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Basso Cantante: Dennis Basso’s Wide Range

Thursday, March 2, 2017
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Dennis Basso was asked, What if some ageless, ethereal swan, say a Somers Farkas, were to saunter in here tomorrow? A fabulous woman of impeccable pedigree, a divine patron of the arts with one particular desire.

“Dennis, my darling,“ she would purr. “I need a head-turning new number! A coup de théâtre! A show stopper to wear to the American Ballet Theater Spring Gala. The ballet god David Hallberg is back for the first time in three years, and I need to be the belle of that ball.”

The notion was barely broached before the famous American furrier/fashion designer was leading his interlocutor by the elbow and parting the racks in his eponymous flagship boutique on Madison Avenue (at 69th Street).

“Well, first we’ll find the dress and then we will wrap her in something magnificent,” Basso said as he chose a luminescent taupe gown. “This is so beautiful because it makes an entrance! Look at this column of sequins, the plunging neckline, and to top it all off, look at the organza skirt with all that gorgeous, beautiful hand-sewn eyelet work and all those bugle beads!” Moving along the racks the maestro continued, “And then I would wrap her in this gorgeous, demure bolero of sable. Just enough to cover the shoulders and also take her seat. Rest it on her lap during the performance and not be bothered by it. Then, of course, she tops it all off with a beautiful jeweled clutch, adds diamond earrings and a bracelet, and she is home free.”

It is immediately apparent that Dennis Basso is a master of the art of the sell. It is inherent and part of his immense charm and ever-expanding 35-year-old fashion brand. “I am a designer, a manufacturer and a salesman. I have a true understanding of what I design, and who better than the person who designed it and created it to sell it?”

He was holding court near the entrance of his spectacular shop. On one side hung his latest prêt-à-porter, and down the center of the store fitted glass consoles, which appear to float on air, held bejeweled accessories, evening clutches and other such ephemera. The mannequins, on this day, were a symphony of sumptuous ivory. Orgasmic white beaded dresses and an array of broadtail fur coats—-one uber-fabulous one with a lynx collar—line the other wall, and lush capes with fox trim, Russian broadtail and sable, all in black, end the show. “This is one of the largest privately owned stores on Madison Avenue,” he will also be the first to tell you. “Look at it, all of 10,000 square feet!”

The three-story store is like an art gallery with its clean lines, white walls and slate gray floors set against matte furniture and lacquered chrome accents. “Keep it simple,” he says. A huge screen at the back—looping video from past fashion shows—is the only bit of razzmatazz. The “merch,” unquestionably, speaks for itself.

As it happens, the night before the day of this performance, a white minivan was rammed into a Louis Vuitton store an ocean away on chic Sloane Street in London. The brazen robbers cleared out that designer boutique, in pretty much the same way that three thieves did the Dennis Basso store in what is now part of Madison Avenue retail lore—the Christmas Eve heist of 2016.

“They knew the lay of the land,” Basso growled in that signature gravel voice of his. The designer was now seated in his inner sanctum—the fourth-floor office of his commercial townhouse. “Christmas Eve morning at 4:30 a.m., three men broke into the store. It was really quite brazen and shocking. I like to think of this townhouse not just as a business but also my home.” It’s not his home, but the invasion was personal—and devastating. “They knew exactly what they wanted. They took the best of the best—the sable, the chinchilla—and they were in and out in three minutes. On upper Madison Avenue!”

They must have been muttering similar words at that Louis Vuitton shop in Knightsbridge. These brazen heists are an emerging fashion trend the business could well do without. As for the American designer, he is holding up well. The loss of thirty fur coats, well over $12 million in merchandise, does not seem to have diminished his mojo, least of all his fastidious grooming. The impeccably dressed and debonair Mr. Basso wore a windowpane brown and navy custom-made Ermenegildo Zegna cashmere suit as polished as his bespoke John Lobb double-buckle monk-strap shoes. “We have to move on and hope that the New York City detectives will find these men. We will just have to be more vigilant, but it was truly a terrible thing to happen.”

Dennis Basso didn’t set out to be in the fur business when he graduated from the Fashion Institute of Technology in 1973. His mother, Theresa, was, not surprisingly, a huge influence, when he was growing up in Morristown, New Jersey. “She was a great hostess, and she loved to entertain and she was always, always flawlessly dressed.“ He opened his business in 1983 and staged his very first fashion show that year at the Regency Hotel, with Natalie Cole, Ivana and Donald Trump, and Neil and Leba Sedaka in the front row.

The designer is asked to recall his first meeting with one of his most iconic clients, Elizabeth Taylor. You could hear a pin drop all the way in Timbuktu in this very quiet office with its wood-burning fireplace looking out to the Juliet balconies and Madison Avenue. Expensive coffee-table books are everywhere among cherubs, honorary awards, family photos and credenzas.

“She came to New York and borrowed some fur shawls I had made from a friend while she was in town. A day later the phone rang and she was
cooing about the shawls and asked if I had any capes. I immediately ran over to her duplex at the Plaza Athénée. She kept me waiting in her living room for an hour while José Eber finished doing her hair upstairs. She finally came down, and she just loved the capes and was a faithful client until the day she left us. I used to watch Elizabeth Taylor movies when I was 10 years old.” Today, an image of her dominates his office.

As if foreshadowed by the fur heist, the 61-year-old designer was recently asked to make a cameo in the much buzzed about
all-female heist flick Ocean’s Eight. “There are at least fifty of my gowns in that movie, and they asked me to appear as myself walking down the red carpet at the Met. That was a lot of fun to be part of and so much fun to see my gowns come alive.”

Brand Basso is bullish about 2017. “We are ready to go and have our best year ever, not only with the Dennis Basso brand but the Basso QVC Collection as well. We reach an audience of 100 million homes on QVC, and I love designing something that thousands of women across the United States will be thrilled wearing.”

The designer’s latest collection, shown last month, combined “my classic, contemporary luxury with a boho chic edge this season. It’s that rich girl look with a bit of edge to keep it fresh—luxurious and feminine with a bohemian touch.”

It’s all about brand evolution, he adds for emphasis, “Especially because I am now also dressing many of the younger influencers, from Rihanna to Nicky Hilton Rothschild.“ It appears astute cygnets know the path to Swan Lake runs through Dennis Basso’s atelier.
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by Ben DiamondPhotographed by Billy Farrall