Celebrity designer Dennis Basso on his $1 million fur boutique robbery, and why he’s proud to dress Melania Trump
The Daily Beast
December 30, 2016
Dennis Basso got the call as he and his husband, Michael Cominotto, were preparing to have 26 people over for dinner at their winter home in Aspen on Christmas Eve.
Around 5 o’clock that morning, a group of thieves had smashed and grabbed their way into the celebrity fur couturier’s flagship Madison Avenue store in New York City, and made off with around $1 million worth of merchandise.
Basso believes it is one of the largest fur-related thefts in New York’s history. The haul of around 20 items included all the store’s sables and some chinchilla coats. Some individual items were valued at $200,000.
The footage of the raid was dramatic enough, featuring the first thief hurling what seems to be a rock through the door. The 61-year-old Basso, still in Aspen (where he has a smaller store in the Little Nell Hotel), told The Daily Beast he was “personally thankful I could not see all that broken glass. I saw it on video. I was spared that part of the drama, and I knew I was in good hands. The police are working very diligently on trying to solve this case. My very capable partners were there handling it.”
Basso, who opened his first store in 1983 and who has a wonderful, gravelly voice, said, “It was such an invasion, but I’m very positive. There was nothing I could do at that point. We continued to move forward and have a very beautiful Christmas Eve dinner (which he posted pretty pictures of on Instagram). I am very thankful nobody was hurt. These were material things, and we will be able to move upward and forward.”
Basso’s celebrity client roster is huge and devoted, and has included Michelle Obama, a brace of Trump women (Ivana, Melania, and Ivanka), and celebrities including Zsa Zsa Gabor, who died Dec. 18, and Helen Mirren. He has been “barraged” with calls and emails from “the most famous to not-so-famous, all concerned and expressing sadness about what’s happened to me, which is lovely—really lovely.”
Though he said he had “a policy of not naming names,” Basso imparted that Paris and Nicky Hilton were very close friends, in Aspen too, “and very concerned about me, how I felt, and what was happening. I am a little bit removed from it which is a good thing, but totally involved in what is happening.” Chiefly, he’s asking what can be done to ensure this does not happen again.
“This is the first time something like this ever happened to me. I think it was shocking. You always think that it is something you read about or see on the news. One never thinks it’s actually going to happen to themselves, so you feel violated personally.
“This is our flagship store, it’s over 10,000 square feet. I treat it like it’s my private home. From that aspect its quite upsetting to see on video the way the thieves crash through the door. They take their own lives into their hands. I think it’s sad because that area of the Upper East Side is one of the safest areas in the world, and to think this would happen on Christmas Eve between 4 and 5 in the morning. There’s traffic on the street, people up and going to work. It just seemed very brazen.”
Basso does not know what the thieves’ motives were: The clothes with labels could not be disposed of within America, he thinks. “Maybe they’re off to some foreign land, but once the label and lining are removed, let’s say, I don’t know how valuable in that secondary stolen market they would be. You really have no idea what is going through these people’s minds.”
But the thieves knew what they were targeting.
“They were highly professional people,” Basso said. “They knew what they were doing, they knew what to take. They bypassed many beautiful furs that were probably a quarter of the value of what they took. They had clearly been there before, or knew the lay of the land. They went to most expensive coats in the store. They knew what looking for. Completely.”
Would he change anything in terms of security? “Well, I think may go back to having a gate. I had one before in Aspen, then we eliminated it.
“It would be attractive,” Basso added, lest anyone imagine an ugly grille or other aesthetically displeasing fortifications.
Basso grew up an only child to “marvelous parents” in Morris County, New Jersey. “I was very fascinated with my mother, her sisters, and her girlfriends and their beautiful clothes. My mother was quite glamorous. She loved beautiful things. I was very attracted to that. When everyone was outside playing I only wanted to be in the house looking at the clothes.”
Around six years ago, Basso received a letter from his kindergarten teacher who recalled him as “an extremely artistic child who always wanted to create something to wear.” He has hung the letter in his office.
