Celebrating a fashion legend: RIP Oscar de la Renta
1932 – 2014
The fashion industry is reeling today from the sad news that 82-year-old Dominican Republic-born designer Oscar de la Renta has passed away, following a long and dignified battle with cancer.
His pure fascination with femininity and frankly impeccable social skills saw his status as a dressmaker to sought after New York society couturier happen as a natural process. First Ladies from Betty Ford to Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush all proudly wore de la Renta on a regular basis. Most recently, Michelle Obama wore a de la Renta creation at the White House event for fashion students.
"I think that, regardless of your political inclination, if the First Lady of your country asks you to do something, you don't say no."
Knowing what we know today, it was a timely choice for Obama, and sealed a 'make up' of sorts after when in January 2011, the outspoken de la Renta criticised the First Lady for wearing Alexander McQueen to a White House state dinner for Chinese President Hu Jintao. He felt that she should have worn something by an American designer. "This is an important issue," de la Renta said at the time. "Do you think Kate Middleton is going to be married in Marc Jacobs? Mrs. Obama does look great. She should take that and do something. She could do a great good for our industry. We need to create jobs here, create jobs on Seventh Avenue, too."
When speaking about his affiliation with so many First Ladies over the years, and how that impacts on his own vote he said, "I vote for the people I like; I don't vote for parties. I voted for President Reagan, but I voted for President Clinton. I think that, regardless of your political inclination, if the First Lady of your country asks you to do something, you don't say no."
And despite his reputation as a go-to for political events and the ladies who lunch on the Upper East Side each day – this was a man who always managed to remain relevant to popular culture too, and in recent years, actresses such as Sarah Jessica Parker, Jennifer Garner and Lea Michele all championed his work. Most recently he designed Amal Alamuddin's outstanding wedding dress for her wedding with George Clooney in Venice this summer.
Amal Alamuddin photographed for Vogue with Oscar de la Renta
The key to his genius way with style was making women look and feel beautiful. As cliché as that may sound, he was the ultimate haute-king of romantic, glamorous styles, which were his signature: A tasteful extravagance, Parisian in aesthetic, with dash of Latin punch.
Having been born in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, as sixth in line of seven children, and the only boy, the famously funny creative once said, "I am the only Third World designer!" And he began his career by travelling to Madrid, supported by his beloved mother, while his more traditional father frowned upon the move.
"Mrs. Lodge introduced me to Balenciaga. He agreed to train me, and that's how it all began."
Whilst in Spain, de la Renta once described his 'discovery': "One day, a friend came by on her way to the dressmaker. She said she didn't know what to do about a certain dress, and I sketched out a few ideas for her. Later, she was wearing the dress and Ambassador Lodge's wife saw it. Mrs. Lodge introduced me to Balenciaga. He agreed to train me, and that's how it all began. I later went to Paris for a time, and then came here [New York]." Soon he had become famous; and his father, as he put it then, "doesn't mind now."
And so de la Renta then moved to Paris, becoming a couture assistant to Antonio Castillo, then designer of Lanvin. He recalled once in 1979, "When I worked in Paris, Castillo and Balenciaga always had evening dresses inspired by Spanish peasants, flamenco; dresses taken from paintings by Goya, Zurbaran, Zuloaga; the bullring colours; the Princess of Eboli [a 16th-century Spanish beauty with an eye patch]. Balenciaga's dresses never looked ethnic, like costumes."
It was clearly a style that spoke to de la Renta, with him taking the aesthetic and shall we say, running with it to New York, where he made his own name – and then some.
He initially worked on a single made-to-measure collection for Elizabeth Arden in 1963 and Nicolas de Gunzburg, a Russian aristocrat who was an editor at Vogue, became one of his key mentors. The ever observant Diana Vreeland advised de la Renta to take the position at Arden, noting that there, his own name would be promoted since Arden herself wasn't a designer... And Vreeland was, naturally, correct.
A breakthrough moment for de la Renta came a whole decade later in 1973, just after launching his eponymous label. At an event called 'An Evening at Versailles', a fashion extravaganza held to generate funds to refurbish the famous royal chateau just outside of Paris, and an ultra-chic competition arose. Five French designers – Hubert de Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, Emanuel Ungaro, Andre Oliver and Marc Bohan (then at Christian Dior) – had selected the five American designers: de la Renta, Halston, Anne Klein, Bill Blass and Stephen Burrows. The American surprised everyone and won with an upbeat presentation. It was referred to as an "American triumph," by WWD at the time and it raised the designers' profiles to an international stage, with all major New York department stores coming calling...
Oscar de la Renta's 360 degree, luxury lifestyle brand ensued – and today it covers accessories, homeware and fragrance to sit alongside the gowns, and he received the Council of Fashion Designers of America 'Women's Wear Designer of the Year Award' in the year 2000, following his 'CFDA Lifetime Achievement Award' in 1990. He also served as president of the association for a few years in the 90s. Last summer, he was given the 'CFDA Founders Award', which was presented to him by Hillary Clinton.
In his gracious acceptance speech, de la Renta said that he still had lots of design ideas and, while he was pleased to be honoured, didn't actually want a "commemorative award" – he wanted to win the 'Women's Wear Designer of the Year Award' again.
While famous for his humour and charm – and beautiful manners and dancing skills – de la Renta was no walkover. He engaged in a fight with Calvin Klein in 1979, when both men went to Japan at the same time and got into a squabble about models. "If one of my girls came out in a dress that was a broom and one of his girls came out dressed in gold, my girl would make mincemeat out of his girl," de la Renta said at the time.
"If one of my girls came out in a dress that was a broom and one of his girls came out dressed in gold, my girl would make mincemeat out of his girl."
In 1991, de la Renta also (albeit unintentionally) alienated Karl Lagerfeld when he attended a Chanel show that had a somewhat risqué bondage theme, and at a celebratory lunch afterwards, someone informed Lagerfeld that de la Renta had said that such a motif would "never fly in New York"... And in true fashion designer form, years passed before the two rectified the matter.
John Galliano contributed to the Oscar de la Renta label in 2011/12
The firey Dominican would also cause some industry controversy when he appointed ex-Dior couturier John Galliano to a temporary residence in his design studio in 2011. The collaboration caused industry outcry given Galliano's anti-Semitic statements. But de la Renta was firm in his belief that everyone deserved a second chance. The collection that resulted was a triumph.
There were reportedly discussions with Galliano about the British designer joining the House of de la Renta on a permanent basis, which broke down earlier this year over the former's demands. Instead, de la Renta appointed Peter Copping, stating just a few weeks ago that he will still be very actively involved in the workings of his company. Now we know that sadly cannot be a reality, and the pressure is surely falling on Copping – the former head of Nina Ricci – to produce a first ODLR collection that will be an emotional and poignant dedication to its founder's enormous fashion legacy and boldly charming personality, and mark a new era for the brand entirely...
Oscar de la Renta was firm in his belief that everyone deserved a second chance
Oscar de la Renta 1932 – 2014