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Forever Young

Reflections on the journey, and thoughts about what's yet to come.

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Oscar de la Renta is perhaps the most dashing presence in all of fashion. His breadth is of the renaissance sort — from the worldly pursuits of high culture, deeply committed philanthropy and politics (his participation has at times gone well beyond his high-profile, cross-party inaugural designs) to the personal pleasures of family, travel, entertaining and gardening. Yet, even after 40 years in the rag trade, de la Renta has no intention of giving in to the lure of retirement. In fact, with his business now a flourishing family affair and his designs attracting a new, young customer, he’s not even tempted.

WWD: Oscar, your business is hotter than ever. But after 40 years, do you ever think of retiring?

Oscar De la Renta: No. I have been doing this for so many years and in all the years I have been working, I have never had as good a time as I’m having now.

WWD: Why?

De la Renta: I think that, probably, a lot of things I should have been doing a long time ago, I’m doing now.

WWD: Such as?

De la Renta: Building retail stores, expanding my business. I always made a very good living out of my business, but now that I have Alex [Bolen, ceo and son-in-law] working with me, I look at it in a completely different way. The best thing that could have happened to me, besides having Eliza [Bolen, vice president of licensing and stepdaughter] come and work here, is having Alex come to the company. He gets mixed up with everything. He comes to the studio.

WWD: Does he get on your nerves in the studio?

De la Renta: Sometimes. Whenever he gets a little bit too much, I say, “Alex, Parsons School [of Design] is across the street and they have night classes.” But he’s great. And I have a great studio, very well organized. I love what I do. The business is doing fabulously well — the stores…all the stores I have opened in a very short time. You know, from having no stores for 39 years [to three in the past seven months] — this is much better.

WWD: Much better, good.

De la Renta: We opened Madison Avenue in November. It’s doing fantastic. We opened Bal Harbour [Fla.] in January. We opened at the Wynn Resort in Las Vegas in April. We are looking for space in L.A.

WWD: Where would you like to be in Los Angeles?

De la Renta: We don’t really know. We looked at a space on Rodeo Drive, right on the corner of Rodeo Drive and Wilshire Boulevard. If I had been able to get that space, I would have done it right away. But by the time we got there, it was divided in two, and the half was too small for us. So now we are thinking that if we don’t find the perfect location on Rodeo, we might go, perhaps, to the area where Marc [Jacobs] is, on Melrose, or perhaps even to Costa Mesa, because that is doing unbelievably well — a very affluent customer.

WWD: Do you regret not having done this earlier?

De la Renta: I never regret anything. Listen, I had a great time doing what I was doing. And I have a great time doing what I’m doing now. I think life is too short for regrets. When you start regretting, “Oh, my god, I should have done that….” You didn’t do it — so?

WWD: You said you loved your life before, so why add more stress now?

De la Renta: Stress is only when I read my reviews. Yes, there is always a moment — what I call panic time — before a collection. All creative work is always full of self-doubt. When people say, “Oh, my goodness. After so many years doing this, it must be a cinch to do,” I say, “Of course it isn’t. Every time is far more difficult.”

WWD: I would think it just gets harder, and the schedule now leaves little room for down time.

De la Renta: Fortunately for me, I always do my very best work when I know that I only have 10 days.

WWD: The business has changed so much in the past 40 years. Do you feel those changes acutely?

De la Renta: Obviously, the demands have just so greatly changed. One of the best things [was the calendar change, with New York showing first during collections.] I read the other day that because of Helmut Lang, we changed our dates. I don’t remember that being so.

WWD: Helmut changed first and everyone followed.

De la Renta: I remember that we always talked about it, especially Calvin.

Calvin always wanted to do it. The Europeans were saying that we were copying the clothes and this kind of thing. I remember, because at that time, I was much more involved with CFDA than I am now, and that was always the topic of conversation. I don’t remember that Helmut Lang had anything to do with it. It happened that he did it at the same time we finally decided to do it.

WWD: Helmut Lang was the catalyst.

De la Renta: We had been talking about it for a long time. First of all, most of us use European fabrics and European manufacturers. Our clothes would be the last in the stores because we were the last to show them and the last to manufacture. [The schedule change] certainly changed my business tremendously, and I’m sure every other American business. By showing earlier, we can plan earlier, we can deliver earlier, we have a longer time in the stores, and that was a very important time for American fashion. Also, because my business has gotten so much bigger, [I work at] having a very close relationship with my vendors, [listening to] what their needs are. Alex is very good at trying to keep close touch with his stores, knowing what’s selling, what’s not selling.

WWD: Let’s talk about the relationships, the professionalism — how you keep aware of what the customer wants?

