Oscar de la Renta has lived the Latin American dream.
With roots on a tiny Third World island in the Thirties, he has built a multinational brand with an estimated $100 million in annual apparel retail sales and another $650 million in licensed products. His label has grown to become one of the world’s best-known in fashion, consistently placing in the WWD100 annual consumer survey of most recognized brands. And he has won the hearts — and business — of many prominent society figures as he glides gracefully through that rarefied lifestyle.
De la Renta was born July 22, 1932, in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. He left there at age 18 to study painting at the Academy of San Fernando in Madrid.
While living in Spain, he became interested in design and began sketching for leading Spanish fashion houses, which soon led to an apprenticeship with Spain’s most renowned couturier, Cristobal Balenciaga. Later, de la Renta left Spain to join Antonio Castillo as a couture assistant at the house of Lanvin in Paris.
Meanwhile, an ocean away, Ben Shaw had become a legendary Garment District entrepreneur and power broker. Shaw was nicknamed “Mr. Seventh Avenue,” gaining his reputation by helping to launch the careers and pull the purse strings for designers such as Donald Brooks, Norman Norell, Stephen Burrows, Dominic Rompollo, Giorgio di Sant’Angelo and Halston. In the Fifties, Shaw was running the designer dress house Jane Derby, and it was there that fashion history would be made.
Ben’s son, Jerry Shaw, began working at Derby in 1956, seven years before de la Renta would make his way to the U.S., to design the made-to-measure collection for Elizabeth Arden.
“My father was a pioneer in the designer field,” Shaw recalled in a WWD interview in 1994. “He had, among other attributes, a great ability for spotting talent and promoting talent. He felt that, at some point, young, talented designers really had to be brought to the front. Their names could be put on labels, but you had to get it past the stores.
“We got to the point where business went to a certain level and we couldn’t get it past that, and that’s when Oscar came into the picture.”
That was a decade later, in 1965, when the Shaws recruited de la Renta from Arden. The Shaws changed the label to Oscar de la Renta for Jane Derby. A year passed, Jane Derby died, and the company was restructured as Oscar de la Renta Ltd.
In 1969, the firm was sold to publicly owned Richton International, only to be sold back to de la Renta and the Shaws in 1974. After Ben Shaw retired about a year later, Jerry Shaw and de la Renta became equal partners. In the late Eighties, the deal was restructured, giving de la Renta a controlling interest. Ben Shaw died in 1988 at the age of 90.
One of the breakthrough moments for de la Renta, and indeed for American fashion, came in 1973. It was supposed to be a friendly, festive evening between a group of American and French designers, but “An Evening at Versailles,” a fashion extravaganza held to raise funds to refurbish the chateau, raised a lot of hackles. Five French designers — Hubert de Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, Emanuel Ungaro, Andre Oliver for Cardin and Marc Bohan for Christian Dior — picked the five U.S. designers: de la Renta, Halston, Anne Klein, Bill Blass and Stephen Burrows. WWD described the event as an “American triumph,” and it certainly raised the profiles of these Seventh Avenue designers, as well as the U.S. fashion industry, to an international stage.
De la Renta’s international profile was further raised when, between 1993 and 2002, he designed the haute couture collection for the house of Pierre Balmain, becoming the first American to design for a French couture house. He has been awarded the French Legion d’Honneur as a Commandeur.
Jerry Shaw retired as president and vice chairman of Oscar de Renta in 1994 when he was 64. At that time, his wife, Syd, who was 61, also retired after 22 years with the firm, where she helped pioneer the company’s traveling ready-to-wear trunk shows into a major marketing tool.
Jerry Shaw noted at the time that his decision to retire was made easier because the firm’s international licensing and retailing strategy was in good hands under the leadership of Jeffry Aronsson, who came on board in March of that year as chief executive.
In an interview with WWD when he retired, Shaw said that, while he’s seen many other companies go out of business and partnerships break up, this company has thrived and the partnership has endured.
“Oscar and I have had a fabulous relationship, much more than business,” Shaw said. “We have a terrific personal relationship. We’re like family. It’s been almost 30 years. We grew up together in this business and have always had a wonderful rapport. We’ve been able to solve problems and discuss everything and anything.”
This month, in a phone interview from his home in Palm Beach, Fla., Shaw still held the same emotions.
“The relationship between Oscar and myself was always terrific,” he said. “We each took care of our own side of the business, but we were always in sync. And Oscar has always been hands-on in all aspects of the business, which is why he has been so successful for so many years.”
Shaw said the traveling and early days of expansion are memories he cherishes.
“We had a lot of fun over the years,” he said. “I remember a show we did in Japan sometime in the late Seventies or early Eighties. It was a big, extravagant stage show — they spelled out Oscar de la Renta on moving glass panels. I was amazed how they did it, so I went backstage and there was this old Japanese man spinning them on rods. It worked perfectly. Today, it would all be computerized and it wouldn’t work.”
Shaw recalled that it was Gordon Franklin, president of Saks Fifth Avenue, and Adam Gimbel, who was Saks’ chairman, who started putting designer names on apparel labels, including de la Renta, Blass, Brooks and Anne Klein. Prior to that, only the names of the manufacturer, such as Ben Zuckerman, or Saks’ house brand, Sophie, named for Sophie Gimbel, Adam’s wife, were on the label.
He noted that, when they opened the Oscar de la Renta Boutique line in 1967, it was the first secondary line for a Seventh Avenue designer.
