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Dennis Basso Is Ready and Waiting for 40th Anniversary – WWD

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Dennis Basso Is Ready and Waiting for 40th Anniversary – WWD


At a certain stage in most designers’ careers, the topic of age or the passage of time is really not something they want to advertise, or even talk about. But unabashed as he is, Dennis Basso is already eager to discuss his 40th anniversary, which officially happens in 2023.

Why wait? Monday afternoon’s runway show is for the 2023 spring collection. “One hundred percent I’m focused on the future. Many people would feel like they are in the roundup [stage of life]. I feel like I’m just getting started. I have that enthusiasm. That’s just who I am,” Basso said. “Forty years represents a little bit of survival. I always say, ‘Every day isn’t Christmas.’ There are ups and downs when you’re in business over that period of time.”

Cell phones — never mind smartphones or computers — didn’t exist when he started out in the early 1980s. Faxing was a form of business communications and the world was in a different place. Just as society and consumerism evolved over the past four decades, so, too, did his business. “It’s been a long run and an amazing run. I feel so fortunate for the people, who I have met. People who are no longer with us, like Elizabeth Taylor, and people who are, like Jennifer Lopez.”

Courtesy of Dennis Basso

To a large degree, Basso has achieved both desires he had as a child — to be in fashion or to be in show business. Serious about the latter, he studies speech and drama at Catholic University at one point before switching tracks to attend the Fashion Institute of Technology. Equal parts business, pleasure, social and celebrity his career is testimony to that. Next year he will pass the 30-year mark with QVC, another example of how Basso has combined fashion with show business. “Talk about a double dream,” Basso said. (And a lucrative one, considering that his first QVC show racked up $350,000 in sales in one hour and he has subsequently sold 6 million units via QVC.)

“I am very open to what tomorrow brings. But I don’t see myself anytime soon staying home. That’s not what I want to do. Ever,” he said. “I’m always focused on expanding my business. I feel there he is a whole area in the middle — from $150 to $500 affordable luxury — that I haven’t explored. I’m working on some television projects that have to do with fashion and home decor.”

The designer staged his first fashion show in 1983 at the Regency Hotel and the following morning one of the guests, Ivana Trump, showed up unannounced at his showroom and ordered several of his coats. WWD and The New York Times gave him rave reviews. Basso recounted that auspicious start to a thriving business and friendship while addressing attendees at Trump’s funeral in July. High-profile women, celebrities and socialites have been integral to Basso’s career and personal life. Often, there is no division between the two for Basso, a hospitable entertainer, who used to cap off his runway shows by hosting formal dinners at landmarks like Le Cirque, The Pierre and the Rainbow Room.

Nearly 20 years ago, Basso exited Manhattan’s run-down fur district and relocated to the Upper East Side, the zip code of preference for many of his well-heeled customers. The multifloor Madison Avenue address houses a store, offices and atelier. Many of his clients were guests at Basso’s and his husband Michael Cominotto’s wedding reception at the Pierre hotel in 2011. The designer’s hospitable ways translated into the Hotel duCobb home collection that he sells on QVC. The name is a riff on the nickname that close friends, who have enjoyed his hospitality, call his Hamptons home since they contend the level of service is comparable to the Hotel du Cap Eden-Roc.

Grasping the power of celebrities to spark sales, Basso designed his first celebrity coat for Zsa Zsa Gabor in 1984. Five years later, Elizabeth Taylor became a client. Through the years, his famous friends and some strong-willed and opinionated women were the finale of his runway shows: Trump, Joan Rivers, Eartha Kitt, Patti LaBelle, Natalie Cole, Joan Collins, Liza Minnelli, Diana Ross, Mary J. Blige and Lisa Rinna among them. Basso also designed a few fur coats that were worn by Meryl Streep in the 2006 film “The Devil Wears Prada,” including in the defining opening scene, where she threw one down on her assistant’s desk. Basso designed pieces for Princess Diana as well as for Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama during their White House years. “When you’re doing that, it’s not political. You are dressing the office of the first lady of the United States of America,” he said.

