|Dennis Basso & Pamela Fiori at Le Cirque
All photos courtesy of FGI
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The thing about having been a fashion editor for so many years is that chances are, if you mention the name of any designer, I will most likely have an interesting or amusing personal anecdote or recollection about them, and such is the case with regards to furrier extraordinaire, Dennis Basso, who I happened to see yesterday. In continuation of Fashion Group International’s (www.fgi.org) ongoing The Tastemakers series, the most recent installation, “Pamela Fiori in Conversation with Dennis Basso”, took place yesterday, and the venue for cocktails, a delicious luncheon, and lively conversation, was appropriately one of the tastiest, toniest, and most storied restaurants around: Le Cirque, located at One Beacon Court Condominium, 151 East 58th Street.
Not only do I remember Dennis’s early shows, especially the see and be seen extravaganzas at the Pierre Hotel, which always ended with a major diva, taking a walk down the runway (this list includes the likes of Liza Minnelli, Diana Ross, Patti LaBelle, and Joan Collins). I also remember my two favorite collections, both held at the New York Public Library’s Astor Hall. One, in May, 2005, was quite hip and bohemian, and a departure for the designer, featuring a cross cultural collection of furs and ready-to-wear that was unabashedly colorful, embroidered, mirrored, studded, beaded, bejeweled, and embellished, and shown entirely with pointy toed Moroccan style flats. The other, in May 2006, was an homage to Paris glamour and its focus, in black and white, was on broadtail.
|Dennis Basso & Pamela Fiori|
But perhaps what stands out most in my mind was back in time, when I was a senior fashion editor at Harper’s Bazaar. I had to pull clothes for Barbara Walters. She was to be photographed by Francesco Scavullo for the Over 40 and Fabulous September Issue, 1982. (Other luminaries included in the portfolio were Princess Grace of Monaco, Julie Andrews, Dina Merrill). There were racks of clothes, but the only thing she agreed to wear, or that fit her, or looked good on her, (in her opinion), was a flame red full mink coat I brought in from Dennis Basso. It saved the day and turned out to be a double page spread.
|Dennis Basso & Margaret Hayes|
Prior to the lunch, FGI President Margaret Hayes hailed Pamela as a “multi-talented editor-in-chief, author, and connoisseur” and referred to both she and Dennis as “two of the most iconic personalities in New York”. Coincidentally, Pamela has just penned a book, “A Table at Le Cirque: Stories and Recipes from New York’s Most Legendary Restaurant” by Sirio Maccioni and Pamela Fiori . Published by Rizzoli International Publications, and at 256 pages, it’s the first cookbook from the famed restaurant which has served as a “social club for celebrities and power brokers for more than 35 years.” Copies were ready to be signed at the end of the event. See: More info and/or puchase the book from Amazon.com
Pamela observed that when Dennis enters a room, the party begins. “Nobody is as much fun as Dennis. He loves to have a good time and lives a good life, but he also gives back”. She also said the two longtime friends share two things: both have a proud Italian heritage and both are from New Jersey. Dennis has always reminded her: “We Jersey girls have to stick together” she recounted. She was also there when he wed his partner of twenty years, Michael Cominotto, in the Pierre Hotel’s first same sex marriage in its 81 years.
Needless to say, Dennis was in rare form, and with his signature baritone voice, regaled the crowd with stories of his happy and early childhood, how he got his start in the business, his best pals (the Trumps and the Sedakas), his zest for life, and love affair with designing and QVC (which he initially thought was “trailer park”), his new and exciting three story freestanding boutique located in a townhouse ( 825 Madison Avenue at 69th Street), and the case of mistaken identity (with a past president) that resulted in his almost being shot.
On his early childhood: “I never experienced the word, ‘no’. No was ‘yes’. I was not your average boy and I knew early on I was different. My kindergarten teacher said that I was the most unique child she ever had. I wasn’t very sporty. I used to say, ‘Can I dust?’ (This brought laughs from the audience).
“I always loved show business and fashion and I only wanted to make hats out of collages, and at 7 years old I created dresses from tablecloths” (he told of one 94 year old customer who had actually posted pictures of them on Facebook).
While he had a happy childhood living in a beautiful house on a lake, he knew there was something “missing” and he wanted to find it. “Where are all those glamorous people in tuxedos and gowns?” (FYI, you almost never see a picture of Dennis without a tuxedo these days, even though he jokingly admitted that often times, he thinks he can’t put another one on).
