OSCAR DE LA RENTA, 1932-2014

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Oscar de la Renta, the doyen of American fashion, whose career began in the 1950s in Franco’s Spain, sprawled across the better living rooms of Paris and New York, and who was the last survivor of that generation of bold, all-seeing tastemakers, died on Monday at his home in Kent, Conn. He was 82.

His death was confirmed by his wife, Annette de la Renta. The cause was complications from cancer. Though ill with cancer intermittently for close to eight years, Mr. de la Renta was resilient. During that period his business grew by 50 percent, to $150 million in sales, as his name became linked to celebrity events like the Oscars. Amy Adams, Sarah Jessica Parker and Penélope Cruz were among the actresses who wore his dresses.

Recently his biggest coup was to make the ivory tulle gown that Amal Alamuddin wore to wed George Clooney in Venice.


Oscar de la Renta. Photo courtesy of Scott Gries/Getty Images.

Determined to stay relevant, Mr. de la Renta achieved fame in two distinct realms: as a couturier to socialites — the so-called ladies-who-lunch, his bread and butter — and as a red-carpet king. He also dressed four American first ladies, but it was Hollywood glitz, rather than nice uptown clothes, that defined him for a new age and a new customer. Just as astutely he embraced social media.

Many high-end designers had bigger businesses. Some were more original. But very few were fearless enough to adapt to a cultural shift. Mr. de la Renta did it twice in his career, the first time in 1980.

Normally he didn’t dwell on the subject of his legacy. In an interview in 2009, at his home in Punta Cana, in his native Dominican Republic, he said of fashion: “It’s never been heavy. Somebody might ask, ‘What is Oscar de la Renta?’ And you could say, ‘It’s a pretty dress.'”

Instead, he preferred to joke, or talk about his vegetable garden in Kent, or dish the dirt. He rarely shied from controversy or calling someone out. Three years ago, he chided Michelle Obama for wearing foreign labels. (He insisted that his comments were not made because she never wore his things. Eventually, this month, she did.) Once, in a speech, he offered to send three-way mirrors to certain editors who wore miniskirts. But then, all his life Mr. de la Renta loved being where the action was — whether a gala, a dominoes table, or in his various homes entertaining talented and influential friends.

“He notices everything,” John Fairchild, the retired publisher of Women’s Wear Daily, said a few years ago. A telephone call from Mr. de la Renta might begin with a familiar bit of flirtation: “How are you, my darling? Tell me the gossip.”

In 1980, he and his first wife, a former editor named Francoise de Langlade, posed for the cover of The New York Times Magazine, with the headline, “Living Well Is Still the Best Revenge.” By then, Mr. de la Renta had lived in New York for 17 years — less time than rivals Bill Blass and Geoffrey Beene.

The article, which described the stylish couple’s uninhibited social ascent — and the array of people who came to their “salons,” ranging from Norman Mailer to Henry Kissinger — was a kind of watershed moment. Fashionable people had long been part of the city’s social scene; that wasn’t news. But, as a point of contrast, when Truman Capote held his Black and White Dance in 1966, only a tiny fraction of the 540 guests were dress designers. They became more visible during the 1970s, but The Times Magazine article, by Francesca Stanfill, now put their money and status out in the open.

As Alexander Liberman, the editorial director of Condé Nast, said, “Designers have become the new tycoons.” Mr. de la Renta soon embarked on the next phase of his career: as a designer to first ladies, beginning with Nancy Reagan.

Though Mr. de la Renta never took his job lightly, he always gave the impression that his life mattered more. He had enormous zest, displayed in his fashion — the vibrant colors, the airy sleeves, the Turkish delight numbers that so appealed to his greatest champion, the editor Diana Vreeland.

But where he really revealed himself, his hospitable nature, was in the Dominican Republic, where he was regarded as an unofficial ambassador (he held a diplomatic passport anyway). He built two homes there. The first, in Casa de Campo, featured thatched roofs, rattan furniture and hammocks, and images of the de la Rentas’ informal gatherings often appeared in W in the 1970s.

The second home, in Punta Cana, though imposing in the Colonial style, with wide verandas (and its own chapel on the grounds), also had a relaxed feeling. Mr. de la Renta built the house with his second wife, the former Annette Engelhard Reed, whom he married in 1989, following the death of Francoise, from cancer, in 1983.

In addition to his wife, Annette, Mr. de la Renta is survived by a son, Moises; three sisters; three stepchildren; and nine step-grandchildren.

At holidays, the de la Rentas filled their house in Punta Cana with relatives and friends, notably Bill and Hillary Clinton, Nancy and Henry Kissinger and the art historian John Richardson. The family dogs had the run of the compound, and Mr. de la Renta often sang spontaneously after dinner. First-time visitors, seeking him out in the late afternoon, were surprised to find him in the staff quarters, hellbent on winning at dominoes.

