Style & Fashion

A fashion legend remembered

Fashion designer Oscar de la Renta, American great, dead at 82

The Daily Beast

October 21, 2014

One of the last pictures of the fashion designer Oscar de la Renta, who died aged 82 at 7:40 p.m. Monday night at his home in Kent, Conn., was featured in Vogue. It pictured him leaning against a work-desk alongside his last high-profile client—Amal Clooney—during a fitting of her ivory tulle wedding dress, which he designed. He looks urbane and suave, she is stunning. It’s a lovely image: they’re both smiling; the frantic last-minute adjustments and fuss offset by fun and good humor, a moment of lightness.

Talk about going out on a high: designing a fairytale dress for the wedding of the year, featuring one of the world’s most high-profile, accomplished lawyers and its biggest movie star. The dress was seen on front pages and magazine covers all over the world.

A handwritten statement, signed by de la Renta’s stepdaughter Eliza Reed Bolen and her husband, Alex Bolen, revealed that the designer had died surrounded by family, and “more than a few dogs.”

The statement continued: “While our hearts are broken by the idea of life without Oscar, he is still very much with us. Oscar’s hard work, his intelligence and his love of life are at the heart of our company. All that we have done, and all that we will do, is informed by his values and his spirit. Through Oscar’s example we know the way forward. We will make Oscar very proud of us by continuing in an even stronger way the work that Oscar loved so much.”

De la Renta gave up the title of chief executive of his company in 2004, handing over business duties to the Bolens, although he still presented a collection at New York Fashion Week. The designer had married his surviving (second) wife Annette in 1989, following the death of his first wife Françoise de Langlade—from cancer—in 1983. He also has an adopted son, Moises, three sisters, three stepchildren and nine step-grandchildren.

The Dominican-born de la Renta—who became an American citizen—will rightly be lauded as one of the great fashion designers of his generation, certainly the greatest American. He was a designer whose dresses became synonymous with the red carpet and high society, yet he was the oddest thing in fashion—a name and player not known for drama or shock tactics, or controversy, or scandal. The dresses—their classiness and grandeur–spoke for themselves. De la Renta was a confident thoroughbred, never needing to scream for attention.

He dressed first ladies—first Jackie Kennedy, then Betty Ford, and—famously—the ritzy gowns and suits Nancy Reagan wore in the 1980s (most memorably in her fashion face-offs with Raisa Gorbachev). De la Renta also designed his good friend Hillary Clinton’s dress for the 1997 presidential swearing-in, and Laura Bush’s inaugural gown in 2005. Michelle Obama wore her first de la Renta gown this month, after he had criticized her fashion choices last year. Hollywood stars including Amy Adams, Sarah Jessica Parker, Penélope Cruz, Kerry Washington, Taylor Swift, and Scarlett Johansson all wore his dresses to award shows. He dressed society scions and debutantes; inevitably, he was name-checked in Sex and the City.

“We will miss Oscar’s generous and warm personality, his charm, and his wonderful talents.” Laura Bush said in a statement. “My daughters and I have many fond memories of visits with Oscar, who designed our favorite clothes, including Jenna’s wedding dress. We will always remember him as the man who made women look and feel beautiful.”

“I love all his clothes because of his sense of color,” Nancy Kissinger, wife of former secretary of state Henry Kissinger, once said “There’s something very staggering about the combinations he chooses.”

“I like light, color, luminosity. I like things full of color and vibrant,” de la Renta said in 2004. The (very wealthy) de la Renta women wore bold colors, flared sleeves, full-bodied skirts and trousers.

Despite the fulsome praise, and the many awards and honors he amassed in his lifetime, de la Renta shied from being called an icon. In an interview with Gotham magazine, of a retrospective of his clothes about to open at the William J. Clinton Presidential Center, titled “Oscar de la Renta: An American Icon,” de la Renta said: “I am not an icon; that was Hillary’s idea.”

De la Renta was extremely close to Hillary Clinton, who presented him with the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s (CFDA) prestigious Founder’s Award last year. “Well, I love Hillary,” de la Renta said. “She’s extraordinary, a symbol of where women want to go. I assume we will have a woman president soon.”

Chelsea Clinton, opening the exhibit, said de la Renta was “more interested in the future,” like her parents. De la Renta emphatically concurred; his brand was beginning a new social media program and expanding its Madison Avenue store in New York. “The most important thing about fashion is to have the memory of a mosquito. Don’t ever look back; always look forward. You are as good as your last collection,” he said.

