Oscar de la Renta Winks ‘I’m not done yet,’ With Scintillating Fall Collection
Article and photo by Felice Kinnear
The highly anticipated Art of Fashion, held annually in the heart of Rancho Santa Fe this fall, showcased an immortal talent, the eponymous Oscar de la Renta. The smoldering fall collection marked four years since his passing in 2014, revealing a shift in the approach of his successors. The grand finale emulsified modern glamour and elegance inspiring the audience with a clear message. Buckle up, Oscar de la Renta’s spirit is alive and ascending.
After this beguiling show, it became clear why historical figures picked his gowns for defining moments in their careers. The show also unveiled what is in store for the next generation. Glimpses of de la Renta’s early influences, including flamenco dancers, Russian literature and billowing capes could be traced in the intricate designs among the fresh interpretation.
A favorite from the collection was a mesmerizing gown reminiscent of a clustered milky way. A structured fine tulle with a tiered skirt, velvet sash around the waist garnished with reflective sequin and crystal embroidery set a wave of excitement through the audience. Shimmering silver petals accented protruding shades of cayenne provoking a moment of clarity. Evoking the best from accomplished women all over the world has embossed a 50-year career in fashion history for de la Renta. He may be one of the few designers to earn immortality in the fickle world of fashion with his ability to understand what women want.
De la Renta’s polyphonic talent set him apart even among the titans of fashion. He had a magic way with people and style that touched the lives of Oprah Winfrey, Meghan Markle, Nicki Minaj, Gigi Hadid, Gisele Bundchen, Princess Diana and Jackie Kennedy. As his designs evolve with his son-in-law, Alex Bolen, as Chief of Operations, Oscar de la Renta’s purpose remains the same. His garments, often selected for significant pivot points for historical figures, free a woman to be her best self.
De la Renta was agile and precise in translating romance within his garments. The understanding of what women want to feel like in their clothes spawned his best designs and relationships. Rich fabric, flickers of color and arresting silhouettes spoke to women universally. First ladies, aristocrats and Hollywood stars, regardless of nationality or age, connected to his specific dialect. Hillary Clinton, Anna Wintour and Barbara Walters loved his designs and adored his cheeky sense of humor. De la Renta had set the bar at a dizzying height, which he had learned from his haute couture roots.
Oscar’s remarkable story began in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, where he grew up as the only male among seven sisters in a middle-class family. Perhaps such a lively household encouraged him to forge his own path early, as he left for Madrid at age 18 with a dream to one day become a painter.
When he arrived, de la Renta instantly absorbed the vibrant culture of Madrid. He became transfixed by the fluid fabric and intricate embroidery that the matadors and flamenco dancers wore. De la Renta spotted Ava Gardner at a bullring and she instilled a lasting impression on him. “I remember the color of her blue-green eyes, her very matte skin, her chiseled nose and cheekbones—just unbelievably beautiful.” The spell Madrid cast on de la Renta percolated into a lifelong source of inspiration.
While studying art at The Academy of San Fernando in Madrid, de la Renta landed a job sketching for Spain’s most renowned couturier, Cristóbal Balenciaga. The Spanish designer was famous for his “uncompromising standards” and was referred to as “the master of us all” by Christian Dior himself. While under Balenciaga’s wing, de la Renta’s artistic sketches caught the eye of Francesca Lodge, the wife of the U.S. Ambassador to Spain, Henry Lodge. Once Francesca discovered who created the sketches, she insisted de la Renta design a gown for her daughter. The dress appeared on the cover of Life Magazine and became the first triumph in his prestigious career.
In 1960, de la Renta found more work in Paris, where he was hired as a couture assistant by Lanvin-Castillo. His mischievous nature helped cinch the move and he landed the job by embellishing slightly his previous role with Cristóbal Balenciaga. In 1963, he moved to New York and with the influence of Vogue’s editor-in-chief, Diana Vreeland, joined the American design house of Elizabeth Arden. In 1965, de la Renta came into his own by starting his own signature ready-to-wear label.
In 1967, he married Françoise de Langlade, an editor from French Vogue. The couple created magnetic synergy which led them to befriend America’s most influential families. By the early 2000s, he became the preferred choice for a succession of America’s first ladies. He dressed Nancy Reagan in the 1980s and provided the gowns for inaugural events for both Hillary Clinton in 1997 and Laura Bush in 2005.
De la Renta achieved a presidency of his own during his rise to the top. From 1973-1988 de la Renta was president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America several times, which led to the launch of the prestigious CFDA awards. He received a lifetime achievement award in 1990 and the CFDA Womenswear Designer of the Year award in 2000, marking his profound influence on the fashion world.
In 2002, he expanded his breadth by launching Oscar de la Renta Home. The city, island and country themes were inspired by his many houses around the world. In 2006, he launched a bridal collection that enhanced his elaborate and ornamental approach, confident that these elements built the framework of a sensational wedding dress. “I hope she falls in love with the dress the same way she did her husband-to-be,” he said just before Kate Bosworth tried on his dress for the first time.
Kindness was an amicable part of de la Renta’s charm and was a firm believer that a phoenix can rise from the ashes. He gave John Galliano his first job when he returned to the industry after a public breakdown that almost destroyed his presence in the fashion industry. Galliano had lost his job at Christian Dior, prompting de la Renta to offer him a studio residency with his company.
On October 14, 2014, de la Renta solidified the future of his brand and appointed Peter Copping as his successor one week before his death. “My hope is that by actively participating in the transition, I can ensure the right design future for our company and brand,” he told Women’s Wear Daily.
On October 20th, 2014, de la Renta passed away from cancer at age 82. An unusually personal tribute was posted earlier that morning by editor-in-chief of Vogue, Anna Wintour, expressing the profound impact de la Renta had on her life and the industry.
“There is much being said that his passing yesterday marks the end of an era. Not true,” Wintour wrote tenderly. “He was the most democratic man I knew and he would have lived happily and defined any era. He was happy dining with the rich and famous, for sure, but equally happy playing dominoes with his devoted staff. His designs reflected his extraordinary personality: optimistic, fun, sunny and romantic.”
The design team he chose to carry on his legacy has mastered the tightrope of enticing the next generation while stamping his signature into the new designs. The recent Art of Fashion showcased an exciting collection with a progressive edge evolving Oscar de la Renta’s new direction. With relaxed grace they successfully morphed Oscar de la Renta’s elegance to appeal to all generations of the Rancho Santa Fe audience.
On September 24th, 2018, a testament to de la Renta’s current design team surfaced. The Duchess of Sussex, Meghan Markle, wore an Oscar de la Renta navy asymmetrical belted blouse recently at the Coach Core Awards at Loughborough University in England. The outfit was a perfect marriage of grace and function freeing Meghan to participate in the sporting activities, progressing her popularity and unique place in the English Monarchy.
More than his incredible designs, de la Renta fine-tuned a rare gift and has graciously passed the torch. He understood the universal desires of women and his designers continue to transform us into our happiest selves. We couldn’t be more thrilled that the promise of what’s to come was shared with Rancho Santa Fe and we look forward to the next mark the Oscar de la Renta empire makes in history. His class, kindness and grace will always be at the heart of unforgettable style.
Oscardelarenta.com, Vogue, Sarah Mower, Anna Wintour, Vanity Fair, Biography.com, Wikipedia and Fashionista.com