Basso’s father had a produce business, his mother was a stay-at-home mom. “She said having me was enough of a career,”
Basso laughed. “We had a very nice life, it was quite lovely. The only other thought I had growing up was that I was interested in show business.”
He loved watching movies, and was “always focused on all the beautiful clothes. Joan Crawford. Lana Turner. Barbara Stanwyck, Elizabeth Taylor. All those great movie stars and beauties. I really think there is a very fine line between show business and fashion design. Having been able to go on to QVC and do television [where he sells a mass-market collection] really fills the gap in both areas. I’m not going to get up on stage and sing and dance and jump around. But I’m able to speak in front of people: It’s not difficult for me.”
Basso studied at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT), and when looking for jobs afterward came across a position with a fur company. “I thought, ‘This is interesting,’ and took to it like duck to water. The rest is history.”
He laughed when I asked what was it about fur that so appealed to him. “It was the person who gave me my first job, so that helps. It could have been a milliner or a handbag company. I didn’t seek it out. It just landed in my lap. Then once I started doing it, it was exciting, glamorous, luxurious, and fun.”
Basso continues to face down the protests of anti-fur activists. “We’re America, the land of the free. So everyone has the right, in their orderly fashion, to have their opinion of what they think is correct and what they think is not correct. We abide by all the agricultural rules, so for me we’re doing something that is not problematic.”
The issue of animal cruelty never stirred him?
“No, it was actually not something that was a priority in my business. Today, and even then, there are hundreds and hundreds of designers who use fur. Nothing we use is endangered. You look at it like [and he affects a tick-tocking tone] ‘fashion, fur, fashion, fur.’ Things come and go. It’s just what becomes fashion. Some things are more in vogue, some things aren’t.
“All things in fashion have waves, whether it’s wearing knitted clothes, cut-and-sewn clothes, sparkly clothes, or fur clothes; whether it’s a handbag with a handle or a clutch bag, a platform shoe or no platform, a thick heel or a thin heel. I think fur folds into another category of fashion that comes and goes.”
He designed Liza Minnelli’s wedding mink when she married the now-deceased David Gest. The marriage was ill-fated, with claims of abuse. “She was fun. I knew her prior to that from our Studio 54 days. She was a fun girl, kind, really quite sweet, a delight to work with. On the other hand, her husband was a little more difficult.”
Donald Trump and his first wife, Ivana, attended Basso’s very first fashion show in 1983. “Ivana is a very dear and longtime friend of mine,” Basso said. “She was one of my first clients and the day after the first show bought seven fur coats.”
Since then he has dressed Ivanka, their daughter, and Melania Trump, Trump’s third wife and soon-to-be first lady. Some designers, like Tom Ford, say they will not dress Melania; most recently Vogue’s André Leon Talley withdrew his friendship from her because of her husband’s politics.
Basso, however, told The Daily Beast that he is absolutely supportive of Melania, and hopes to dress her as first lady.
“Melania is a very beautiful woman. She wears Dennis Basso beautifully, and of course to be able to dress the first lady is always a great honor, no matter what one’s political view is. The office of first lady is very important and I think Melania will make a beautiful first lady, and she wears clothes beautifully, so hopefully I will be doing some things for her.”
Is he happy to dress her given the fashion world’s current less-than-lukewarm embrace of Melania?
“Absolutely. 100 percent. I think you have to step aside from the politics and look at it that it’s an honor to dress the first lady of the United States of America.”
Basso himself has no intention of retiring. “My dear friend, the late Joan Rivers, had a very, very good saying: ‘When people in show business or people in fashion say they’re retiring it means they just can’t get work.’ I love her, she was a great friend and a Dennis Basso fur and clothing wearer.”
Younger celebrities are wearing fur more confidently, he said. “It’s all about fashion, but it’s different to years ago when a celebrity wore fur over an evening gown to a gala opening or the Academy Awards. Today your Khloé Kardashian, your Kim Kardashian, your Mariah Carey, your Rihanna, wear fur over ripped jeans, a T-shirt, and ankle boots. Today it’s being worn as clothing. It’s not grandma’s fur coat any more.”
Alone with a celebrity in the dressing room, “she wants to look her best and all of a sudden you become her confidant. I never really remember anyone ever really being really difficult. Today most of the dressing is done via a stylist: That’s the biggest change.”
