View Slideshow

NEW YORK — Unanimity does not come easily in the fashion world — except, perhaps, when Oscar de la Renta is involved.

The designer’s generosity of spirit was something all guests could agree upon Monday night at the annual benefit for Parsons The New School for Design, which honored de la Renta.

Former president Bill Clinton, stepping in for his wife, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D., N.Y.), who was detained by business in Washington, said he “tried to dress up for Oscar” and lauded his “great friend.”

Among those who turned out to praise de la Renta at Pier 60 were Diane von Furstenberg, Vera Wang, Terry Lundgren, Gilbert Harrison, Anna Wintour, Kenneth Cole, Dana Buchman, Stan Herman, Lavelle Olexa, Charles Nolan and Iris Apfel, as well as the designer’s family members.

The New School’s president, former Sen. Bob Kerrey, a Nebraska Democrat, welcomed Clinton by referring to him as “the president’s husband,” perhaps a bit of wishful partisan thinking, to laughter from the crowd as he corrected himself.

Clinton, who has stayed at the designer’s Dominican Republic home several times with his wife, said his favorite story about de la Renta is “how he became a designer.”

He spoke of de la Renta’s teenage aspiration to become an artist. “He could have been a great one, I think,” the former president said. “But I’m sure many of you are glad that he didn’t.”

Recounting the designer’s career, Clinton recalled de la Renta’s days at Balenciaga and the house of Lanvin, and how he launched his business in 1965. On a personal note, Clinton mentioned visiting the school in the Dominican Republic that de la Renta has established. He spoke of their “endless long talks that have nothing to do with anything that brought you here tonight,” and also described the designer as “a great friend” and “the most competitive card player” he has ever played with.

The guest of honor joked that he was wary of giving free advice to Parsons students “since some of you might soon be my competition.” In fact, one of his interns, Michelle Burrus, was among the students whose collections were shown during a post-dinner fashion show.

This story first appeared in the May 10, 2006 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

Nevertheless, he said, “I hope you will retain the energy and enthusiasm that you have today, and 40 years from now, you will enjoy your work as much as I enjoy my work now.”

Before the program got under way, Kerrey said, “Oscar is a great role model not just to fashion students. He’s made a big impact not just in design and business, but with his charisma, elegance and the way he carries himself. Personally, I think students looking up to Oscar is a good thing.”

More design hopefuls may have the opportunity, because the event raised over $1 million for Parsons’ scholarship fund.

Paul Goldberger, dean of Parsons The New School for Design, said of de la Renta. “He’s one of those people — if you live a life in New York, you cannot not know Oscar. He’s such a critical figure not just in design, but in the life of New York.”

Speaking of de la Renta, Cole said, “I’ve always been a big Oscar fan, because he has such extraordinary presence and poise. He is iconic in one regard and as real as they come in another.”

Olexa, senior vice president of fashion merchandising for Lord & Taylor, said de la Renta was the first designer she ever met. While working as a model for Neiman Marcus, she walked the sales floor in some of his early designs.

“I was so awestruck,” she recalled. “He was so handsome and debonair. He has always had such star power. I was mesmerized by the glamour of it all. That’s probably one of the reasons I stayed in fashion. Oscar represents glamour in the most exquisite way.

“So I modeled for Oscar, but Oscar never knew it,” Olexa laughed.

Wang, asked for her favorite Oscar story, recalled being a Vogue editor and seeing the designer in the Oak Room at the Plaza. “We sent a bottle to him….I don’t think he ever knew where it came from.”

Guests stood in line to greet him as the benefit wound down.

“They turn out mostly for the students,” the designer said. “That’s what it’s all about. I was very honored and I was so happy president Clinton could be here.”

As for his competitive cardplaying, de la Renta said, “What he didn’t say is he beats me every time.”