Finding an angle to re-tell the story of Oscar de La Renta - the fashion designer who died on Monday night at 82 - may be a difficult task as many tributes have already been paid, but maybe it's not impossible. Let's try by focusing on an iconic moment in the designer's life.
In 1973 de la Renta was among the American designers who stormed Versailles at a benefit fashion show (featuring French designers Hubert de Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, Emanuel Ungaro, Andre Oliver (Cardin) and Marc Bohan (Christian Dior) and American creators Halston, Anne Klein, Bill Blass and Stephen Burrows) to collect money for the restoration of the palace.
Model Billie Blair starred in the de la Renta segment of the show as a sensual genie who brought alive the colours donned by the models around her. So, while Barry White could be heard on the speakers, Blair evoked emerald greens and peaches, fuchsia nuances and yellow-gold shades. The riot of vibrant colours proved mesmerising for the audience, but also conjured visions of tropical landscapes dear to de la Renta.
Óscar Arístides de la Renta Fiallo was indeed born in Santo Domingo in 1932 to a wealthy family. He studied art at The Academy of San Fernando in Madrid, Spain, and, soon after, he started working as apprentice at Cristóbal Balenciaga.
In 1960 de la Renta became couture assistant of Antonio Canovas del Castillo de Rey at Lanvin in Paris where he gained further experience in the world of Haute Couture and where he remained until 1963, the year he moved to the States.
Mentored by Diana Vreeland, editor-in-chief of Vogue, de la Renta began designing haute couture gowns for Elizabeth Arden, joining Jane Derby in 1965. Derby retired soon and de la Renta took over, launching his own label, that throughout the years became known for high quality fabrics, ornate details and intricate embroideries.
Married from 1967 to Françoise de Langlade, editor at French Vogue, de la Renta covered prestigious roles becoming the President of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (1973 to 1976; and 1986 to 1988) and was the recipient of many awards including the Coty in 1967 and 1968 and the CFDA Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989 (followed by the CFDA Womenswear Designer of the Year award in 2000, and again in 2007).
In 1989, six years after the death of his first wife, he married American publisher Annette Reed. The designer also showed his ready-to-wear collection in Paris for three seasons, in 1991 and 1992, and worked from 1992 to 2002 for Balmain's Haute Couture collections.
As the decades passed, his name became inextricably linked to Hollywood stars and red carpet events. Equally loved by the social and political establishment, he was known for dressing Jacqueline Kennedy, Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush, and his latest conquest, Michelle Obama (on 8th October 2014 at the cocktail party after her White House Fashion Education Workshop). More recently, de la Renta was on the news for creating the ivory tulle wedding gown for Amal Alamuddin's marriage to George Clooney.
Widely considered by key fashion industry insiders as a charming and elegant man, the epitome of the true gentleman, since he launched his house in the '60s de la Renta developed a bridal line, fragrances and homeware collections.
The business successfully relaunched in recent years and went into expansion, becoming once again relevant to younger clients also thanks to the efforts of his stepdaughter Eliza Bolen and her husband Alexander Bolen, CEO of the company.
In 2013, de la Renta controversially offered John Galliano a temporary studio residency, to allow him to return to the fashion industry after his fall from grace and consequent dismissal from Dior. Rumoured to be his successor, de la Renta had second thoughts about him, as Galliano would have wanted to replace the American designer's staff with his own.
On 14th October 2014 – just a week before he died – de la Renta appointed British designer Peter Copping as his successor (he will start from early November and show his first collection in February). De la Renta is survived by his wife, Annette, as well as his son, Moyses de la Renta, and step-children, Beatrice Reed, Charlie Reed and Eliza Bolen.
An unofficial ambassador for the Dominican Republic, where he built two homes in Casa de Campo and Punta Cana, de la Renta always showed strong links with his Latin heritage and background, producing romantic and feminine styles, with extravagant twists that borrowed from his time in Spain and France and that were never vulgar.
A good way to get to discover or rediscover de la Renta's aesthetic is via online archives such as the Met Museum or the Philadelphia Museum of Modern Art's. Both have several garments by the designer - from coats and dresses from the 1960s to evening gowns from the 1970s, cocktail dresses from the 1980s and '90s and separates from the 2000s. Some designs come in luxurious fabrics such as silk, others are characterised by eye-catching graphic motifs like as stripes or by sequinned embroideries.
Quite a few of the pieces stored in these archives show a clear derivation from French houses, and call to mind his apprenticeship at Balenciaga: the latter was known for being inspired by the attire of Spanish peasants, but also borrowed from Zurbarán, Velázquez and Goya's paintings, translating these influences in creations that looked architecturally perfect and elegant without being costumy.
The same could be said about Oscar de la Renta's designs. Yet, while looking more in depth into these archives and while spotting some gems here and there, always bear in mind Oscar de la Renta's ultimate fashion adage: "It's not about what you wear, but about how you live your life".
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