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Ever the fashion man-about-town, Oscar de la Renta is now a man about various official disciplines. On Monday he showed his polished, extensive pre-fall collection and, later that afternoon, walked me through “Joaquín Sorolla & the Glory of Spanish Dress,” at Queen Sofía Spanish Institute on Park Avenue, a project he conceived and oversaw as the Institute’s chairman of the board, a position he takes very seriously and to which he dedicates considerable time. “When you rest, you rust,” he quipped.

This story first appeared in the December 7, 2011 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.


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The exhibit opens with a cocktail party tonight and runs through March 10. It has a hard act to follow: Last year’s “Balenciaga: Spanish Master” proved a huge hit in terms of civilian reach — 13,000 people visited the show, which then traveled to San Francisco’s de Young Museum — and industry impact; the two fashion seasons that followed saw ample Balenciaga references.

De la Renta got the idea for this show from “Vision of Spain,” the Sorolla mural commissioned in 1911 by Archer Milton Huntington for The Hispanic Society of America, a quiet jewel of a museum and resource center in New York’s Washington Heights.

As research, Sorolla spent years traveling through Spain to chronicle the native dress, some of which he purchased, amassing a sizable collection. Many of the pieces shown come from his archive, now belonging to the Spanish ministry; most of the rest, from Madrid’s Museo del Traje. De la Renta loves the mural, not to mention the fanciful sartorial flourish. He got the yen to show some more portable works by Sorolla alongside the clothes that inspired them, and, in turn, examples of modern fashion which draw from both. He pulled in some big guns to help: André Leon Talley to curate; Stefan Beckman to design the show; Harold Koda to write a forward for the book. And he lavished praise on the Institute’s research associates Molly Sorkin and Jennifer Park.

The traditional clothes, primarily from the early 20th century, range from a Basque fisherman’s shirt to a lavish, pale-toned gown inspired by 18th-century finery. That dress is the odd girl out among “real people” offerings; most of the clothes render major embellishment with the weighty sobriety of the working life. More obviously fanciful: the flamenco references.

De la Renta’s love for Spain dates to 1950 when, as a student recently transplanted from the Dominican Republic, he bought a third-class train ticket and toured the countryside. He soaked up the culture high and low with a depth that continues to influence his work today. One of the great things about any exchange with him, on just about any topic, is the conversational commingling of said topic with his personal experiences. The above train ride resulted in three days spent at a gypsy wedding; in front of a display of various bullfighters’ costumes, each belonging to one of the greats, he mentions his friendship with Antonio Ordóñez. He flips through the exhibition’s beautiful book to point out a 1960 photo of the Duchess of Alba, who lent a traje corto (riding look) to the show, and talks about the care the pieces were given. “The curators [from Madrid] wouldn’t let us touch the stuff,” he said. “They each came over to dress their mannequins.”

Still, de la Renta didn’t sweat the small stuff. In the early 20th century, Sorolla corresponded with John Singer Sargent, whose “El Jaleo” is housed in Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, along with Sargent’s letter to Sorolla. De la Renta & co. hoped to get the letter for the exhibit, but soon abandoned the effort: “Too much paperwork.” Two skullcaps arrived from Madrid with firm instruction that, due to the hefty weight of the tassels, they could not be placed on the mannequins or otherwise hung; they’re propped on a stool. And when multiple requests for a dress from Marc Jacobs went nowhere, de la Renta moved on. “They never said no. We just never got anything. I know right now he’s going through difficult times,” de la Renta said, alluding to the apparently halted Dior talks, by way of possible explanation. “I would love to have those difficult times.”

Among the designers represented: YSL’s Stefano Pilati, Ralph Lauren and Carolina Herrera. Then there’s a Chanel piece, a full-skirted evening stunner. “Karl made it for [my wife] Annette,” de la Renta noted, for the 2005 Costume Institute gala that opened the Chanel exhibit at the Met. “She only wore it that night,” he deadpanned, as if oblivious that even in the de la Rentas’ quite fancy circles, full-on ballgown events aren’t as frequent as they used to be. Centering the series of black looks: a remarkable 2009 couture wedding extravaganza from Christian Lacroix. It’s modeled closely on the traditional costume of Madonna icons; the exhibit’s book juxtaposed the runway photo with one of Virgin of El Rocío. “She looks like the bride,” offered Beckman, in the gallery seeing to the show’s final flourishes. “And all of the black figures around her, her court.” Perhaps ironically, a 2006 coat by Nicolas Ghesquière for Balenciaga refused to fit into the tableau. After multiple attempts to work in the architectural day look, it was given stand-alone attention in the lobby, the first piece exhibit visitors will see.

At some point, talk turned to couturier-client relations. De la Renta related a story he’d heard about a bride whose haute bill approached seven figures. When she asked if she might meet the designer, she was told that was not included in the price. “If someone buys a dress from me for $20,000 and they ask, I arrive,” de la Renta shrugged. “Can I carry the train?’”

Not that 20 grand is requisite. When de la Renta walked me to the door, I asked if he’d step outside to meet someone, George, the driver (it was a busy day). He asked George where he’s from — Colombia — and for the next 10 minutes stood discussing various things he loves about the place. Top on his list: “Colombians,” he said, “speak the most beautiful Spanish.”

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