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In April, 2016 I had the delightful pleasure of attending ‘The Oscar de laRenta
Retrospective’
fashion exhibit, at the San Francisco DeYoung Museum.








Oscar de la Renta’s designs celebrated the best in women’s fashion. On entering the exhibit; with iPhone
& note pad in hand; I was dazzled by the beauty & luxurious textures of this collection, which included
more than 130 ensembles, showcased in chronological sequence, starting with the glamorous 1950’s.
This world-premiere retrospective paid homage to one of the most influential & beloved fashion designers
of the 20th& 21st Centuries.



 




Oscar de la Renta, the youngest of seven children & the only boy in his family; was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. His Puerto Rican father, ÓscarAvelino De La Renta, was the prominent owner of an insurance company. His Dominican mother was; Carmen Maria Antonia Fiallo. The Fiallo’s, de la Renta’s mother’s family, were richly embedded in Dominican society & counted poets, scholars & businessmen, as well as the upper members of Army brass among them. De la Renta was raised in a protective Catholic family& his mother died from complications of multiple sclerosis when he was 18.

At the age of 18, he was sent to study painting in Spain at the Academy of San Fernando in Madrid. For additional money, he drew clothes for newspapers and fashion houses. Subsequently, fortune smiled on him when Francesca Lodge, the wife of John Davis Lodge, the U.S. Ambassador to Spain, saw some of his dress sketches and commissioned de la Renta to design a gown for her daughter. The dress appeared on the cover of Life magazine that fall. He immediately became interested in the world of fashion design & began sketching for some of the leading Spanish fashion houses, which soon led to an apprenticeship with Spain’s most iconic couturier, Cristóbal Balenciaga. He later considered Balenciaga as his mentor. In 1961. De la Renta left Spain to join Antonio del Castillo as a couture assistant in Paris.





In the 1950s de la Renta worked diligently in the Spanish fashion houses by day, but his nights in Madrid were electric, filled with flamenco dancers and smoky tapas bars. His father asked him to return to the Dominican Republic, to join the insurance business with him; but by this point Oscar was sketching profusely for magazines and fashion designers to earn extra money. He now envisioned an entirely different career for himself. De la Renta was deeply inspired by the people and history of Spain. And like his grand mentor Cristóbal Balenciaga, he was moved & inspired by the Golden Age of Spanish art. As I moved through the ‘Spanish Influences’ portion of the exhibit, I could see how he drew from the jewel tones in the paintings of El Greco & Francisco de Zurbaran, as well as the court costumes found in the regal portraits by Diego Velázquez. He was also strongly influenced by the renowned flamenco dancer Pilar López. This was expressed in his forms ofvivid patterns and cascading ruffles.


          






At the end of the 1950s de la Renta was mastering his fashion artistry while working with Cristóbal Balenciaga. So it wasn’t surprising when he went to work for Antonio Castillo at Lanvin in Paris. But it was renowned Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, who encouraged de la Renta to move to New York in 1963. To quote de la Renta; ‘I’d come to New York because I believed the future of fashion was in ready-to-wear’. Vreeland shrewdly promised de la Renta that he’d get better exposure working under Elizabeth Arden in New York, than at a larger fashion house in Paris. She told him; ‘Arden is not a designer, so she’ll promote you, but if you remain at Dior, you will always be eclipsed by the name. Two years later, he launched a label under his own name with Jane Derby, taking full control when she passed away two years later.




Handsome, talented and debonair, de la Renta was an immediate success. ‘He has emerged as one of the key creative talents in American fashion,’ wrote journalist Alice Hughes in the Reading Eagle, in 1967. ‘His style is rich, but restrained. He can design elaborate garments, but always uncluttered and in fine taste’. Later in 1993, he became the creative director of Balmain for nine years – the first Dominican to lead design at a French couture house.




In 1995 the New York Times announced ‘The Return of the Babushka’, which coincided with the thirtieth anniversary of the film version of David Lean’s epic Russian melodrama, ‘Doctor Zhivago’, staring Omar Sharif and Julie Christie. By the mid-nineties, de la Renta was at the head of Pierre Balmain for several seasons and had already designed many haute couture collections that were inspired by Russia. He once stated, ‘Magical stories about Russia…fed my imagination and made me dream’. De la Renta’s earliest industry recognition was the renowned Coty Award in 1967, which honored a collection that included Russian-inspired brocaded gowns trimmed in fur, recalling the opulent court of Catherine the Great, and printed tunics with a folkloric flair. In his 1970 season he created shimmering beaded evening gowns, that recalled Leon Bakst’s earlier costumes for Sergei Diaghilev’s legendary Ballets Russes.