De la Renta: It’s not so much being aware of what the customer wants, that you do sort of instinctively, but understanding the needs of your vendors. That’s very important. For example, years back, I would never say, “I’m going to be showing resort, and this is what I’m doing.” They would see it when they came in. Now, to me, it’s important to talk to the people and say, “This is what I’m thinking now.”

WWD: During the design process, you talk to the stores?

De la Renta: Yes. I will call them and [sometimes] show them what I’m doing so that they can plan ahead. That has become unbelievably important for me: having the dialogue.

WWD: One often gets the impression from designers of diminished respect for retailers. You don’t have that at all.

De la Renta: My work has always been about listening and working with other people. Even in my private life, I hate to be by myself. In my office, I love to be surrounded with people. I come and sit in [my private] office very, very seldom. I’m always out there. And I want to listen to the opinion of everyone. Ultimately, it’s going to be my opinion, my choice, what I think. But I like to listen to everyone’s opinion. And I want to listen to the opinion of the vendors and of the stores. I might agree or I might disagree, but it’s always important to listen to their point of view because they are the ones who have access to the consumer.

WWD: I remember [former creative director] Adam Lippes telling me that no one is afraid to tell the truth around here.

De la Renta: Absolutely. If they hate it, they should say that they hate it.

WWD: Have you ever heard, “I hate it, Oscar”?

De la Renta: All the time. Probably my most terrified time right now is when I have one of my assistants — and I want to hear it — say, “Well, it looks old.” I want to hear that.

WWD: Do you ever sort of wince?

De la Renta: One thing that’s good about me is that I have the memory of a mosquito. I’ll go out to dinner and a woman will come up and say, “Last night I wore your pink dress with the black bows.” And I won’t have the slightest idea of what she’s talking about. If I see the dress, of course I recognize it, but if I don’t see the dress, I have no idea what she’s talking about. I think that is good from the point of view that, in fashion, remembering is not so important. It’s better to forget than to try to…

WWD: Stay put? Especially over the last several years, you have had this remarkable resonance among younger women without alienating your traditional customers. How have you done it?

De la Renta: I think that it started when Eliza came to work with me. Eliza is extremely outspoken. She’s my family, so she dares much more than others will. But then, inspired by her, others do the same. And she can say, “I don’t know. I will never wear that.” To me, that is very important. Sometimes I will say, “Explain why.” I want to hear. I’m really like a chameleon, I try to change my point of view and try to understand. The most exciting thing in life in general is that every single day I have something to learn. You can never say, “I have learned enough in life; I don’t need to know more.” You need the curiosity to learn and understand and appreciate. You have to keep moving.

WWD: The flip side of that is that you’ve never gone off the deep end trying to be young and hip.

De la Renta: It is a business and ultimately, your success is marked not by what someone might have written about [a collection], but the acceptance from the consumer. That is really the ultimate. That is what it is all about.

WWD: You’ve mentioned both Eliza and Alex. Because they’re family, are you more engaged in the future of the company than you might be at this point?

De la Renta: No question. I now see beyond my life span the continuation of the business, which some time ago was perhaps not important, but is now very important. I started with no family, but now I have a family.

WWD: Now, you joked about telling Alex that “Parsons is across the street.” Have you thought about design succession?

De la Renta: What will I do with my time? I always tell Alex, “My single worry now when I come to work is when I am going to get fired.”

WWD: But you are of retirement age. Do you think about who will be the next designer of the Oscar de la Renta house?

De la Renta: There are a lot of people who would probably be good at doing it. I think that to succeed, houses have to all the time reinvent themselves. It’s good to have somebody like Alex and like Eliza in that they are not designers, but they will make the right decisions of who will be the best person or the best team. I believe in teamwork, in reinventing. Even in my work, every season, you have to reinvent yourself in a different manner, and I’m not the only person with some talent. There are hundreds of other people who are extremely talented.

WWD: But we’ve seen time and again at various houses how hard it is to get the right person in there.

De la Renta: I think that there were probably bad choices made from the managerial point of view. The only wrong thing about very young talent is that they sometimes get so much exposure from the very beginning, it can be damaging. Sometimes what you read is not really the reality of what’s happening. I think talent requires staying power and the right balance of what you need to make it happen.

WWD: It’s become a cliché, but do you think it’s harder for young designers now?

De la Renta: Much harder. First of all, the stakes are so much higher. When I started, you could start a business with very little money. Today, the investment is much bigger. And not only with the press, but, most important, with stores and vendors — the darling of one season might be the forgotten one the following season. That makes it tough. You can’t be wonderful all the time. But you have to have a sense of stability so that even if a given collection isn’t fantastic, there’s enough there to keep it going. Then, once you create a sense of identity — not at the level of the store, but at the level of the consumer — then it is much more difficult to discard you within one season.

