Arnold Scaasi's Front Row View on First Ladies

Does experience count when dress-ing the First Lady?

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Arnold Scaasi

Photo By Thomas Iannaccone

Does experience count when dress-ing the First Lady?

From where Arnold Scaasi sits, absolutely. But then Scaasi has dressed five First Ladies — six, if you add in Lady Bird Johnson, whom he puts in a separate category. In a recent phone call to WWD, Scaasi was eager to weigh in on Michelle Obama’s approach to fashion — while tossing his own name in as a hopeful contender.

Scaasi started with praise. In his view, Obama would make an ideal client, even if she weren’t First Lady. “She’s great-looking, she has a great personality and she’s obviously very bright,” he stressed. “But…” Scaasi finished the dreaded qualifier with, “something is amiss.”

Perhaps, he suggested, Obama is dressing much the same now as she did when she was merely the brilliant spouse of a dashing community activist in Chicago. Obama should “pick some designers and deal directly with them. Obviously, she doesn’t have the right advice at this moment,” Scaasi said. “As [the wife of] the head of the most important country in the world, you must dress at some points according to protocol,” he offered, while maintaining that still, “you don’t have to be conventional.”

“I think it is about looking right in the right situation,” Scaasi continued, “And certainly the coat-sweater with the Queen of England was absolutely wrong,” he noted of Obama’s now-famous black cardigan-and-dress ensemble. “[A jacket] would not take away from [Obama’s] good looks or from her personality; it would just photograph better, and it would be more proper for meeting the Queen.”

His own such relationships go way back, to Mamie Eisenhower, whom he first dressed in 1960, “then on to Jackie Kennedy before she went into the White House, as the Senator’s wife, and also after. And then, of course, Barbara Bush, who I still dress to this day, and Mrs. Clinton and Laura Bush. Is that the right order?”

Indeed it is, with one omission: “Somewhere in there was Lady Bird Johnson,” whom the designer views differently than the others precisely because he didn’t deal with her directly. Rather, President Lyndon Johnson would somehow happen upon a Scaasi design “and would tell his secretary, you know that wonderful girl from Texas, and he would say, ‘I like that for my wife.’ ”

Asked whose role it should be to ensure that proper wardrobe protocol is followed for various events, Scaasi suggested a divide-and-conquer approach, with the First Lady relying on a specific designer or designers, along with help within the White House. “I don’t know how much advice she’s getting from who or where,” he mused, “but for instance, she has a very good-looking social secretary, Desirée Rogers. She’s great-looking, and she dresses beautifully from the photographs I see, so why not discuss it with her? I think in making these gaffes, it makes it very difficult for the people [Obama] has to work with in her administration. Here’s an idiot designer like me calling you up and saying blah, blah, blah, but the press corps has to answer these questions.”

For the record, Scaasi doesn’t think Obama should abandon her current choices, but merely spread the wealth. “I think J. Crew is great,” he said. “But I also think Donna Karan is great, and I think Ralph [Lauren] is great, and I think Oscar [de la Renta] is great, and I think I’m great.”

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