Reflections on 1970s fashion and style – ‘No one had seen people move in that way. . .There was some magic to it’. . .

The foundations of old-world European haute couture were shaking. In a transatlantic challenge, five French designers invited five Americans to show at an event that would later become known as the ‘Battle of Versailles’. The Americans were a sensation, and new world order in fashion was at hand, For Oscar de la Renta, the stage is set for empire.

In 1973 a group of publicists, curators, socialites, and designers host an opulent fundraiser at Versailles to help restore the palace. The media seizes upon the event, and it it proves to be a turning point in the balance of power as the Americans come to the fore. That same year, Oscar serves his first term as president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), and is inducted into the Coty Hall of Fame. In 1977 he launched his first fragrance, ‘Oscar’.


In the 1980’s, it was back into rich, opulent clothes, which were my thing’ – Oscar de la Renta.

The eighties are a decade made for Oscar: a lavish celebration of American might and confidence. He is a frequent guest at the White House for dinner, where the dour mood of the previous decade had given way to extravagant glamour. Oscar’s dresses are bold and dramatic, his friends are powerful, and his business acumen is ever sharper.

In 1982 Oscar establishes ‘La Casa del Nino, an orphanage and day-care center for more than 1,200 children in his native Dominican Republic. In 1986 he began his second term as the president of the CFDA, and two years later he received the organization’s Lifetime Achievement Award. His collections in the 1980’s included those inspired by his native Caribbean and the 18th century ofMarie-Antoinette, were both critically and commercially successful.









‘Today, People – Clothes – are International. Frontiers are Non-Existent’

Oscar de la Renta astride the globe, one foot in Paris and the other in America. Having joined Pierre Balmain, he was now the first American designer to head a French couture house. His travel between Europe and New York earned him the nickname, the ‘Concorde Couturier’, He was a new kind of global brand.

In 1991 Oscar upended tradition by showing his fall collection in Paris before New York, the traditional venue for an American designer. This was a statement of his new reach, and in 1993 he joined the house of Peirre Balmain in Paris, while he continued to design his own line in New York. In 1996 he received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Hispanic Heritage Foundation. In 1977 Oscar deigned Hillary Clinton’s gown for the second inaugural ball in honor of her husband. He received the French Legion d’Honneur as Commander in 1999.






Oscar is now a fashion icon. He has dressed four First Ladies – Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Laura Bush. His looks regularly appear on the Red Carpet, flashbulb-lit dramas starring contemporary celebs, Rhianna, Penelope Cruz, and Sarah Jessica Parker. He is the grand marshal of parades and is honored by royalty. Perhaps most importantly, he is beloved by friends, family, and colleagues.






Oscar de la Renta was a lifelong gardener. He grew up surrounded by the vibrant colors and sweet fragrances of hibiscus, tuberose, and ylang-ylang that flourished in the bright sunlight of his tropical surroundings. Later in his life, he was renowned for the gardens he created at his homes in the Dominican Republic and in Kent, Connecticut.

The exhibits finale drew from de la Renta’s use of botanical themes, which included floral-printed silk taffetas, delicately appliqued flowers and soft ruffles evocative of blossoms. He was also influenced by eighteenth-century France and the court of Marie-Antoinette.






‘What matters above all are the people I love and to try to have a life that is well-lived’

On October 20th, 2014, Oscar died at his home in Connecticut surrounded by his family and friends.

“Oscar carried with him the warmth of paradise, surely drawn from the sheer happiness of his childhood, growing up in a tropical environment in a huge family, surrounded by love. Throughout his life, there was always love and laughter and it infused everything he took to task, be it the designing of a simple cashmere coat, a suit, or a gorgeous evening dress; preparing a lovely dinner party; or tending to his gardens. Oscar loved life, and the light from within him beamed out to his world.”




- Andre Leon Talley, in the exhibition catalogue Oscar de la Renta (Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and DelMonico Books – Prestel, 2016) –

- Special Thanks to Jill D’Alessandro, Curator of Textile Arts, Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco for additional background information.