Did Liza really beat the crap out of her maquillaged Svengali? Does Mr. Liza seriously think he can successfully characterize himself as a victim and the emotionally fragile Ms. Minnelli as a dangerous tormentor? Craving insights into this hideous standoff, I went right to the source and called Liza’s gravelly voiced, larger-than-life, über -glamorous furrier, Dennis Basso.
“He helped her get back on track, but he’s a maniac,” growled the preppily attired Mr. Basso as he gulped a mineral water at La Goulue. Le Basso was taking a break from the frantic setup of his spanking new fur salon, which opens this week at 765 Madison Avenue, between 65th and 66th streets, with an invitation-only opening party; confirmed guests include Patti LaBelle, Joan Collins and son, model Helena Christensen, the Philbins, Whoopi Goldberg and Ms. Minnelli herself in the flesh. “She’s talented; she’s Judy Garland’s daughter,” he continued, getting quite agitato . “He wanted to control her. He wanted to be her!”
Profound psychological insights aside, the maker of Liza’s $20,000 duchesse satin-lined floor-length white wedding mink is probably about the most amusing, likable and unpretentious character on the New York fashion landscape. A tour de force of showbizzy camp who manages to jam the words sable and Ivana (pronounced “Eye-vahnah”) into every sentence, Mr. Basso, 49 and Jersey-born, flaunts an unabashed appetite for extravagance. “I was drawn into the fur business,” he said, “because I loved the fact that something could cost thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of dollars!” Hilariously quotable and unapologetically himself, D.B. claims he always felt “an affinity for the carriage trade. My taste leans towards the fashion-forward-conservative-slash-glamorous!”
Regarding PETA and the ongoing furor over the ethics of fur, Dennis seems remarkably sanguine. “Fur is the oldest profession,” he shrugged, “and we never use any endangered animals.” I pointed out that PETA founder Ingrid Newkirk’s extremism has improved the lot of factory-farmed animals, according to a New Yorker article earlier this year. “That’s good,” Mr. Basso replied. “Our animals are humanely treated, too.”
Though we do not quite see eye to eye on the wearing of fur, I found that the two of us have much in common. We have both, at one time in our lives, sold garments out of the trunks of our cars. In the early 1980′s, Dennis hawked wholesale-priced furs to Long Island and New Jersey glamourpusses from the back of a rented town car. “I guess you could call it a trunk show!” he guffawed with a Rip Taylor–ish growl. At exactly the same time, I was doing exactly the same thing-to a less fashion-forward-conservative-slash-glamorous clientele-on the as-yet-undeveloped Melrose Avenue in West Hollywood. When I needed extra cash, I would silk-screen and hand-paint a bunch of T-shirts from Chinatown with designs of my own making-fleurs-de-lis, teacups and anything else that took my fancy-and flog them from the back of my black VW. Though Eye-vahnah was not one of my customers, I distinctly remember Shelley Duvall, fresh from The Shining , haggling over my alfresco offerings.
Fast-forward 20 years: Today, Mr. Basso is opening his 3,000-square-foot store, and he’s blowing a gasket with excitement: “I have a 40-foot frontage-d’ya think Bill Blass ever had that?” The store, which has the luxe-y beige, carriage-trade comfort of a Four Seasons Hotel, is crammed with Montana lynx, shaved broadtail, stenciled goat, unshaved shearling, white mink and sable, sable, sable: “Something for everyone,” as Mr. Basso optimistically puts it. My pick: If I were a rich female, and hadn’t read about how little furry animals are killed with electrodes in their anuses, and if I had $35,000 dollars burning a hole in my pocket, I would grab one of Mr. Basso’s spectacularly squishy dyed chinchilla wrap coats, “very Diana Ross in Lady Sings the Blues .”
For those who cannot afford the above, or who are queasy about wearing fur, there’s always QVC, where Mr. Basso-who seems to adore statistics as much as he loves Eye-vahnah-has just sold his one-millionth faux-fur. The price? A mere $143.75. (“Is it sable? NO! Is it fun? YES!”) Check out his 10th-anniversary show tomorrow, Nov. 13, at 10 p.m.: “I’ll be reaching 90 million people!”
At the conclusion of our interview, I ask the gorgeously affable Dennis to identify his favorite coat. “It’s called SOLD!”
P.S.: Back when David Gest was nobody, Liza recorded an album with the Pet Shop Boys called Results (Amazon, $9.98). This 1989 masterpiece of boozy agony-set to a pounding, anthemic disco beat-fully expresses the torment and majesty that is Liza, even though, on a couple of the tracks, she sounds as if she’s wearing loose-fitting dentures.