You don't have to be from France, Oleg Cassini told a room full of hopeful young fashion designers. But, if you ever hope to become a designer, you do have to go to New York.
The famous American designer was in Salt Lake recently to promote his new fragrance ("Cassini") at ZCMI. The 77-year-old legend took time out from autographs to speak to a group of Brigham Young University fashion majors.Most in the audience were young women. Cassini seemed to enjoy chiding them.
"You want to be a designer?" he asked. "There's got to be a price. Are you willing to dedicate the time it takes? To go where you have to go?"
You'll get your foot in the door of a big New York design house, he told them, especially if you can sketch well and have an eye-arresting portfolio.
After that, your talent and drive will carry you to the top, he predicted. "Unless, of course, you get married. Or, another ridiculous possibility, unless you have children."
"A lot of us are already married," replied a student.
He smiled. He complemented various students on their youth, their beauty. But beneath his banter, Cassini was serious about sacrifice.
Oleg Cassini was the first U.S. couturier to equal the fame of the French designers. Jackie Kennedy cinched Cassini's place in history when she made him her personal designer. She wowed the world in his pillbox hats, simple suits and elegant evening dresses.
"Do you know who I am?" he asked the BYU students. "You don't know my greatness. I will tell you."
His biographers say he was born in France, which he was, Cassini said, but only by a fluke. His father was a Russian count who was in the diplomatic corps in France, in 1913, when Cassini was born.
When the revolution came, and "we were all thrown out of Russia, I found myself a little boy in Florence, Italy."
The medieval city, "so tranquil, so beautiful," shaped his sense of design. As a young man, he worked in his mother's dress shop, then went to France, to the house of Patou. Next he opened his own salon.
"It was the first time an Italian had competed with the French," he told the students. They seemed interested, but not impressed enough, apparently. "Am I boring you?" he asked several times, as he described his career.
"Then I made the mistake of my life," he said. He struck out for New York - at the height of the Depression. "I was sometimes hungry. I know the other side of the picture."
Cassini migrated to California. There he met the woman he would marry, Gene Tierney. "In the pantheon of beauties in the movies, she was the most beautiful." The starlet helped Cassini get hired designing costumes before and after he served in World War II.
Cassini said that, after the war, "now I was not so young anymore." To stay in California would be to give up a great challenge, he believed. "You can die many times in life."
Tierney promised to divorce him if he didn't come with her on location during her next film. He told her to do what she had to do, and he would do what he had to do.
It was in the early 1950s. "I decided to quickly try to pick up 10 years of my career." Cassini went to New York and started a collection. He found an investor who put up $100,000. "For three months I worked 12 hours a day. I only ate once a day. I didn't want to talk to people, to be influenced by anyone. I kept my concentration."
To this day, he said, he benefits from that work. "I revolutionized Grace Kelly's look," he said. "Then Jackie Kennedy's."
In fact, he said, he was the first one to create The Total Look (dress, shoes, purse - all designed to be worn together). "I revolutionized the world of fashion."
With the proper attitude, they could do the same thing. "What's important in your life," he asked. "Is it success or a happy marriage?"
And if you choose a career, don't forget the importance of self-propaganda, he added. "If you say you are a fashion designer . . . you are."