ROMANCE & ELEGANCE
OSCAR DE LA RENTA in Memoriam
By Lieba Nesis
Legendary fashion designer Oscar de la Renta died at the age of 82 last Monday night, surrounded by family and friends and a bevy of dogs. De la Renta”s touch has graced the frames of celebrities and socialites for the past 50 years. While most designers fade into obscurity, de la Renta”s fame endured. In fact, last month he was featured in Vogue when Amal Alamuddin married George Clooney in a wedding dress designed by the man. Amal responded that there was no designer better able to capture the mood of “romance and elegance” than Oscar de la Renta.
It is amazing that a man who started his ready to wear label in 1965 was still the go-to designer for the biggest and most fashionable modern stars. How did the designer who dressed Ali McGraw for the cover of Vogue in 1970 and Racquel Welch for a Vogue cover in 1973 maintain his currency in an increasingly fickle fashion environment with designers being replaced as quickly as you can say Isaac Mizrahi. The secret behind his success requires a review of his background and an analysis of the way he and his company conducted their affairs.
When describing Oscar de la Renta the first word that comes to mind is “magic.” Meeting him a few years back, his charm and sophistication were astounding. There are few designers who transcend their label and those in this category include: Valentino, Lagerfeld and de la Renta. His eponymous label was synonymous with his identity, and yet he was a very private man with little information about his private life and company known to the public.
He lived a multifaceted existence. Born in the Dominican Republic, he moved to Madrid at the age of 18 to study painting. Soon afterward, he became interested in fashion design and apprenticed with Cristobal Balenciaga, who became his mentor. He then left to Paris to become a couture assistant at Lanvin and in 1965 started his own ready-to-wear label followed by a fragrance called Oscar in 1977. Furthermore, he began an accessories line in 2001 and a homewares line in 2002, and then a less pricey clothing company called O in 2004. He even designed a boutique hotel in 2006 in Puntacana, which has become a leading small hotel of the world.
Oscar suffered a great tragedy when his wife Francoise died in 1983, and soon after he adopted his son Moises whom he met in an orphanage he funded. In 1990, he married socialite Annette Reed. They lived in Manhattan, Connecticut, and the Dominican Republic. He won numerous awards, including the American Fashion Critic”s Award and the CFDA Designer of the Year and Lifetime Achievement Award. But his greatest recognition came from celebrities who chose his gowns repeatedly–with over 20 luminaries, more than any other designer, wearing his dresses to the 2014 Costume Institute Gala.
He has dressed first ladies Jackie Kennedy, Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan, Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton. Jenna Bush and her mother, Laura, both wore Oscar dresses to her 2008 wedding. Furthermore, Hillary Clinton wore a de la Renta dress to Chelsea”s wedding and to Bill”s inauguration. Moreover, de la Renta convinced Anna Wintour to put Hillary Clinton on the cover of Vogue for its September 1998 issue–the first first lady to appear on the cover. This was a man who transcended political parties and time periods.
Oscar de la Renta had few controversies in his lengthy career; however, his criticism of Michelle Obama for wearing a cardigan to meet the Queen and for touching her on the shoulder caused tension between him and the first lady. That said, even Michelle succumbed to his charms by wearing one of his dresses this past month for the Fashion Education Workshop. Another small dispute arose in 2012 when Times reviewer Cathryn Horn said de la Renta was “more a hot dog than an eminence grise of American fashion.” Oscar took out a full page ad in Women”s Wear Daily objecting to her characterization which lead to numerous headlines. However, his usual composure and joyfulness is part of the reason his label continued to thrive, with reported revenues of 600 million in 2013, when so many peers, such as Bob Mackie, Bill Blass, Perry Ellis, and Arnold Scassi disappeared.
As far back as 1978, Vogue called him the “guru of glamour,” and this image continued with his use of feminine ruffles, delicate silk prints, joyful colors, and embellishments with vibrant palettes, enlivening red carpets all over the world. His looks have a classic modernity that ensured that a celebrity never ended up on a “worst dressed” or “what was she thinking” list. Numerous celebrities such as Karlie Kloss and Ivanka Trump described him as a flirt and his love for women was manifested by his celebration of their beauty through his clothing designs.
De la Renta was always current on the trends, even stating he loved to be challenged by younger people so he could “make things better than they can” without giving into the tawdry spectacle that fashion has become. You will rarely see a Kim Kardashian, Lady Gaga or Rihanna wearing an Oscar de la Renta–it just would not fit. However, style star Taylor Swift is continually photographed in his gowns and dresses, wearing them to award shows and luncheons. Lupita Nyong”o wore his dress to the 2014 White House Correspondents dinner and Jennifer Garner dazzled the public in an Oscar de la Renta gown at the 2014 Academy Awards.
The running of his company was shrouded in secrecy, and his cancer diagnosis in 2006 raised many questions as to who would succeed him when he left the company. His son-in-law Alex Bowen is the chief executive officer; however, being primarily a businessman, he is ill-suited to take over design responsibilities. There was conversation that Galliano would take over when they collaborated in 2013; however, de la Renta recently named Peter Copping, who just resigned from Nina Ricci, to be his lead designer. The designer maintained last year that he was clear of cancer, but it was a well-known secret that he was ill.
De la Renta recently said, “For me, my work is a celebration of a woman”s beauty and femininity. At the end of the day I want to make her happy.” That was the essence of the man–his adoration for life and human beings left an indelible impression on all those who were fortunate enough to share an encounter with him or to wear his breath-taking designs. He will be missed in the fashion world and the world at large.
Oscar de la Renta was one of the most renowned clothing designers in the world.
Written by Lieba Nesis
Photography by Patrick McMullan, Jimi Celeste, Nicholas Hunt, Neil Rasmus, Billy Farrell, David X Prutting, Will Ragozzino for PatrickMcMullan.com
Design by Francesca Rimi
Oscar de la Renta, Oscar de la Renta Fall 2007 Collection, The Tent, Bryant Park Tents, NYC, February 5, 2007, Photography by Jimi Celeste for PatrickMcMullan.com
Greer Simpkins, Moises de la Renta, Oscar de la Renta, OSCAR DE LA RENTA Resort 2008, 583 Park Avenue, NYC, June 4, 2007, Photography by PMc Company for PatrickMcMullan.com
Gwyneth Paltrow, Oscar de la Renta, The New Yorkers for Children Fall Gala, The Regent Wall Street, NYC, September 17, 2002, Photography by PMc Company for PatrickMcMullan.com
Anna Wintour, Oscar de la Renta, Diane von Furstenberg, Gala Opening of The Martha Graham Dance Company 2004 New York season, The Plaza Hotel, NYC, April 14, 2004,Photography by Patrick McMullan for PatrickMcMullan.com
Oscar de la Renta, Annette de la Renta, Andre Leon Talley, Iman, Michael Kors, MAC Cosmetics Hosts Launch Party for Andre Leon Talley”s Book, ALT 365, LaGrenouille, NYC, USA, June 7, 2005, Photography by PMc Company for PatrickMcMullan.com
Oscar de la Renta, OSCAR de la RENTA Fall 2011 Fashion Show, 583 Park Ave., NYC, February 16, 2011, Photography by PMc Company for PatrickMcMullan.com