Aronsson, an attorney who served as general counsel for the company for seven years, became president and ceo in 1994. He left in 2003 when he was recruited by LVMH Moet Hennessy Louis Vuitton to become ceo of Marc Jacobs.
His tenure was marked by the careful and measured approach of a lawyer, building a reputation for improving the image of its product through disciplined licensing, without damaging the brand.
Aronsson helped build the business in emerging markets in Asia and Latin America. His legal background also proved beneficial, as Aronsson’s contractual skills resulted in better control over existing licensed products as well as the introduction of bridal, intimates and furniture.
“I first met Oscar [in 1987] when I was a practicing tax lawyer prospecting for new business,” Aronsson, now ceo of Donna Karan, said last week. “I will never forget Oscar looking as sartorial and elegant as he does today, eyeing me in my polyester plaids. Nevertheless, he took a chance by allowing me to handle a transaction. I left the office and immediately purchased a copy of WWD, my first ever. That night I was the only passenger on the train home reading both a Daily Tax Report, my trade daily, and a WWD, and trying to make sense out of both.
“Oscar was for me a business lawyer’s dream client. His creativity is multidimensional, transcending the design studio into the business ideas I developed with him. His own insights and suggestions turned what I thought were good ideas into great ones. He then left them for me to execute. As time rolled on, we developed a lockstep way of working together and he was so uncannily quick to pick up on the cues when transacting deals together.
“I will always be grateful to Oscar for taking a huge chance when giving me mine, which over time established me into an occupation I feel fortunate to have in a great industry.”
Part of Aronsson’s tenure was marked by brand expansion. To complement the signature line, Oscar de la Renta Accessories bowed for fall 2001. The world of Oscar de la Renta now also includes cosmetic cases, eyewear, furs, jewelry, lingerie, scarves and sleepwear. For men, de la Renta licenses products, including hosiery, sport coats, suits and trousers. In South and Central America and Mexico, there is a sportswear line for men and boys, and Oscar Jeans for men and women.
In fall 2004, de la Renta launched O Oscar, a moderate women’s sportswear line. Most recently, bags, shoes and sunglasses have been added to the brand.
De la Renta now also designs for the home. Oscar de la Renta Home rolled out a furniture collection and home fragrance collection in 2002. Since then, tabletop, decorative fabrics, wallpaper, bedding, rugs and decorative accents have been added.
De la Renta launched his first perfume, Oscar, in 1977. The scent won the 1991 Fragrance Foundation Perennial Success Award, and today, it is a bestseller in more than 70 countries. The beauty business generates an estimated $80 million at wholesale around the world each year, according to industry sources. In 1980, he created a fragrance for men, Pour Lui. In 1995, de la Renta was the recipient of the Living Legend Award from the American Society of Perfumers. In the fall of 1999, Oscar for Men was introduced and 2002 marked the debut of Intrusion. In 2004, de la Renta introduced Rosamor, his latest fragrance for women. (For more on the fragrances, see page 32.)
De la Renta’s charitable, professional and personal achievements and honors are many. He received the Council of Fashion Designers of America Women’s Wear Designer of the Year Award in 2000.
In February 1990, he was honored with the CFDA Lifetime Achievement Award. From 1973 to 1976, and from 1986 to 1988, Oscar de la Renta served as president of the CFDA. He is also a two-time winner of the Coty American Fashion Critic’s Award and was inducted into the Coty Hall of Fame in 1973.
The Dominican Republic also has honored its native son as one of its most distinguished citizens with the order of al Merito de Juan Pablo Duarte and the order of Cristobal Colon. In 1996, de la Renta received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Hispanic Heritage Society, and in 2000, he marched down Fifth Avenue as Grand Marshall of New York City’s Hispanic Day Parade. Also in 2000, de la Renta received the Gold Medal of Bellas Artes from the King of Spain. Oscar de la Renta also has helped build a much-needed school and day-care center in the Dominican Republic for 1,200 children. (See related story, page 16.)
Oscar de la Renta is a patron of the arts. He serves as a board member of The Metropolitan Opera, Carnegie Hall and Channel Thirteen/WNET. He also serves on the boards of important institutions such as New Yorkers for Children and the Americas Society, and is presently chairman of the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute.
Speaking at the WWD/DNR CEO Summit in June 2001, de la Renta said he traveled the globe pursuing his dream: “I remember all the big stores, the American stores and American manufacturers, used to come to Paris and they would come to the collection,” he said about his early days in the City of Light. “They were able to see the collections and buy some of the clothes. I remember Norman Norell coming to Balenciaga and buying clothes and then making them for the American market with the signature of Norman Norell.”
He said the turning point was getting his own signature collection and he, too, noted the big moment at Saks.
“I remember back in 1966 when I was summoned … to Adam Gimbel’s office at Saks Fifth Avenue,” de la Renta said. “Mr. Gimbel wanted to announce very important news to us: that the store was no longer going to remove our labels, that it would carry the labels of the designers. That was sort of a big breakthrough.”
But for all his accomplishments and renown, de la Renta’s way of catering to society women, Shaw observed, is probably his most notable achievement.
“Oscar really caters to the ladies,” he said. “He knows how to design beautiful clothes and make women look very attractive.”
Or, as de la Renta said in 2001: “Making clothes is like falling in love. Every season, the day before the show, I put the whole collection on the wall, and everybody has the right to say what they love most and what they hate most. Most of the time, what my assistants hate most is what I like the best. You know why? Because I feel sorry for the dress.”