By  on May 2, 2008

If only for a day, Oscar de la Renta dressed up the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in San Diego.

There's no telling what scientists at the famed research center made of Anja Rubik and Magdalena Frackowiak strutting across the promenade for photographer Craig McDean, but consumers will be able to see for themselves in ads that will run in fashion magazines in August.

In 1959, physician Jonas Salk, who developed the polio vaccine, turned to architect Louis Kahn to create the Modernist research facility he envisioned in the La Jolla community. Getting permission to use the landmark for a fashion shoot took some wrangling.

Three formal requests were made and each was "very politely declined," said Alex Bolen, chief executive officer of Oscar de la Renta. "They said, 'Look, we're a serious research institute and we don't do these types of things.'"

But de la Renta, Bolen, McDean and Doug Lloyd, creative director of Lloyd (+ co), were not deterred. As a last-ditch effort, the creative team went to the institute's list of trustees and, sure enough, one was the spouse of a longtime de la Renta client. The designer called the client personally and she helped get the go-ahead. In lieu of a location fee, the company made a donation to the institute, though Bolen declined to say how much.

Set atop a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, the location had no shortage of wind, but the hair and makeup team of Oribe Canales and Peter Philips and stylist Alex White soldiered on. De la Renta, an admirer of Kahn's architecture, was pleased with the final takes.

"The bold lines and dramatic setting of the Salk Institute provided the perfect environment for capturing the look and feel of my designs," he said.

There wasn't anxiety that the stark, modern structures might deter from the designer clothes. "Our biggest concern was rain, as it is whenever you shoot outside," Bolen said.

Aside from showing off his latest collection, de la Renta may help rekindle interest in the work of Kahn, who was deeply in debt when he died of a heart attack in 1974.Other fashion firms have also turned to architectural marvels as backdrops for advertising. Seven For All Mankind used Philip Johnson's iconic Glass House in New Canaan, Conn., for its fall advertising campaign, and J. Crew shot its March catalogue at the 1946 Kaufmann Desert House in Palm Springs, Calif., to accentuate its Palm Springs-inspired spring collection.

Scheduling conflicts kept Bolen from visiting the institute — something that has long been on his list of things to do. "The fact that we were able to pull off this dramatic shoot and I'm still waiting for my tour of the Salk Institute is all very sad," he said.

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