For 40 years running, Dennis Basso has kept a full calendar, and this fall is no exception.
The designer recently received the Fashion Group International’s Lifetime Achievement award, and will be saluted with the same honor from the CFDA Monday night. The New York native quietly opened an expansive new store on East 57th Street last month and is still going strong with regular appearances on QVC — 30 years after he debuted more affordable options for TV viewers. During an interview last week, he spoke of the road ahead, why retirement is not imminent and the unsolved fur heist that happened in his former store.
The chance to move to “the heart of the worlds” — meaning East 57th Street and Madison Avenue near Dior, Fendi, Tiffany & Co.’s refurbished flagship and Bergdorf Goodman — was “a little bit of a dream,” he said.
The 8,000-square-foot space, a former Victoria’s Secret store, was once a catalyst for attracting other mass brands to what was once solely a luxury shopping nexus. Prior to that, the menswear designer Andre Oliver ran his haberdasher shop there, with a rainbow assortment of cashmere sweaters in its East 57th Street windows.
While the Upper East Side store was close to many of his well-heeled clients, the new space is attracting three to four times the amount of drop-ins, thanks to being on a main throughfare that is near all the major hair salons, luxury stores and Bloomingdale’s, he said.
The store’s first year-projected volume is expected to be in “the many multiple millions,” Basso said.
The new location marks a departure for Basso, who for the past 25 years has taken more of a boutique retail route. Now, the set-up is more like an emporium or a mini-department store, with different enclaves. To attain a modern, Art Deco vibe, Basso tapped his longtime interior designer, Kenneth Alpert.
That multidimensional approach coincides with the designer’s intergenerational appeal, which could be seen at his runway show last month. “There’s the fabulous grandmother who’s 80 and thinks she’s 60. There’s the daughter, who is 55, who thinks she’s 40. And then there’s the 25-year-old. They love fashion,” he said.
Inside, puffer coats, ballgowns, shearling, fur blankets, mink coats, fur hats, handbags, shawls and a plethora of other styles are displayed with add-on purchases in mind. Along with his signature collection, Basso also now sells J. Mendel and Maximilian in an aim to offer one-stop shopping to clients searching for styles from established fashion brands. Well aware that consumers are now just a swipe away from all the online fashion collections, all the time, Basso said, “The days of going to lunch and then going from one dress shop or fur shop to another is really not part of who we are today.”
Basso admired the late founder Anna Maximilian Potok for years, he said. “She was a European grand dame, who came to the U.S. with her brother Maximilian Apfelbaum [who changed his name to Michael Maximilian]. They opened a store on West 57th Street for clients like Jackie O, Babe Paley, Nancy Reagan and the crème de la crème. In the ’60s, my mother bought a sable jacket and a mink coat from Madame Potok. I remember going to the West 57th Street boutique. As a young man interested in fashion, I was in awe. It was so elegant and she was so refined,” he said. After J. Mendel filed for bankruptcy in 2018, Basso took it over under his company’s umbrella.
Knowing his own Madison Avenue address was winding down, the designer was keen to relocate to 57th Street, which had become more of a destination partially due to the reopening of the Tiffany & Co. flagship. The proximity to Bergdorf Goodman, Dior, Fendi, fine watch emporiums and luxe hotels like The Plaza, The Carlyle, and the Marc were added incentives. Never mind “the amazing foot traffic” that has people from all parts of the world stopping in, he said. Unlike Basso’s more rarefied uptown store that may have seemed “a little locked-door” like to apprehensive shoppers, the new address’ large glass front is more inviting to those who want to drop in to have a look.
“You don’t feel as though, if you do, some little old lady is going to come in and hang onto you,” Basso said.
The company remains independent, but the designer said he is always willing to listen when people show interest in taking over the brand. Succession is not near. “I’m going to the finish line. Why not? I see what happens, when other men retire and stay home [grimacing, as opposed] to being around pretty things, doing this and appearing on television with QVC? It’s work. I always say, ‘Every day isn’t Christmas.’ There are issues all the time. But I’ve been blessed to be able to do something that I really love,” he said.
He said he doesn’t think about what would happen to his company after he dies. “Nobody really wants to think about that,” he said with a laugh. “Some of my partners are younger. I like to think the Dennis Basso brand will live on.”
But he noted how several once-dynamic American designer brands — Bill Blass, Geoffrey Beene and James Galanos among them — faded after their founders died. That being what it is, Basso pointed to the still-performing Marilyn Maye and the out-and-about 91-year-old Clive Davis as examples of how “there is no reason not to carry on, if you have your health and know what’s going on.”
The new midtown store has the same level of security as the uptown location, though Basso is no stranger to retail theft. In 2016, in the early hours of Christmas Eve, Basso had what he claims is “the largest recorded fur heist in New York City” with more than $1 million worth of fur coats stolen by three men who smashed through the street-front glass window “and only took sable coats.” Basso said. “They were professionals. They never caught them. What’s even more brazen is when thieves do smash-and-grabs,” referring to organized theft that has become more prevalent in recent years.
The recent Israel-Hamas war has also been on his mind, he said, describing himself and husband Michael as “very pro-Israel,” adding they have made some personal donations. “I don’t want to get political, but the regular Palestinian people have nothing to do with this. It’s Hamas. It’s very sad that we’re witnessing something like this in 2023,” he said.
Looking ahead to the new year, Basso will be ramping up trunk shows, with one set for mid-January at Club Colette in Palm Beach.
Hearing the Ovarian Cancer Whisper, a fundraising luncheon, will honor the designer at The Saltfish Club. Former Town & Country editor Pamela Fiori will interview him before the 350-person event. After next season’s New York Fashion Week show, Basso will be off to Gstaad, Switzerland, for a weeklong trunk show, a cocktail party and catch-ups with friends at the Palace hotel. After Aspen “changed and rearranged” over the years, Basso shuttered his outpost at The Little Nell hotel, but he has done some pop-ups. A spring break one is being considered.
Also on the designer’s to-do list is a Dennis Basso dress line in the $200 range, aimed at retailers like Macy’s and Bloomingdale’s, as well as chic, affordable sportswear. Having talked to a few prospects, he said he hasn’t had the right match yet, and would also be game to travel for trunk shows to promote it. His husband, whom he met 31 years ago on Fire Island, is very involved with the luxury collection, including fabric selection, silhouettes and trends. For Basso’s QVC label, his husband is responsible for inspirational pieces that could be translated.
A consummate dinner party host and actively social person, Basso is shopping around a reality show idea about hospitality, called “Behind the Table,” that would profile people like celebrity friends about their at-home entertaining, and the Hotel Du Cap-Ferrat’s catering director in Monte Carlo. “You will never be able to find me sitting at home, eating my cereal and having an argument with my husband. We’re not having that kind of reality show,” he said.
His pitch includes creating something that is not only visually appealing, but informative for viewers, who might try some of the ideas for their own dinners at home. “People love TV shows about the home, food, famous places and famous people,” Basso said. “Over the past 40 years, I’ve made enough connections worldwide to do this — just alone with all the famous interior designers that I know. How great would that be to see what they’ve done?” he said. “We can only do so many things. But you know, I pack a lot into a day.”