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The Retail Love Affair

The designer has celebrated women since 1965 -- and it's paid off in the stores.

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One of the things you hear over and over about Oscar de la Renta is how much he loves women and how much they love him back. And that, in a nutshell, is why retailers also hold the designer dear.

De la Renta has had one of the longest and most successful careers in the fashion industry. And some would argue his success is as much about his personal touch as it is about striking the right chord with his designs.

“I can only say good things — and so many of them — about Oscar,” said Burton Tansky, chairman and chief executive officer of the Neiman Marcus Group. “Besides being a very fine gentleman and a very nice man, he’s a creative genius. He understands women and what customers want and delivers season in, season out. His designs are beautiful and classic. They have value and they’re appropriate for the occasions a woman buys them for.”

Caryn Lerner, president of Holt Renfrew, observed: “Oscar de la Renta stands for what American fashion is all about. Sophisticated, feminine and colorful, his collections are everything a woman wants in how she wants to dress.”

Barbara Atkin, Holt Renfrew’s fashion director, pointed out that de la Renta’s is a small but important business for the Canadian retailer. The clothing is not inexpensive and caters to a well-traveled woman who understands his quality and beautiful decoration, she said, adding, “Women feel they’re embracing Oscar when they’re wearing his clothes.”

At Holt Renfrew, Oscar de la Renta has been attracting a younger fashion customer who likes to shop ahead of time and is unconcerned about price when she sees something she loves.

Sue Patneaude, executive vice president of designer apparel at Nordstrom, reiterated de la Renta’s appreciation for women. “He’s on the same plane as the women he designs for. His love for women comes out in his work,” she said. “You can’t think about a couture business without Oscar.”

Robert Burke, senior vice president of fashion office and public relations at Bergdorf Goodman, said de la Renta has an affinity for dressing the Ladies Who Lunch and their daughters because he understands the lives of his customers.

“All their desires, needs, hopes and dreams always come through in his collections,” said Burke. “There’s a refinement and elegance to Oscar’s designs that are always undeniable. They’re for the very sophisticated and well-traveled woman. There’s a great deal of security in wearing Oscar de la Renta because his taste is so refined and timeless.”

Or as C.Z. Guest once so succinctly told Burke, “Oscar doesn’t even understand what bad taste is.”

Oscar de la Renta’s prices aren’t for everyone — the collection runs from several thousand dollars for a dress to $34,000 for a shearling coat — but those who can afford his clothes spend freely.

“Our trunk shows have been breaking records,” said Tansky. “Our business is very strong. He’s very expensive and only suitable for a small number of retailers that can sell him well. Customers come to us for Oscar. His is a very large and substantial business.”

De la Renta has been able to appeal to “ladies of a certain age” as well as younger women in their 30s. While other designers have tried to walk this delicate tightrope without much success, de la Renta has managed to attract a younger customer without alienating his core constituency.

“Oscar is dressing the daughters of his clients,” said Michael Fink, vice president and fashion director of Saks Fifth Avenue. “He’s not afraid to move forward, as fashion always should. He always does the beautiful suit for the older woman. Then there’s a beautiful shirt and skirt or pants for the way a younger girl dresses. It’s of the moment.”

Fink said Saks looks to de la Renta for the best of American design. “In addition to the quality and amazing fabrics he uses, there’s always a sense of surprise in every collection,” he explained. “It’s very youthful. What appears to be another suit always has a twist, something that makes it young and kicky. The business is one of our most important designer businesses.”

De la Renta has been a fixture at Lord & Taylor for years, said LaVelle Olexa, senior vice president of fashion merchandising for the retailer, which sells his designer collection in its salon. “His shows always reflect his extraordinary personal style and graciousness and generosity of spirit,” she said. “He’s made appearances for his fragrances and gowns and we’ve put Oscar’s designs in the windows any number of times. He’s very special to the industry.”

What retailers appreciate about de la Renta is his interpersonal skills. The designer is described as charming, witty, handsome and more. Best of all, he is not averse to making store appearances.

“He’s in the New York store at least twice a year,” said Fink. “He goes to several out-of-town stores each season. He’s so visible to the public. They love him and he loves it. He’s very important to Saks Fifth Avenue. We love what he does and love that he’s consistent. He has a sense of humor and a sense of whimsy.”

“He started doing luxurious clothes for established American women,” said Kal Ruttenstein, senior vice president and fashion director of Bloomingdale’s. “The remarkable thing is that, in the last few years, he’s kept that customer and developed her, and at the same time, started designing for a young customer, the Sarah Jessica Parkers of the world.”

Bloomingdale’s no longer sells designer price points. Ruttenstein said the store is considering O Oscar, which started as a moderate line of women’s apparel licensed to the Kellwood Co., but is relaunching next spring for the better market.

Nicole Fischelis, vice president and fashion director of women’s ready-to-wear at Macy’s, lamented the fact that the chain no longer sells designer price points. However, she said, “we’re looking at O Oscar. Surely we’re interested in building a business with that.”

Fischelis is a personal fan. “I loved the last runway collection,” she said. “The workmanship and color sensibility and craft were amazing, the cashmere sweaters with built-in jewelry, cropped jackets and big ikat pattern coats. I would love to see some of those ideas translated to bridge. It would be a big success.”

Part of the strategy for growing the de la Renta brand is expansion on an international stage. The company is reportedly in discussions to sell in China. The designer already is carried by C’est Luxe in Japan, which is owned by Louis Vuitton.

In Moscow, Oscar is also causing a stir. Aizel Guseinova-Landau, the owner of multiple boutiques in the city, said, “It’s doing very well. I’ve been totally shocked and surprised in a good way. I bought almost all the outfits from the fashion show.”

Guseinova-Landau praised the materials, colors, shearlings, silk georgette blouses, embroidered sweaters and evening dresses.

“My young clients who wear Marc Jacobs and Chloe love Oscar,” she said. “We have a very young customer. It’s a question of price range. The girls that can allow themselves to buy it want to be dressed by Oscar. He’s great. I love him. I want to open a freestanding shop for Oscar. I just have to find the right location.”

Neiman’s Tansky gave de la Renta a compliment rarely given to industry veterans: “He’s at the top of his game and has given the industry a lot of fashion and style.”

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