By  on May 11, 2007

“Restraint is a word that Latinos don’t know well, but I have probably learned to use it in a better way with age.”

So says Oscar de la Renta of his critically acclaimed fall collection, for which he took a relatively understated approach, from an earthy color palette for luxurious fabrics to discreet touches of embroidery and sparkle. It earned de la Renta another nomination for the Womenswear Designer of the Year award by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, for which he will compete against Marc Jacobs and Proenza Schouler in June.

More than a month after the New York shows, de la Renta is still trying to pinpoint just what differentiated this collection from others. For one, he is the first to admit the sense of self-control that was a common thread through the 56 looks was not deliberate, but rather happenstance.

“It was probably an unconscious thought,” he says, in an interview from Punta Cana in his native Dominican Republic, where he spent more than a month after the show. “It automatically happens. There are certain sacrifices you need to make for a collection to be cohesive and for it to address your consumer.”

What sounds like a simple gesture is actually one of the finest lines in fashion, distinguishing a good designer from a great one, and in his 42 years on Seventh Avenue, de la Renta has pretty much nailed it. Today, de la Renta is busier than ever. He stages five runway shows each year—spring, pre-fall, fall, resort and bridal—has a flourishing home business and just relaunched the O Oscar de la Renta better line with Kellwood at Macy’s. Each factor is contributing to what de la Renta describes as unprecedented growth.

Unlike many of his peers, this quintessential gentleman has cracked the proverbial code and figured out how to woo a wide client base that sometimes seems contradictory. The Oscar woman can range from the mature Park Avenue doyenne to the wild Hollywood starlet, or Republican First Lady Laura Bush as well as former first lady and Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Clinton.

“I think that when I design the clothes…I am just thinking of a woman in general,” de la Renta says, describing his fall collection of printed wool tweed skirts, tweed houndstooth jackets, hand-woven mink coats and silk gowns. “People always say that it must be so easy to do a collection after so many years working, but as time goes by, the challenge is probably bigger each time,” the 74-year-old designer, says. “There are so many younger, talented people you are competing with and, every time, you demand more of yourself.”This fall collection’s critical success was all the more remarkable because it was put together under particularly trying circumstances for de la Renta. Having been diagnosed with a localized cancer last year, de la Renta went through chemotherapy in the fall. The very private designer chose to keep his battle largely to himself and his family and balanced his work with the issues he had to wrestle. Rumors of retirement surfaced in the process, causing him to go on record to deny it. In fact, he now says that the prospect of work helped him grapple with cancer.

“It’s no secret that I was going through difficult times,” de la Renta says. “In a way, the fact that I have a responsibility to my work helped me deal with the whole process I was going through. While I was working on the collection, the only day I did not come to work was the day I was doing the chemo. I was so lucky, because I know how difficult it is for people. A lot of people have to suspend treatment because you can get so sick and nauseous.”

He even surprised his doctors at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center with his stoicism. They labeled him a “poster child for chemo,” de la Renta recalls.

“I was the only patient asking for a sandwich during my treatment,” he says, chuckling. “I was ordering a sandwich from Eli Zabar, when the idea of eating anything is just absolutely unimaginable for people.”

De la Renta says that the most difficult part about battling the disease was its emotional impact. “When you go to any hospital and look at people, you never know why people are there,” he says. “At Memorial Sloan-Kettering, you know that every single person is there because of cancer. To me, the most difficult part was sitting in rooms where there were children waiting for treatments and hearing them tell their mothers, ‘Mommy, Mommy take me home,’ ” he adds. “Because I knew a lot of those kids will never make it. It breaks your heart when you see babies.”

The designer finished his treatment at the end of September, then underwent three weeks of radiation. The process, he says, has changed his outlook on life. “No one ever thinks of dying, and we always think we are going to live forever,” he says. “The reality is one day we are going to die. In a way, it makes you appreciate the time you have so much more. I get up and go to the balcony and see the beautiful day and say, ‘God, thank you.’ I am thankful every single day of life. You become far more aware of all of that.“I lost my first wife to cancer,” he continues, “so it’s a process that I have already gone through once in my life. So how lucky am I to be alive? Probably, if what happened to her then would happen to her now, she would still be alive. So I was lucky that it happened to me now and not then.”

Today, de la Renta says he has a clean bill of health, and he used his time in Punta Cana’s warm climate to speed up his recovery with daily exercise routines, all the while putting the final touches on his bridal and resort collections with his design team brought in from New York.

It can be said that de la Renta’s is among the few top American fashion houses that fully embrace fashion’s new reality of pre-collections, licensed line extensions and global expansion, all of which have undoubtedly helped the designer further his brand. In addition to the six stores in New York; Manhasset, N.Y.; Dallas; Las Vegas; Bal Harbour, Fla.; and, most recently, Los Angeles, he plans to open his first retail unit in Moscow this winter, and company executives are busy scouting locations in Paris, Madrid and London.

“It never stops,” he sighs. “It’s funny, because I have never worked as hard in my life as I work now. You have to be passionate about what you do and put all your passion into it, and then the day you no longer have the passion, you stop.”

The designer also has been bitten by the trend to democratize fashion. The better O Oscar collection launched at 150 doors across Macy’s seven divisions, as well as macys.com, this spring. De la Renta says that widening one’s reach is an important sign of the times—the way to turn a designer label into a powerhouse.

“In creating a brand, there is no one who has done it more successfully and no one I have more respect for than Ralph Lauren,” de la Renta notes. “Ralph has, from the very beginning, had a clear vision of what he wants to do. When I went to Macy’s, I looked at all the departments I will be competing with, and the most beautiful of all was the Ralph Lauren department. I wasn’t looking at prices, but I was just looking at how unbelievably right the merchandise looked.”And he has this to say to critics who snipe that Gotham’s fashion is too commercial-minded and lacks creativity: “It’s a great time for American fashion. There is so much emerging new talent. I don’t agree that we are less creative. I think we are more realistic about understanding the consumer. I deeply enjoy what I do, but I enjoy it because I enjoy success. You may read an extraordinary review about someone that may be out of business the following season.

“To do extremely extravagant clothes that nobody would wear is probably the easiest thing to do,” he continues. “Creativity is important, but if you want to have a business with a sense of staying power, you have to make clothes that address the reality.”

Sometimes, reality in de la Renta’s life is the political stage, and over the last two administrations, he has become the go-to clothier for First Ladies. Where some would see dressing both Bush and Clinton as a political impossibility, de la Renta mastered a balance of his allegiances. All this sartorial bipartisanship is not to say that he doesn’t have an opinion on the state of his adopted home. “The U.S. is such an extraordinary country, and it’s sad to see this country so divided,” he says. “Americans are by far the most generous people in the world…but it’s sad to see how much today America is probably disliked. It breaks my heart. We just have to keep trying. I am extremely proud, with my very strong Dominican accent, to be an American.”

As for some of the other women who might move into the White House next, de la Renta has already met Cindy McCain but has yet to be introduced to Michelle Obama. Ever the designer-diplomat, he notes, “I hope I will be dressing all of them.”

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