Life has been good to fashion designer, Dennis Basso. Not only is her Madison Avenue’s furrier to the stars—known for his Russian sables and gossamer gowns—but he’s also QVC’s lovable style purveyor, dressing glamour-aspiring women across America in moderately priced versions of his couture collection. Both types flock to Basso—he’s a people person with an addictively sparkling personality. The designer attributes his successful 30-year business to a supportive underlying structure with a tribe of family and friends. His husband of four years and partner of 24, Michael Cominotto, is the foundation of that structure. “One of my favorite quotes is, ‘If I’m the smartest person in the room, I’m in the wrong room,’ he says in his deep, theatrical voice. “When most hosts get that phone call asking to bring another guest, they freeze. I say, ‘Can you bring more?’
To that end, many of Basso’s early clients became part of his social posse. One of his first was Ivana Trump, who he recalls bought seven of his first collection furs, right off the runway. He considers her a friend to this day. Other early devotees were Elizabeth Taylor, Zsa Zsa Gabor and Joan Rivers. But his past success doesn’t exclude him from modern appeal. He’s dressed Michelle Obama, Hayden Panettiere, Gretchen Mol, Debra Messing and Jada Pinkett Smith to name a few from the current Hollywood roster. Gabrielle Union credits Basso for her wedding frock at her nuptial to Dwyane Wade. The larger-than-life teddy bear of a man radiates goodwill and attributes his professional and personal success to being a “glass half-full” type of guy.
Basso didn’t set out to be a furrier—his can-do spirit enabled him to accept a job that he didn’t fully sign on for. “After graduating from Fashion Institute of Technology, I saw a job listed in WWD for ‘fur designer, salesman, shipping clerk’ and several other things,” he recounts. “I didn’t realize there weren’t commas between those duties,” he says with a laugh. “I took the job and fell in love with designing fur. You can say I took to fur like a duck to water,” he jokes. “With some help from my supportive parents and [then] business partner, I opened Dennis Basso Furs in 1983. I showed my first collection to a packed house at the Regency Hotel, which was reviewed by The New York Times and received two-thirds of a page full of accolades—what a gift!” he says exuberantly. “That’s where the journey began.”
Basso became fascinated with the rarified world of swanky parties, black-tie dinners and other glamorous pastimes while watching Hollywood films growing up in New Jersey. As an only child, he was loved and indulged by his parents. “We lived a very nice life and I was happy,” he says of a childhood filled with vacations, a lovely home, and a speedboat on Lake Hopatcong. Still, he wanted more. “I watched movies [starring] Lana Turner and Millicent Rogers that unveiled an alluring life—men wearing tuxedos, women dressed in evening gowns—I wanted to know who those people were,” he muses.His penchant for depicting a scene by describing clothing underscores his love of fashion. “Bingo! I found [that life] in this business,” he turns and gestures to his midcentury-decorated office, which sits atop his 10,000-square-foot boutique on New York’s toniest avenue.
“I couldn’t wait to start entertaining on my own,” he says while thinking about his youth. [Michael and I] bought a house in Watermill, New York 17 years ago—we’ve given some great parties. Michael is an excellent cook and I love bringing people together,” he says. It’s no wonder that he easily gathered 450 people for his wedding at the Pierre hotel on November 22nd, 2011. “We have a wide breadth of friends—true friends—who are 30 years old, or 75 years old, or even a minute past 75 years old. They are close confidants of ours,” he says referring to the social community he holds dear.
His need for work-life balance necessitates time to lunch with a friend as often as his schedule allows. “We go to Amaranth or Le Bilboquet. Sometimes we go more formal—La Grenouille or Four Seasons. I’m an old-fashioned guy, so I won’t go to La Grenouille or Four Seasons in khakis and a blazer—you can go that way, but I’m not going to. I wear a suit,” he says authoritatively, revealing his fondness for dressing up and enjoying some of New York’s best places to lunch.
One would think with the commanding voice projecting to the nosebleed section of a theater and an exuberant personality, Basso might have missed his calling as an actor. But his 22-year partnership with the shopping channel, QVC, fulfills that forte. “I wanted to be a stage performer but I couldn’t sing or dance,” he reveals. At QVC he captures a wide swath of American women just dying to take him up on his fashion advice. Basso is fully at ease with himself on camera, and women respond in kind to his authenticity by picking up the phone to purchase his specially-designed pieces. But honesty doesn’t keep them from taking out the plastic. The clothing is imbued with the same detailing and design chops he gives to his couture line. His philosophy: “Clothes should make you feel good as well as look good.”
Basso has received numerous awards, but none are as awe-inspiring as a doctorate from his alma mater, the Fashion Institute Of Technology. “When I received the award there were over 5,000 graduates at the Javitz Center. I was astonished,” he says of the moment he walked up to receive the diploma. “It was one of the top moments in my life,” he says. Memories of sitting outside of the Feldman building (at F.I.T.) as a young student flooded back. Did I ever think I would get this honor?” he asks rhetorically.
But accolades are only the cherry atop of a layered sundae. Basso’s real passion is designing for his Upper East Side clientele. His recently-presented, black-and-white resort collection is modern with a twist—bits of mink and beading are sewn deftly onto diaphanous silks, and hand-cut and embroidered broadtail is made into a clutch coat and long vests. “I channeled the South American ports of Caracas, Rio, Acapulco in another time,” he says. It’s clear that Basso often uses romantic retro imagery as a point of inspiration.
Although Basso is a fixture of New York society, he is not content to stay within its confines. To that end he has worked closely with Helen David, fashion director at Harrods, in establishing a shop in London, with the ribbon-cutting ceremony scheduled for October 2015. The 2,400-square-foot shop- in-shop was designed by the David Collins Company, and will include his special occasion dresses for girls. Other projects on the horizon include a pricier collection for QVC infused with real fur as opposed to the faux that he now promotes, as well as several new home items.
But Basso admits staying in business in the saturated fashion world is “not a bed of roses.” “Every day you have to make sure the business is working like a well-oiled machine,” he says. To that end his Long Island City design studio—where all the fur production takes place—has a large communal dining table and an outdoor terrace, where his employees can enjoy lunch or take in the view. “Our company has an intimate feeling. If someone has a problem, we are sensitive to it. I’m a firm believer in being focused on employee’s well-being—we promote love and kindness at our company,” says Basso of his business mantra.
Like slipping on a delicious fur, Basso’s warm and inviting persona translates to his business. He banters as easily with the interns at his design studio as he does First Ladies like Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama. There is something about Basso that keeps women in the fray.
Photographer Weston Wells