Talent, savvy, and charm prove a winning combination for Dennis Basso, Fashion Buying and Merchandising ’73

Dennis Basso ’73 is living his best life. Well into his fourth decade in business, the designer has a brand-new flagship boutique on Madison Avenue and a fashion empire that includes the highest of high-end furs, ready-to-wear, and a robust mass-market QVC collection. His roster of fabulous clients spans Washington power players (Hillary Clinton), New York socialites (Martha Stewart), and Hollywood ingénues (Olivia Palermo and Gabrielle Union, who wore a strapless Basso for her wedding to basketball star Dwyane Wade in September 2015).

“It’s an exciting time,” the famed furrier says, sitting in his elegant wood-paneled office atop his four-story, 10,500- square-foot Upper East Side shop. Not that Basso is getting ready to rest on his laurels. “I’m thinking of taking a Harvard MBA business course,” he muses. “It’s a little bit of a time commitment, but I think that would be fun.”

Fun is the operative word for Basso. His outrageous furs, big bold shapes, and over-the-top costume jewelry attract such flamboyant figures as Dynasty legend Joan Collins and the New York Housewives. But the silver-haired, perennially tanned larger-than-life designer offers more than just flash. Since launching his line in 1983, he’s proved something of a trailblazer, anticipating the rise of the trend-driven fur, the role of the designer as reality-TV star, and the unabashed mixing of high design with fast, mass-market fashion.

“I don’t think I’m the savviest of savvy, but I think I have a great knowledge,” he says of his business acumen. “I was very smart early on to connect myself with partners who knew the business and celebrities through friends of friends who became clients. The fashion industry thinks this is all very new, but it’s stuff we’ve always done.”

Basso grew up in Lake Hopatcong, NJ, an only child who always dreamed of designing dresses. He pulls out a sketch of a wedding gown he did when he was 6 years old, signed in tentative script and marked with a price: $500,000. “How great is this?” he laughs. “I was surrounded by my mother and her sisters and my adult girl cousins, and they were all quite fashionable and well groomed,” he adds. “[Fashion] seemed very natural to me.”

I’d like to do something for the Queen of England. She’s always perfect.

Yet, it wasn’t until college that he really let loose in terms of his own style. “When I was at home I was under my mother’s rule. Khaki pants, a navy blazer, a blue button-down shirt and penny loafers—that was the regimented costume,” he recalls. For his first day at FIT, he pulled out all the stops, buying a plaid Eisenhower jacket and checked bell-bottoms at Bloomingdale’s, and growing his hair into a big Afro. “I thought I was the end-all and I walked into the Feldman building, and I looked across the lobby and there was a fella—a little taller, a lot slimmer—with the same outfit on! I was crushed!” (Forty-plus years later, Basso and his doppelganger, Joe Castaldo, Textile and Apparel Marketing ’73, are still best friends. Castaldo is president of the Style Council, a textile design firm.)

After graduation, Basso—who studied merchandising and buying, not design—got a job at a fur company packing boxes and later managing sales and retail accounts, and he unexpectedly fell in love with pelts.

“When you think of fur, you think of beautiful women wrapped in evening gowns dripping in furs and diamonds. It’s luxurious,” he says. He saw an opening in more trend-driven furs—draped, dyed, used more like fabric—and in 1983, after three years of working on the business side, he struck out on his own. His first runway show drew such stars as Ivana and Donald Trump, Prince Egon von Furstenberg and his second wife, Lynn Marshall, and pop singer Neil Sedaka, who all became clients and friends.

“Slowly it just grew,” the designer says, from showbiz icons like Liz Taylor, Diana Ross, and Joan Rivers, to newer talent like Sofia Vergara and Eva Longoria. “The kindest, the sweetest was Meryl Streep,” he says of the ladies he’s worked with. “We did her coats for The Devil Wears Prada. She was perfection.”

Though fur remains the brand’s backbone, Basso has since diversified into bridal gowns, cocktail dresses, and less-formal wear—not to mention his QVC line. Launched in 1993, it’s now a formidable venture, with millions of fans in the United Kingdom, Italy, and Germany. In 2009, he received the QVC Ambassador Award. And he’s had a banner few years, far beyond business. In 2011, he married his partner of over 20 years, Michael Cominotto. Earlier this year, the couple oversaw the restoration of a nondenominational chapel inside New York-Presbyterian Hospital. FIT awarded him an honorary degree in 2013, and this May, Basso received the college’s Designer of the Year award.

But the indefatigable designer still has one or two more items to cross off his bucket list, Harvard MBA aside.

“I’d like to do something for the Queen of England,” he admits. “She’s always perfect. I like perfect. I like finished and tailored… But I better hurry up!”

Check back soon to watch a video profile of Basso.