Elegant. The word is not typically cited as a core American descriptive of American fashion. Pragmatic, approachable, fun, yes. Elegant, no.
Oscar de la Renta was the essence of elegance. Elegant in the way he lived, the way he worked, the way he treated people. Elegant in the way he died. When he passed away on Oct. 20, de la Renta left a deep void, one that spanned continents and generations.
His was an enduring presence in fashion for more than 50 years, yet he never seemed to struggle to retain relevancy. It all seemed to come as naturally to him as the captivating charm and slyly wicked humor that could swing from gentle to acerbic.
But all who know fashion know it’s never easy, certainly not over the long haul. Yet de la Renta pulled off the deception of ease. His last collection, shown just six weeks before his death, was one of his best, with the right balance of youth and sophistication, and some intricate pieces that approached couture. Despite his worsening health in the lead-up to the show, de la Renta was hard at work in the studio, as resolute and focused as ever.
He loved to point out that his career paralleled seismic cultural shifts. “I came to this country when women had a very different role than they have today,” he told WWD in 2013. “I remember when a woman walked into the restaurant in pants and she was not allowed in. I have been a witness to so much.”
And a participant. To the chagrin of a father who considered law and medicine more appropriate, de la Renta was drawn to the arts as a youth in his native Dominican Republic. His mother proved more understanding and, when he was 17, supported his move to Spain to study. He left for Europe already with a keen understanding of the feminine psyche developed organically; he was the lone son among seven siblings, and his beloved mother and grandmother — their styles included — were huge influences on his life. Throughout his career he would say that his singular goal as a designer was to help women look and feel beautiful. More than mere lip service, it was the articulation of a deeply felt, self-imposed mandate.
De la Renta never wavered from it. Not when he fell into fashion when a dress he had sketched out for a chic friend was seen by the right woman of influence (Francesca, the wife of U.S. Ambassador to Spain John Davis Lodge) who sent him to the right house of couture (Balenciaga). From there began a trajectory that included stints at Lanvin and, upon his return to the U.S., Elizabeth Arden and Jane Derby, where he received his first name recognition and which, after Derby’s death, became the Oscar de la Renta business.
From the start, he attracted a lexicon of the chic-and-famous du jour, from the refined Ladies Who Lunched to the glam queens of Nouvelle Society to a litany of first ladies and current Hollywood actresses. Always, he adapted to a new, younger constituency without alienating his core. He attributed his success to keeping an open mind and welcoming dissent. “I like to be contradicted,” he said of his attitude in the design studio. “I like to be challenged on a daily basis.”
Then again, he loved conversation. Literary discourse. Political debate. Card-playing banter. He loved people and hated being alone.
For all his charm and social skill, de la Renta was as competitive as they come. When interviewed last year about his upcoming CFDA Founders Award, he noted that in fashion, “the past doesn’t count. You’re as good as your last collection,” and the only award that mattered was the Womenswear Designer of the Year Award. He never feared controversy. In the past few years alone, he engaged in a verbal hot-dog joust with Cathy Horyn, called out Michelle Obama for wearing Alexander McQueen to a U.S.-China trade dinner and welcomed John Galliano into his studio as a “designer-in-residence,” a major step in the designer’s post-fall return to fashion legitimacy.
De la Renta was both idealist and realist, in fashion and in life. Given his age and years-long battle with cancer, he was determined to secure his house’s creative succession. A firm believer in Galliano’s talent and the powers of forgiveness and redemption, he considered Galliano for the job. In the end, he didn’t make the offer, not in fear of negative fallout but in loyalty to his staff. Sensing that Galliano would want his own people in the studio, de la Renta chose to protect the design crew he loved. Not that he settled. He hired Peter Copping, whose sophisticated froth for Nina Ricci suggests that he’s a natural heir to fashion’s most beloved ladies’ man.
De la Renta’s plan didn’t work out exactly as he’d hoped; he wanted to work with Copping for a couple of seasons. Nevertheless, the manner in which he approached the succession issue reflected his typical elegance of behavior. There would be no drama or infighting, nor would the company be caught by surprise. He loved it too much. “Fifty years I have been doing this and I think I started yesterday…” de la Renta told WWD last year. “I am so overwhelmed that I still can come to work and be as passionate about what I do as Day One.”