A man of the world, he was at ease everywhere. Though he once said, “To me, home is wherever Annette is,” then added with a droll laugh, “She could be unbelievably happy without me.”

Oscar Aristedes de la Renta was born in Santo Domingo on July 22, 1932. The youngest of seven children and the only boy, he often recalled that he usually got what he wanted from his family. He finished high school in Santo Domingo, and although his father preferred that he join him in the insurance business, young Oscar persuaded his mother to send him to Madrid to study art.

At 19, a year after her death, he left for Spain on a passenger ship.

Besotted by postwar Madrid, and his new freedom, Mr. de la Renta was soon spending more time in the cafes and nightclubs, meeting flamenco dancers, than in class. As well, he acquired a “señorito” wardrobe, he told the writer Sarah Mower, which consisted of custom-made suits from the tailor Luis Lopez, high starched collars and a carnation of deepest red in his buttonhole. The $125 his father sent each month paid for fancy clothes and in a sense his broader education afoot in Spain.

For extra money, he drew clothes for newspapers and fashion houses. He later admitted that his drawings were not technically accomplished or original. Nonetheless, some of his sketches were seen by Francesca Lodge, the wife of John Davis Lodge, then the United States ambassador to Spain. In 1956, she asked Mr. de la Renta to design a coming-out dress for her daughter Beatrice. The dress and the debutante appeared on the cover of Life that fall.

He was soon working in the Madrid salon of Cristobal Balenciaga, perhaps the greatest couturier of that period. Mr. de la Renta’s job was to sketch dresses to send to clients. But when he asked Mr. Balenciaga to transfer him to the main studio in Paris, the couturier told him he wasn’t qualified yet and to wait a year.

Instead, armed with letters of introduction, Mr. de la Renta left for Paris and was immediately offered a job at Christian Dior.

The following day he went to see Antonio del Castillo, the designer at Lanvin, who was looking for an assistant. “He loved me because I spoke Spanish, and he asked me if I could cut, drape and sew, and of course I said yes,” Mr. de la Renta told Bernadine Morris, a former fashion reporter for The Times. “He offered me a little more money than Dior, and I said I would start in two weeks. Then I went to a fashion school and asked the woman who ran it if she could teach me the year’s course in two weeks.”

Mr. de la Renta remained with Mr. Castillo from 1961 to 1963, when he decided to try his luck in the United States. He joined Elizabeth Arden, which then produced a couture line. Mr. de la Renta recalled that when Ms. Arden asked how much money he wanted, he threw out the largest number he could think of — $700 a week — and then sat back to wait. “Did I have the know-how to really earn that?” he recalled. “Probably not.”

Six months later, when Ms. Arden complained about his long vacation in Europe, he cannily proposed dinner at her apartment, where he let her win at cards. “From then on I could do in that house anything,” he said.

In 1965, Mr. de la Renta left Arden to join the Seventh Avenue company of Jane Derby, as partner and designer. Miss Derby retired shortly after, and Mr. de la Renta took over, with backing from Ben Shaw. The brand eventually grew to include fragrances, boutiques in the United States and abroad, and dozens of licenses.

Mr. de la Renta formed close friendships with the first ladies he dressed, in particular Nancy Reagan and Mrs. Clinton. Beginning in 1997, in Mr. Clinton’s second term, Mr. de la Renta helped Mrs. Clinton streamline her style, with signature pantsuits in bright pastels. Mrs. Clinton liked to say, somewhat drolly, “He’s been working for 20 years to turn me into a fashion icon.”

Mr. de la Renta made his debut as a couture designer in Paris in 1993, showing a collection for Pierre Balmain. He became the first American to design an important couture collection in Paris since Main Rousseau Bocher, known as Mainbocher, closed his salon there in 1940. The house of Balmain, a fixture on the fashion scene since 1946, had foundered after its creator’s death in 1982, and before Mr. de la Renta’s arrival, several designers had been responsible for the line.

Mr. de la Renta also showed his ready-to-wear collection in Paris for three seasons, in 1991 and 1992. The shows were substantially backed by Sanofi, the producer of his fragrances — Oscar and So de la Renta for women, and Pour Homme, for men.

He was presented with Coty Awards, chosen by a jury of fashion editors, for having had the most significant influence on fashion in both 1967 and 1968. In 1973 he was named to the Coty Hall of Fame, and in 1989 he was given a lifetime achievement award by the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

During his long career, Mr. de la Renta was among the few designers who knew the difference between the runway and fashion.

“Never, ever confuse what happens on a runway with fashion,” Mr. de la Renta once said. “A runway is spectacle. It’s only fashion when a woman puts it on. Being well dressed hasn’t much to do with having good clothes. It’s a question of good balance and good common sense.”

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