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Mixing Good Will and Politics

The concept of giving back is not lost on Oscar de la Renta, aka "Papi," whose interests run from global concerns to the arts to helping his native Dominican Republic.

Oscar de la Renta does not live and die by the success of one collection of dresses. Life, of course, contains hundreds of other experiences, and the polished designer chooses to spend a good portion of his free time helping out one of the many charities he’s involved with in the U.S. and in the Dominican Republic.

De la Renta left his homeland at age 18, but he returns frequently to the small Caribbean country, where his residence in Punta Cana is a veritable compound, complete with expansive gardens and its own chapel. It is in the Dominican Republic where de la Renta channels many of his philanthropic efforts, focusing on Hogar del Nino and Taller Vocacional, a home and school for low-income children in La Romana that de la Renta started with the organization Patronato Benefico Oriental nearly 25 years ago. (He later adopted his son, Moises, 20, from Hogar del Nino.)

The school opened with only eight children in attendance. Now there are 80 between the ages of six and 17, and Hogar del Nino feeds and provides medicine for more than 1,300 children a day. It’s considered to be the most comprehensive child assistance program in the country. “We try to keep the structure of the home alive, as fragile as it might be,” de la Renta said. “By taking care of the children through the day, we create opportunities so the mothers can go out and work. If they cannot pay at all for us taking care of the child, they pay nothing. But if they can contribute in a small way, we let them do that, because it gives them a sense they’re doing something for their family.”

The home is roughly an hour’s drive from de la Renta’s retreat in Punta Cana, but he visits as often as he can. “No one knows what my name is,” he said. “They all just call me Papi.”

The plight of disadvantaged children is a major concern for the designer, and de la Renta says he helps them “for selfish reasons. It gives me pleasure. You look at a child smile at you and you get it … I love children, I relate to children, I have a great time with them,” he continued. “I have the patience to deal with them.”

This story first appeared in the June 14, 2005 issue of WWD.  Subscribe Today.

The debonair de la Renta is perhaps New York’s most social designer, and he travels in sophisticated circles. He sits on the board of New Yorkers for Children, which provides resources for children in the city’s foster care system, recruiting celebrities such as Sarah Jessica Parker for the cause. A lover of the arts, he also sits on the board of Carnegie Hall and recently accepted the chairmanship of the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute. Its gala in December will honor cultural and fine arts committee members Julio Iglesias, Beatrice Santo Domingo and Henry Kissinger.

Though Kissinger and his wife, Nancy, are old friends, de la Renta’s relationships are not limited by political ideology. He has quite famously designed clothes for Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush, and he notes that “I’ve never been a member of a [political] party. I’ve always voted for the person.” In fact as he has told it, his friendship with Nancy Reagan hit a serious snag when she expressed annoyance over his relationship with Clinton, who, along with her husband, has become a friend.

The Clintons visit de la Renta in Punta Cana every year, and last fall the former president asked the designer if he would arrange a lunch with former Secretary of State Kissinger. De la Renta obliged, and in February he and his wife, Annette, the Clintons, the Kissingers and Barbara Walters got together at the de la Rentas’ expansive Connecticut home. Not surprisingly, the discussion focused on foreign policy, particularly the Middle East. “There’s nothing more exhilarating than hearing two extraordinarily intelligent people speak,” de la Renta said. “And it’s so extraordinary — you’re thinking one’s a Republican, the other one is a Democrat, but how much they converge and how much they agree in a lot of their views.”

Perhaps that lunch whet the designer’s appetite for serious bridge-building, because he recently hosted a dinner at his Park Avenue apartment for Dominican Republic president Leonel Fernandez and Congressman Charles Rangel, hoping to open the door for discussion on the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), which Rangel opposes. In preparation, de la Renta called Condoleezza Rice for coaching on talking points. “I wanted to be able to have a serious discussion,” he said. “I think the only way we can get a stronger country is if we can get a stronger hemisphere.”

De la Renta’s concern for the “hemisphere” stems from his allegiance to more than one nation. He retains dual citizenship in the U.S. and the Dominican Republic and holds a diplomatic passport from the latter. “I feel very strongly about my roots and where I come from,” he said.

Would he ever consider accepting a more formal and full-time position in politics?

“Many years ago, I was asked to be an ambassador [of the Dominican Republic] to Washington,” de la Renta said. “I said no, first of all, because I could not afford it; I had to work. Also, I would never give up my American citizenship. And,” he added, “I love what I do.”