Honoring the ever-evolving brilliance that is Oscar de la Renta
Roll the tape of iconic fashion moments in history, and many of the images that flash by have come courtesy of the one and only Oscar de la Renta. Audrey Hepburn in Sabrina, white gloved, gazing out the window in a white and black cascading confection. Sarah Jessica Parker in the final season of Sex and the City, gifted a deep pink, perfectly tailored party dress from Oscar himself. Anne Hathaway lighting up the Kodak Theater as she hosts the 2011 Academy Awards, in a silver-fringed gown which moves and shakes in perfect sync with her body. “They have the sun in them,” John Fairchild once said of Oscar’s creations. It seems they really do. In the course of his storied and decades-long career, Oscar de la Renta has not just stood the test of time but demonstrated his multi-faceted mastery: the ability to take drama and exoticism and elegantly package it in flattering, feminine, glamorous, impossibly stunning pieces.
“Oscar is an extraordinary figure,” says Dr. Valerie Steele, fashion historian and the director of the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, “Not just in American fashion but really in world fashion. He combines something of a sort of Latin sensibility in terms of color and drama with the extreme sense of Parisian couture with American—New York—modernity.”
That he does. A quick review of his resume reveals his global roots and reach. De la Renta was born in Santo Domingo in 1932, studied art and worked under Cristóbal Balenciaga in Spain, then went on to Lanvin in Paris. He followed his intuition to New York, where he started his eponymous label; first backed by Elizabeth Arden and then on his own, and, while still helming his brand, was one of the very first American designers ever to be hired by a couture house in Paris when he worked at Balmain.
His reputation as one of the greats secure, de la Renta now has another honor to add to his list. The Museum at FIT’s Couture Council—comprised of fashion heavyweights including Bergdorf’s Linda Fargo and Vogue’s Hamish Bowles—recently chose de la Renta as the recipient of the 2012 Couture Council Award for Artistry of Fashion, a distinction he shares with Valentino and Karl Lagerfeld.
Awards and accomplished career—paved with adoring fans; flaunted on red carpets and by first ladies—aside, de la Renta is not one to rest on his laurels. For the venerable, unstoppable designer, it’s all about what comes next. Perhaps the secret to how, at 80, he remains the hottest runway ticket each season lies in his progressive, forward-looking mindset. Asked to name a favorite piece from the fall 2012 collection his answer was direct and simple, “I am already working on a new collection so I forgot about the older one,” he says. “I know sometimes that you have to look back to look forward,” says de la Renta, his signature charisma almost palpable as he speaks. “But actually I hate retro. I think that what is important in fashion is what’s happening now. Sometimes you have to look back but it’s always to reinvent yourself and learn from the mistakes you have made in the past to make them better for the future, for the immediate future.”
And the immediate future is looking as bright as ever. His Pre-Fall and Fall 2012 collections may be passe for their maker, but for his adoring high society and celebrity fans, they are all the rage. Pieces from the collection have already had major moments; layers of ice blue tulle on Carrie Underwood at the Billboard Awards and flowing silver on Jessica Chastain at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts Awards. Off the red carpet, Oscar-clad women are donning tweed and chunky knits; unafraid of color and drama in their day wear and eye-catching design in their evening gowns.
“Fashion is just about keeping your eyes open and understanding your consumer; the kind of things that are a constant source of change and are a constant source of inspiration,” de la Renta expounds on his philosophy. “I always try to reinvent myself and sort of guess what it is that the woman dreams of, wants, needs. The woman is stronger than she ever has been. I design for the woman who works and has the power to buy her own clothes; the woman who can do it one her own.”
When it comes to designing for the woman positioned at the peak of style and society, Mr. de la Renta has the inside track. “What’s wonderful about Oscar is that he miraculously embodies and inhabits the fantastic world suggested by his creations,” Anna Wintour wrote in Impact, the book celebrating 50 years of the Council of Fashion Designers of America. “He takes his dominoes very seriously, is a political mediator, a philanthropist, a society dazzler, a patron of the arts, a diplomat, a devoted family man, and a great designer. I regard him as fashion’s Renaissance man.”
Indeed, both Annette and Oscar de la Renta are fixtures on the New York social and philanthropic scenes—from his many years of involvement with the CFDA to her position as vice-chair of the New York Public Library. “He lives the lifestyle of his clients,” Dr. Steele reiterates. “He really understands very intuitively what they are going to, what they want to look like; the role of luxury and femininity and beauty at a certain level of high society.”
His keen awareness and curiosity about the world his clients inhabit combined with his knowledge of global trends, allows Oscar de la Renta’s designs to truly transcend. “I think the fact that I have been all over the world and, in my life, have lived in many different places; learning from other cultures and observing other cultures have always been a source of inspiration,” says de la Renta. “Every new challenge that is presented to you is always an inspiration.”
It is exactly this mindset that has given the designer a timeless appeal. His designs are intelligent; they showcase a forward-thinking aesthetic and trans-cultural appeal—all encased in beautiful silhouettes, unobtrusively utilizing bold colors, patterns and lush materials. “Oscar has become more and more influential actually in the last few years,” says Dr. Steele. “It’s extraordinary because usually a designer will appear or create a look and then sort of level off. What you see with Oscar is that not only have his looks evolved but he’s become more and more of an inspiration to young designers, and to his clients too, the great socialites of the past, their daughters and their granddaughters.”