Growing up, de la Renta told Fern Mallis (the former executive director of the CFDA), in a talk at the 92Y in New York last year, that his first customer was his mother: “What I sold her was the corn and spinach that we grew in our garden.” He begged his parents, “Please, please buy me a man’s suit.”

He told Gotham magazine that he was the youngest in a family with six sisters. “My family was in the insurance business, and as the only boy, I felt that eventually I would work in that business. But I never saw myself selling insurance.”

His father, he told Mallis at the 92Y, had different aspirations for de la Renta “than I had for myself. As the only boy in the family … If I ever told my father I would become a fashion designer, he would drop dead on the spot.”

His mother supported de la Renta’s desire to go to Spain to study in 1951, when he was 18. “My mother said, ‘I will always back you.’ A lot of what I am is because of my mother. To go to Paris was unthinkable. My mother really twisted my father’s arm for letting me go to Spain because I’d never see her again. That is a sacrifice.”

De la Renta told Gotham magazine that he had “an extraordinary mother who was always very supportive. Because of her, I was able to go to art school in the Dominican Republic. I was 15 or 16 at the time, five or six years younger than everyone else in my class. And in my second or third month at school, we had to draw…”

It was a nude. “I was terrified. I had never seen a naked person, and I was so worried—I didn’t know what would happen to me! Of course I got used to it right away.”

And he had lots of fun. “One time friends said, ‘Let’s go to a bar after classes.’ While I had heard of things like rum and Coca-Cola, I’d never had an alcoholic drink. One friend asked for a very dry martini, the other a Manhattan. I was terrified wondering what to order. And then I remembered a name and said, ‘I want a peach melba.’ They asked, ‘A peach melba? That’s a dessert!’ Of course I didn’t want to admit I didn’t know what I was ordering so I said, ‘Yes, that’s what I want.’”

De la Renta left the Dominican Republic to live in Madrid, then Paris. “At the time, my parents thought going to Paris was like going to Sodom and Gomorrah. Spain was a second choice; I had family there. When I was in art school in Madrid, my mother passed away. My father started to pressure me to come back to the Dominican Republic. He felt that being a painter was okay for a hobby but not a profession.”

A friend of de la Renta’s was doing fashion illustration for newspapers and magazines and he thought, “I can do that, too. I wanted to prove to my father that I could generate some income. I used to be a very good sketcher; I’m not as good now because I don’t do it as much. The friend said, ‘I know Cristóbal Balenciaga very well.’ And that is how I landed a job at Balenciaga. In life, a lot of good things happen by accident.”

Under Balenciaga, de la Renta told Mallis,”You ask me what I was doing? I was picking pins off the floor.” In 1959, by then in Paris, he received job offers from Dior and Lanvin: “I’m in Paris less than 24 hours and I was offered a job.” He chose Lanvin.

In 1963, Diana Vreeland, then editor in chief of Vogue, told him not to join Dior, as he would be eclipsed, but to work for Arden: “[She said] ‘If you go to Dior you will be working behind a big name. It will be hard to make a name for yourself.’”

In 1965 de la Renta went to work for Jane Derby, took over that label in 1965 when she died, launching the label in his own name. In 1973, he recalled at the 92Y, there was a fashion showdown in Versailles between French and American designers—on the French side, Yves Saint Laurent, Christian Dior, Hubert de Givenchy, Pierre Cardin and Emanuel Ungaro.

“Our show was bound to be a disaster,” de la Renta recalled to Mallis. “The show was fun, but we [Anne Klein, Stephen Burrows, Bill Blass, Halston, and de la Renta, which was the order he insisted upon] were so unbelievably unprepared. We only had Liza Minnelli. One thing happened: They had never seen, in Paris, black models. They had never seen girls moving to music. By the end, everyone was standing. It was sheer luck.”

The balance has shifted now, de la Renta said; the French houses come to America looking for talent. He told Gotham magazine: “We have a very different woman today. When I first came to New York, a woman wearing pants would not be allowed into a restaurant. And a lot of the time, especially in my case, doing pricey clothes, the husband was paying for them. Today, women have the power to make their own decisions. Obviously that makes our job far more difficult because we are dealing with a consumer who knows much more about herself. She doesn’t really care so much about whose dress she will wear; she cares about how she identifies with that dress, how that dress represents [how] she feels on a particular day. You’re expressing your own identity, not the identity of whoever created that dress.