WWD: At what point does that happen?

De la Renta: When people recognize your clothes and know what you stand for — it takes a very long time. It doesn’t happen in 24 hours.

WWD: At what point did it happen for you?

De la Renta: I thought that it happened right away when actually it took much longer. I came to Seventh Avenue, and for two consecutive years, in 1967 and 1968, I won the Coty Award. I thought I was world-famous. The following year, the collection didn’t do so well, and Ben Shaw, who was then the major stockholder in the Oscar de la Renta house, wanted to replace me. I was lucky that I had a contract and said, “If you want to fire me, buy my contract out.” Not that they needed a lot of money to buy me out, but at the time….It’s such a fragile kind of business, and so much more difficult today than it was then.

WWD: After that sobering experience, when did you start to feel comfortable in the business as a designer, as a presence in the industry?

De la Renta: I have never felt totally comfortable. But again, the self-doubt is what gets your juices going. The day that you say, “Oh, my goodness, I am the very best,” is the day you should stop.

WWD: Would you agree that the high point of your career is right now?

De la Renta: No. I hope it is going to go even higher.

WWD: You have a wildly loyal client base, loyal retailers and your work is fabulously editorial. Yet there was a time in the early Nineties — the heroin-chic and deconstruction days — when you were very critical of the editorial approach to fashion.

De la Renta: I don’t remember that. Was I?

WWD: Yes, you were.

De la Renta: See, I told you I have the memory of a mosquito.

WWD: No grudges?

De la Renta: I am loyal to people. If someone comes to me and tells me, “I have a lover and he was cheating on me and I killed him,” I will hide her. But I want to know the truth. I don’t want to be lied to. But if you have a real problem, and if you go to me, it will be nothing.

WWD: Do you remember what lured you to fashion in the first place?

De la Renta: I come from a country where there’s no tradition for fashion. At the time I grew up, I was never interested because it was not part of my world. I wanted to be a painter. I graduated from school in the Dominican Republic and then went to Spain to continue with my studies. It was in Spain that I started getting interested in fashion. First, I wanted to do fashion illustration because I could draw very well and I thought I could make some extra money. And then I started doing fashion. In Spain, there were a lot of fashion houses where you could design something and sell it to them. I started to freelance and then went for a year to work for Balenciaga in Madrid. From then on, I started to take it very seriously and thought perhaps I could be a fashion designer. I never went to fashion school. Not that I would advise anyone today not to do it.

WWD: You wouldn’t?

De la Renta: No. It took me a very, very long time to really learn my trade. It’s very funny because today, I can look at the beautiful illustration, but then I look at the construction of the garment itself to know if the person who made this illustration knows what he’s talking about.

WWD: Did that start coming together at Balenciaga?

De la Renta: At Balenciaga, I could spend time in the sample room and see how clothes were being cut and being made. That was so valuable, because I really didn’t know anything.

WWD: Do you remember your first impression of Balenciaga?

De la Renta: He was an extremely kind man. Remember, by the time I started working for Balenciaga in Madrid, he was already working in Paris. One thing about Balenciaga is that he remained very, very Spanish. He would finish his collection in Paris and then he would come to Madrid and do his collection for his Spanish clientele. His sister was the one who was running the house in Madrid.

WWD: [Emanuel] Ungaro was there at the time?

De la Renta: We were working in different areas. I knew him a little bit, [but] those were different times. When I went from Madrid to Paris, I started working for Antonio Castillo [at Lanvin]. If you were friends with another assistant designer in another house, you both should not talk about it.

WWD: On that level, are there fewer politics in fashion today?

De la Renta: Much, much less. Fashion houses in Paris then operated in a very different manner. It was a very different business.

WWD: At the time, did you have thoughts of one day heading a Parisian house, as you ultimately did at Balmain?

De la Renta: If I had stayed in Paris, I probably would have become the head designer for Lanvin, because Castillo left and was starting his own business. There were only two assistants, and I think I was better than the other one. But I had lived out of my country for almost 12 years. And there were all these French assistants like me who would go to New York. I must have made $400 a month in Paris and there were all these people who were already working here and making that in a week, or double that. So I said, “Perhaps I should go to New York.” Also, at that time, ready-to-wear was not really such an important scene in Paris. The ready-to-wear collections were done by the assistants. We would show Castillo the sketches of what we were planning to do and that was about it. The head designer would not involve himself in the ready-to-wear. I thought that the future of fashion was really ready-to-wear. So it was the lure of New York, making more money, being closer to home, perhaps starting on my own.