“Some people aren’t allowed to do their thing but thankfully, I was, because of my unbelievably loving and supportive parents”. “They wanted me to be a litigation attorney and I did attend college, but eventually enrolled in fashion school.”
Pamela: “You love Divas and you deal with divas!”
Dennis: “Yes. Liza Minnelli, Patti La Belle, Natalie Cole, and the biggest diva of all, Diana Ross, are some who have walked the runway. What was so great, is that I could use this career to create my incredible lifestyle.”
Pamela: “What about Le Cirque makes it so special?”
Dennis: “I’ve been there about 9 thousand zillion times. It’s one of the greatest restaurants in the world. I’m so sick of hearing the word, “young”. I like going somewhere that I can wear a tie. I still remember the first time I went there.”
Pamela: “Let’s talk about fur. How did you get your start?”
Dennis: “I was about 27 years old and I couldn’t find a job as a designer so I answered an ad in WWD (for a very mediocre furrier) Hy Fishman Furs. He is still around today. He wanted a designer, a pattern maker, a shipper, and a clerical. He wanted a person to do everything for $450 a month. Because I’m many things: a designer, an actor, and a salesman, I started selling furs like crazy. I bought flowers and painted the showroom because I didn’t like the color. But I got my big start when we started doing trade shows. We had a huge Japanese customer base. I would take 2 Hermes scarves and line the mandarin collared mink coats with them, and superimpose the Hermes label. I must have bought 5,000 Hermes scarves in my lifetime. Eventually, Hermes sent a letter to “cease and desist”.
He went on to talk about how in about 1982, 1983, he started selling wholesale, buying and selling coats with a partner. They made an “amazing amount of money” and he took over the showroom and made himself an office. He was then fired by Hy Fishman and started a new company, Pellice Bascardi (Pellice is the word fur in Italian, and Bascardi is the combination of the partner’s two last names). Their role models were designers Carolina Herrera, Bill Blass, and Oscar de la Renta, and their customers were the ones they were after. He was given prime windows in Martha on Park Avenue and staged his first show at the Regency Hotel. It was then that he was introduced to Donald and Ivana Trump (she immediately bought 7 coats), and Leba and Neil Sedaka (the 4 are his great friends to this day) and was given ½ page in The New York Times (“which I haven’t had since” he joked). “I became a furrier by accident. I wanted to be a clothing designer. Nowadays, designers are all doing fur, so I’m doing the reverse. I’m a furrier making ready-to-wear. Everything is made in New York City which is very unique”.
“I’m now 59 and I never thought I’d be winding down. Joan Rivers, there’s nobody like her, once said, “In the entertainment business and in the fashion business, if someone says they’re retired, it simply means they can’t get a job.”
“About 22 years ago, someone suggested I partner with QVC” (he just marked his 20 year anniversary with them). “I thought it was simply Trailer Park. But I have obviously changed my mind. I love fashion and I love TV, and so I went ahead with it. I started on September 3, 1993 at 10 a.m. and I immediately sold 11 out of 12 pieces. It was the highest grossing fashion show in the history of QVC”.
As of today, he was told by the company that 6 million units have been sold at retail, with half a billion dollars net. (“When do I pick up that check?” Dennis joked). “You can check me out at 9:30 every Saturday morning”.
Pamela asked him to talk about ‘the incident’ at the White House. Suffice it to say that it’s a long story, but to sum it up, he and his partner were invited to take a tour of the White House and afterwards, have lunch with Hilary Clinton (he counts Mrs. Clinton as a close friend). Dennis was mistaken for President Clinton, and was shot at by a man identified as Francisco Martin Duran who was holding a sawed off M14 under his raincoat (“just Google, Dennis Basso assassination attempt” Dennis told the crowd). As he explained it, they did look alike, both with the same thick white head of hair, and the same large frame (though with all due respect, Bill Clinton has since lost his weight). Dennis went on to talk about attending the trial with the two blown up life like images of both the President and himself, as evidence.
At the end of the discussion, Margaret Hayes asked guests if they had any questions. Someone asked Dennis if there is something he would still like to do that he hasn’t already. He quickly replied: “I’d like my own talk show.”