“Here’s how I explain the differences between women then and now: In the past a woman would see a dress that came in pink and red. She’d prefer the red but remember her husband loves her in pink. Then she’d buy the pink dress. Today she’d buy the red.”

He told The Washington Post in 2001: “When I started designing clothes for women in the ’60s, my typical customer got dressed in a suit and had lunch with friends. Today she’s on the list of endangered species.”

De la Renta headed the Pierre Balmain collection from 1993-2002: the first time an American had designed for a French couture house. For his own autumn 2013 line, he took on John Galliano, who was fired from his position as creative director of Christian Dior in 2011 after declaring his love of Adolf Hitler, and making anti-semitic remarks.

“John came to me because he wanted to re-enter the business,” de la Renta told Mallis. “We are not going to talk about John’s problems because John’s problems are his problems, not my problems. John is a very talented guy. I was asked if I would have John into my studio so he can re-immerse into a world that he knew.”

He and Galliano had had “a wonderful time,” de la Renta insisted. “It’s important to have someone who challenges you. Seventy-five percent of the collection was done by the time he got there. I strongly feel, regardless what he did, everyone in life deserves a second chance and I was very happy I was able to give John that second chance. John is making all the public amends that he needs to make. It would be a shame if the industry would be deprived of such talent.” (Galliano recently joined Maison Martin Margiela as creative director.)

Unlike Galliano, de la Renta rarely if at all courted controversy: he was a universally lionized and respected leader of American design. Hillary Clinton, when she presented him with the Founder’s Award, in June 2013, recalled first meeting him in December 1993. She was hosting, along with Bill, the annual gathering for the Kennedy Center Honors. They were in the receiving line, making small talk.

“Along came Oscar and Annette, his fabulous wife,” Mrs. Clinton said. “So I reached out to shake Oscar’s hand, and he looked me up and down and said, ‘That’s one of my dresses.’ I said, ‘Really?’” She paused in her speech, and then deadpanned to the audience: “I always have been, as I am now, such a fashion icon.”

For his part, de la Renta said: “I have a wonderful relationship with Hillary Clinton. I hope that she will be our next president. She is an extraordinary lady. I am so unbelievably proud to say she is my friend.”

Until just this month, Michelle Obama had never worn one of de la Renta’s designs. He told Mallis at the 92Y that the first lady’s fashion choices had represented “a lot of lost opportunities. For example—again it is for a first lady, as well, a learning process—when the Chinese prime minister came for an official visit, she was wearing a dress from a foreign designer. What a lost opportunity to promote an American industry. I’m sure she didn’t do it on purpose, but she was not well-advised.”

However, he added, “Would I like to dress Michelle Obama? I would like to dress everybody.” Mrs. Obama finally wore a de la Renta dress to a cocktail party for a White House Fashion Education Workshop she hosted on October 8.

De la Renta also spoke about being diagnosed with cancer in 2006, and his mortality: “Yes, I had cancer. Right now, I am totally clean. The only realities in life are that you are born, and that you die. We always think we are going to live forever. The dying aspect we will never accept. The one thing about having this kind of warning is how you appreciate every single day of life.”

Last year, death was not uppermost in de la Renta’s mind. “People ask me, ‘At your age, when are you going to retire?’ I think every single day there is a learning process. For a long time … I wondered what would happen to the brand when I am no longer here. But I will be here for a very, very long time.” “I’m a very restless person. I’m always doing something,” he once said. “The creative process never stops.”

At the 92Y talk, de la Renta was emphatic about the future of his label. “The business is not for sale, no question. If somebody comes to us with a huge, big offer, it’s for sale. Everything is for sale. But, the business is strong. The business is growing. The business is healthy. The business is going very well.”

As for his advice to young designers, de la Renta told the audience, “I tell fashion students, you don’t need the introduction. You need to have good work. Work hard. Believe in yourself. It’s not the publicity to sell the clothes, it’s the woman.”

As the tributes roll in in the coming days from the great and good, the most emphatic and feeling will be from those women who cherished de la Renta’s clothes as he intended them to be cherished—and loved and cherished him just as emphatically.