Basso has always played up the power of human connection. Wanting to follow in the footsteps of old-school designers like Bill Blass and Oscar de la Renta, he was quick to host trunk shows and travel nationwide. “I thought if it’s good enough for them, it’s surely good enough for me. That’s how I ended up creating my label without a PR machine. It was me [laughing at the recollection]. But I worked really hard.”

Dennis Basso RTW Fall 2021

Courtesy of Dennis Basso

Dennis Basso and Lisa Rinna on the runway Dennis Basso fall 2020 show.

Rodin Banica/WWD

“Clients who love clothes, jewelry and beautiful things” were the ones who he was after early, which is why he started out in furs. That stands true today with the spring collection heavy on eveningwear and occasion dressing options, as well as furs that are more like accessories, such as a bolero. In the late ’70s, Basso had started out working for My Fishman Furs earning $450 a week, before striking out on his own. Unlike his peers in the business, who were second- or third-generation furriers, Basso’s outlook was much more open-ended. After his frugal boss denied Basso’s request from a friend to buy a fur coat wholesale, he found one through another company. That soon led to other requests and Basso started hosting “fur parties” at night “à la Tupperware” in Greenwich, Connecticut; Oyster Bay on Long Island and Milburn, New Jersey. The fur items were from other resources than his full-time employer. But after a while FIshman learned of that side business and fired him for “stealing potential sales,” Basso said.

His first collection featured 62 styles and wholesaled for upward of $2,500 and the company operated from 330 Seventh Avenue. One of the tipping points was the trunk show that Basso held at Martha’s on Park Avenue. “I’m sure younger people have no idea, who Martha [Phillips, the owner] was. But it was the greatest dress shop in the world probably [at that time]. She introduced more European designers than anyone else in America,” Basso said.

Over time Basso’s business strengthened from fur coats to other categories like ready-to-wear, eveningwear, handbags and other accessories. Opening a jewel box-like boutique at the tony Little Nell Resort in Aspen in 2002 was another way to connect with shoppers on a more personal level. That, as well as a Chicago store, have since closed. The designer does have an “important” boutique at Harrods and a 30,000-square-foot atelier, manufacturing and corporate office in Long Island City. “Success is talent, no matter what your talent is, enthusiasm and a willingness to go after what you are looking for. I believe my personality is a big part of the Dennis Basso brand. I also love to entertain.”

While the political climate has become increasingly fiery in recent years, Basso’s bipartisanship in suiting up politicians, their offspring and other nearest-and-dearest has served him well. In the ’90s, he designed fur coats for then First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton and even hosted a private dinner for her, where Johnny Cash performed. When Clinton ran for Senate in 2000, Basso stepped in to host a luncheon for her.

In 1994, the designer wound up in the news unexpectedly, after a Colorado man opened fire at the White House at what he thought was then-President Bill Clinton. The gray-haired man was Basso, who had just emerged from the West Wing after a private tour. That experience, like his attendance at Donald’s Trump inaugural, are not ones that Basso referenced in a recent interview. Ditto for the brash break-in at his Madison Avenue store on Christmas Eve 2016 that resulted in 20-plus sable and chinchilla coats being stolen.

Dennis Basso RTW Fall 2020

Rodin Banica/WWD

Gregarious as ever, Basso is more inclined to look ahead to what’s on the horizon versus waxing on about the past, any setbacks or challenges. Being inducted into the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 2002 is one of the few career highlights that he singled out. All too familiar with how the moniker “furrier” can be considered detrimental, Basso shed that years ago by making a point of referring to himself as a designer. The CFDA’s recognition validated that quest.

“I’ve learned that every day is a new day. You have to be current. You have to be willing. You have to be open-minded and willing to experiment to try new things,” Basso said. “And you have to be willing to learn from someone else. Everyone can give you a new idea. You don’t know where you might get one from. I don’t mean a new idea in reference to design — I mean a new idea to just life or a way of doing things.”