WWD: Let’s fast-forward many, many years to your appointment at Balmain. Did you think of yourself as blazing a trail? After you, Marc Jacobs, Michael Kors and Narciso Rodriguez all signed with European houses.

De la Renta: Not really. I loved doing Balmain for the years I did it — first, because I was paid fairly well for doing it. But the couture is a very different kind of animal. I realized when I started working at Balmain that, in fact, I had to relearn again what haute couture really was. I did it, yes, for Elizabeth Arden for three years [1963-65] and I did it, obviously, when I worked at Balenciaga. But for more than 20 years, I had not worked at an haute couture house and I had to relearn what it was all about.

WWD: Do you miss it now?

De la Renta: No. In the end, I hated it.

WWD: How come?

De la Renta: First of all, I felt that I wasn’t really giving the attention to my own business that it required. And Paris today is a very different city than the city I knew when I was there in the late Fifties and early Sixties. In the months of June and July, I love it. When I was there in January and it rained every single day, I would say Paris is the best place in the world to be nostalgic. I am an island boy. In New York, it can be freezing cold, but there is blue sky. In Paris, you can go for a few weeks without ever seeing blue sky. To me, New York is home and I missed it.

WWD: As you’ve said, you’re not a loner. You are a very social, worldly person with diverse interests. How has all of that informed your work?

De la Renta: A lot, because a lot of the people who are my friends wear my clothes.

WWD: Does your breadth of interests make you a better, more informed designer?

De la Renta: I think that my sense of curiosity makes me a better designer. Not a better designer, that’s patronizing. It makes me understand my craft better. I’ve always thought that, to be able to design, you just have to keep your eyes open and understand who your consumer is, understanding their lifestyle and what their needs are. What is different now is that 15 years ago, I would go to an appearance at Saks Fifth Avenue or at Bergdorf Goodman and I would probably know every single woman who came to buy one of my dresses. Today, I probably would know 5 percent of them.

WWD: Which goes back to your new broader, younger clientele.

De la Renta: I think so. The other day, I went to this fund-raiser for New Yorkers for Children and they are trying to involve younger people. There were all these hedge fund guys and these young women wearing my clothes, 20 or 30 years old.

WWD: One reason is your popularity among celebrities, with Sarah Jessica Parker the most obvious example. How do you view the fashion-celebrity hoopla? Has it gone too far?

De la Renta: The celebrity thing is obviously important in that it gives you visibility. But that’s not the real consumer. They don’t pay for the clothes. It’s somebody else who is going to be spending the money.

WWD: How much can your business continue to grow?

De la Renta: There is a huge untapped market. We are just starting to expand into Europe. I used to have a huge, big licensing business in Japan that no longer exists because we canceled all of our licenses. I see great, untapped opportunities that I should be pursuing, which is the kind of thing that Alex will be doing in the future.

WWD: What is your position these days on going down in the market?

De la Renta: We launched that line with Kellwood [O Oscar], which is doing relatively well. I wasn’t really happy with the product. And we just now are in the process of changing the designer. You know, one thing that we have learned is that the consumer knows very much more at any level than you expect that consumer to know. Today, even a woman who buys a T-shirt for $20 because she cannot afford a $2,000 dress is an aspirational consumer. She sees the magazine. She looks at the clothes. That is, she looks at the movie stars, the celebrities or whatever. So I think that you have to be able to impact that market, you really have to offer something that is quite close to what you are doing in the higher price point.

WWD: Is that the reason for upgrading to better, as WWD reported last week?

De la Renta: What we are trying to do with the O Oscar line with Kellwood is offer the best quality product possible. Kellwood has such unbelievable manufacturing….To me, moderate or better, the difference in price is so small….

WWD: But in the retail reality, it’s a major difference — different departments.

De la Renta: But in a lot of department stores across the country, they sit in the same area. It depends on what the configuration of the store is.

WWD: So you mean it’s not going to be a huge change?

De la Renta: I don’t think so…[but] we are talking about all of this, looking very seriously at the positioning of the line and the way we operate. We have a whole new design team that will be fully integrated with the design team here.

WWD: What do you like least about your job, fashion, the whole thing?

De la Renta: I like the excitement. I hate bad reviews.

WWD: When that’s happened, you seem to have taken it in stride.

De la Renta: Sometimes bad reviews don’t mean bad business. A journalist looks at a collection with a very different eye than a consumer looks at collections. That’s something you have to focus on.

WWD: What do you love most about your job?

De la Renta: I like the excitement.

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