The first thing Oscar de la Renta ever said to me, some 15 years ago, was this: “I have the memory of a mosquito.”
The tributes will keep flowing, from First Ladies, from celebrities, from all the young New York designers who benefited from his shining example for American fashion, but the thing I will remember most about Oscar de la Renta, who died Monday night at the age of 82, is his humility. No matter how many times I asked him over the years to elaborate on his enormous successes, to tell the story of what it was like for designers in post-war America to come out from the back rooms of Seventh Avenue and put their own names on the labels of the clothes they created, his defense position was that of the ultimate gentleman. He loved attention, but he did not flaunt his achievement.
Oh, but he could be prickly. And this I will explain, but first let me tell you about the great Oscar de la Renta who will be remembered as one of the finest, perhaps greatest, designers of our time, the one you already know from countless red carpet dresses, inaugural ball gowns, charity circuits and even just recently, for the wedding gown of Amal Alamuddin for her marriage to George Clooney. So handsome, so suave in his suit and tie, his purring accent charming everyone into his serene world of taffeta and tulle. From humble roots in the Dominican Republic, born on July 22, 1932, came the young Oscar de la Renta, who moved to Europe by way of Spain, scuttling through the ateliers of Balenciaga, Dior, and Lanvin, before, in his early 30s, he came to New York to design a collection for Elizabeth Arden. From there came the social connections, notably to the Kennedys, and then, by the end of the 1960s, he was designing his own line for a Seventh Avenue suit house formerly known as Jane Derby. Over the next four decades, he would dress Jackie Kennedy, Nancy Reagan, Barbara Bush, Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton and virtually every society figure known to mankind. His name became shorthand for the kind of American glamour that meant polished, sporty, youthful, beautiful. His designs, as was he, were eternally presentable, as evidenced by a revival of de la Renta’s relevance in more recent years, thanks to a warm embrace by young Hollywood and, with an enormous impact on his business, by Sarah Jessica Parker’s Carrie Bradshaw on Sex and the City.
De la Renta, as I have mentioned, was a gentleman. The first thing I was told about him, when I was a young reporter on the ready-to-wear beat at Women’s Wear Daily, was that he treated assistants as graciously as editors in chief, and true to form, back when his studio was at 550 Seventh Avenue, Oscar introduced me to the nuts and bolts of his operation, including every seamstress on his staff. From delicate embroideries and miles of silk crepe like you would not believe came some of the most incredibly elegant gowns I have ever seen, as de la Renta nodded happily to models he introduced as if they were family. “The neckline is not finished,” he might say, perched in an office chair. “You have to make a woman fall in love with something.”
At the same time, he was special because he was not afraid to voice his opinion, sometimes in the face of opposition from his peers within the American fashion community, such as the Council of Fashion Designers of America (which he also ran as president for some years). I have been on the receiving end of a many a phone call from de la Renta, complaining about this or that designer whom he felt was given more importance than him in print, the most recent example of his mischievousness was his criticism of First Lady Michelle Obama for not doing enough to promote American fashion. While it was true that she had worn many emerging and established designers from other countries, she had also worn those from this one, and some of de la Renta’s remarks on the television show The View to that effect were seen as a case of sour grapes. Ever the diplomat, de la Renta apologized, and only two weeks ago, Obama joined the ranks of First Ladies to proudly wear his work during a Celebration of Design event at the White House.
Above all, he was welcoming to all, and that included figures in need of a second chance. He made headlines last year for inviting John Galliano to collaborate on his fall 2013 collection, an experiment that was widely seen as a success, controversial as it was. “Like me, he is a perfectionist,” de la Renta told me at the time. In the year to come, Galliano, his image under rehabilitation, will take the helm of Maison Martin Margiela, and Peter Copping, the former Nina Ricci designer, will have the responsibility of carrying on the legacy of de la Renta. I’m sure they can both do something new.
As de la Renta once said, “Fashion, like any other business, is a learning process. Every day you learn something new. I always say that the day I’ve learned everything I have to learn, then I have to stop working.”
Or, to highlight a more succinct tribute, as Michelle Obama told one of my colleagues at the White House recently, when the First Lady wore the designer’s dress, “You can’t go wrong with Oscar.”