Of those stars he has not dressed yet and would love to, Basso mentions Lady Gaga, Sophia Loren, “and I dressed Meryl Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada—she wore my coats—but on a personal level I would like to dress Meryl Streep because she’s such a fine actress and I would just like to do something special for her.”
Basso recalled he had designed several things for Zsa Zsa Gabor at the beginning of his career. “She was very glamorous.
She had a nice big dose of diva. She was very, ‘Darling, could I have some water’; a little bit like, ‘It’s a little warm in here, can they put on the air?’ Then, ‘It’s a little cool in here, can they lower the air?’ ‘Let’s go into better light and look at it.’” He laughed.
How does one dress a diva? “You have to understand this is who they are, this is what they are about and if you want to be in the game you have to be part of it,” Basso said. “I’m very thankful of where my career has taken me and that in my position I have earned a great deal of respect from a good deal of celebrities. They really treat me on an equal level.”
Away from the fashion whirl, Basso and Cominotto, who married in 2011—at the Pierre Hotel’s first ever same-sex ceremony—shuttle back and forth between the city and their home in the Hamptons. Their lives are so busy they try to stay as private as possible away from the limelight. They entertain a lot, with “long, leisurely weekend lunches by the pool.”
Friends come to Aspen to ski (Cominotto is a “superior skier,” his husband said), or they’ll take off for Caribbean hotspots such as Antigua, St. Barts, and Barbados. They visit friends in Europe in the summer, and also enjoy alone time.
Basso and Cominotto are also committed to a good deal of charity and philanthropic work. “I think if you are successful you have a responsibility to give back. Just this year my husband and I donated a new chapel at New York Presbyterian Hospital. That was such joy to be able to take this chapel that hadn’t been touched in over 50 years and bring it back to life. We love to do things to help other people.”
Cominotto, who has worked with Basso for around 20 years, oversees product development for Basso’s QVC collection. The key to working together while also a couple, said Basso with a little chuckle, was “to never work in the same building, and to never talk about work at home.”
Next, Basso may open new stores in Milan, Paris, and the Middle East. Fashion, he said, “is what I love to do. It’s always exciting and fresh. We’re gearing up for fall Fashion Week in February. We follow fashion, so we look to that younger woman who doesn’t want to save a sable or chinchilla jacket for a black tie evening or wedding, but to wear it with a black turtleneck and boots. We dress grandmothers, mothers, and daughters and we have many families where we dress all three generations.”
At QVC, Basso enjoys selling his faux-fur and ready to wear collections, and next wants to aim at a new “middle of the road” market. He mentions his brand, which is also his name, as often and emphatically as a true, unapologetic salesman.
“I love that I’m making something and reaching tens and tens and tens of thousands of people, and I am bringing the Dennis Basso sensibility, the Dennis Basso fashion sense. Whether it’s a $100 faux-fur jacket or a $10,000 jacket, I try to give that client that feeling of excitement and passion. She is buying a piece of Madison Avenue at a price she can afford. Fashion should make you look good and feel good, I always say.”
What is that sensibility? “The Dennis Basso woman, whether she is 30 or 70, is sophisticated. She loves fashion. She’s put together. She wants to look her best even if she is stepping out the door to run to the market.”
Basso is his own best walking advertisement: He tells me he has just been out to have breakfast in Ralph Lauren black sweatpants, a zip hoody, white turtleneck, and sneakers. “It’s easier for me to be pulled together than not to be pulled together,” he said.
He doesn’t mind ageing. “You know, I think that today all the ages have rolled into each other. We have friends who are 90 and 25 who we go out to dinner with and friends who are 80. If you think, ‘I’m this age and I have 20 or 30 good years left,’ I think you can’t live your life that way.
“You have to get up every day and live life like, ‘This is fabulous. I’m happy that today is today and let’s move forward.’ I’m a generally positive and happy individual. I was always like that, even as a child.”
So he’s never had therapy? “No therapy,” Basso said quickly. “Instead of therapy I prefer to go and buy a cashmere sweater.”