First fashion

A former employee of Oleg Cassini, who sketched Jacqueline Kennedy, on dressing the first lady

Hillary Clinton viewing the Met exhibit as a senator (left), and silk ensembles by Oleg Cassini, worn by Jacqueline Kennedy

In a 1999 New York Times article, Melania Trump was asked what kind of first lady she would be on the off-chance her husband ever made it to the White House.

“I would be very traditional. Like Betty Ford or Jackie Kennedy,” she replied.

Fast-forward 18 years, and fashion critics are indeed comparing first lady Melania Trump’s style to Jacqueline Kennedy’s — especially for her decision to wear a suit to Donald Trump’s inauguration in the same sky-blue color as the one Kennedy wore to her husband’s inauguration in 1961.

But what would someone who actually worked on Jackie’s clothes have to say about the comparison?

“I think people are stretching,” said Irwin Karabell, a Greenwich Village-based artist who worked for fashion designer Oleg Cassini sketching Jackie’s outfits when she was first lady. “[News outlets] saw Melania wearing a black top and white pants, and then they found a picture of Jackie wearing a black top and white pants, so they compare it,” he shrugged. “I think Melania has her own style.”

Certainly, first-lady fashion is different now than it was in the days when Karabell was working with Jackie. “Years ago, we couldn’t do anything sexy,” Karabell said. “The president would call and say not to do a one-shoulder look, because he thought it was too sexy for a first lady.”

“I did a few sketches, and the president would call
and say not to do a one-shoulder look because he
thought it was too sexy for a first lady.”
—Irwin Karabell

“Nowadays, it doesn’t really make much of a difference. Michelle [Obama] wore just about everything, and she looked great always.”

President Kennedy would also sometimes call Cassini to complain because “I made her hair too big” in sketches.

Cassini hired Karabell to sketch his designs right after he graduated from the Philadelphia College of Art in 1961. They would submit the rough sketches of outfits to the first lady, who would then return them with her notes.

Despite his fond memories of those days, Karabell is involved in some tricky legal proceedings with Cassini’s estate over the fate of those very drawings.

Karabell says that Cassini gave him a number of those sketches to keep, and in 2015, he submitted some of them to Doyle, the auction house, to try to sell for a total of $15,000. Right before the auction was supposed to happen in November 2015, however, Cassini’s estate stepped in, claiming that Karabell had stolen the sketches.

Karabell denies the charge, noting that he loaned some of the sketches to the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2001 exhibit “Jacqueline Kennedy: The White House Years” and that Cassini (who was alive at the time) never accused him of stealing the sketches.

Nevertheless, Doyle halted the auction and is holding the sketches in storage, charging Karabell for the service.

Lawyers for the Cassini estate and Doyle did not respond to requests for comment.

Karabell, who also worked for Oscar de la Renta and Bill Blass, retired from fashion and now spends his time sketching wonderful portraits of Broadway stars, which line the walls of his cozy apartment near the New School.

He hopes one day he can bring his Jackie sketches back, but he’s worried they will remain in “limbo.” “They can’t prove I stole them, and I can’t prove that they were given to me,” he sighed. “Because everybody is dead.”