been doing them," he said. "Most men that I compete against put a stop to their career when they become typical."

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Celebrity Designer Oleg Cassini

by Barbara Thomas

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Oleg Cassini

Oleg Cassini, the son of Russian aristocrats who became a savvy influence in the world of fashion and helped define the style of Jacqueline Kennedy, died on Friday, March 17. He was 92. Cassini's wife, Marianne, said the designer suffered a broken blood vessel in his head and died in a Long Island hospital.

As famous for his colorful lifestyle as he was for his clothes, Cassini was married to Hollywood star Gene Tierney and engaged to Grace Kelly

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