Oscar de la Renta, making women feel beautiful

Michael Raffety


“I design clothes for women to wear. I am not interested in shock tactics… I just want to make beautiful clothes.”

This is what Oscar de la Renta told the New York Times fashion reviewer when he released his fall collection for Elizabeth Arden in 1963.

Though this predates Jean Paul Gauthier by a little over a decade, it could easily apply to him. The 160 pieces the de Young Museum in San Francisco displayed of Gauthier’s in 2012 came with a warning of “adult subject matter.” Shock, awe, puzzlement and totally creative fashions were the hallmarks of the Gauthier exhibit.

While Gauthier is especially famous for designing Madonna’s showpiece corset and cone bra, Oscar de la Renta is noted for his red carpet evening gowns for movie stars, socialites and singers like Taylor Swift as well as first ladies. Among the socialites have been Happy Rockefeller and Deirdre Wilson, president of the board of directors of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

De la Renta had his breakout moment in 1956 in Paris when Francesca, the wife of Ambassador John Davis Lodge, saw a dress de la Renta had designed for a friend. She commissioned him to design a debutant ball dress for her daughter Beatrice Cabot Lodge. That made Life magazine, complete with a photo of de la Renta fitting the dress on Beatrice.

Life Magazine, Vogue, the New York Times and Women’s Wear Daily became de la Renta’s unofficial partners when he moved from Paris to New York in 1962 with the aim of designing for the ready-to-wear market. He didn’t quite achieve that with Arden, but, working with a 7th Avenue entrepreneur in 1965 he added his name to a clothes label, whose owner soon died and he had the label name all to himself.

Two years later he won a Coty Award at the American Fashion Critics Awards, which the show catalog referred to as the “Academy Awards of fashion.”

By 1972 the native of the Dominican Republic (b. 1932), who began as an art student in Madrid, Spain, and switched there to fashion, called himself “an American designer … because everything I have done and everything I have achieved, I have done and achieved in America.”

But in 1991 he mounted a show in Paris before his New York show and began to call himself an “international designer.” Two years later he became the couture designer for Pierre Balmain, leaving after the fall/winter 2002-2003 collection to concentrate on his signature line. He also opened a store on Madison Avenue.

His fashion designs are described as romantic, designed to make women feel fabulous. They are often simple in appearance, relying more on cut and material to appear elegant.

The show, which continues at the de young through May 30, features 120 ensembles, from fabulous evening gowns to colorful day dresses and ethnic allusions that run the gamut from Spanish to Chinese and Russian. It is all style with a capital S.

At his last show before he died of cancer in 2014 he took a bow with models Daria Stroykous and Karlie Kloss, who wrote on Instagram, “There is no one on earth who makes a woman feel more beautiful than Oscar de la Renta.”


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