Stories - Style

Oscar de la Renta, the legend

By Giuseppe Di Rosalia
5 min read

It happens very often that when a person, especially if famous, dies he becomes a legend, a myth, a hero… in the case of Oscar de la Renta all this happened while the designer of the First Ladies was alive. Disappeared in 2014, Oscar de la Renta entered the history of fashion as the designer of the American First Ladies.

Originally from the Dominican Republic, de la Renta dressed high society women around the world, easily conquering Hollywood red carpets with his unusually structured gowns.

His career was launched by Jackie Kennedy, who elected him her favorite designer.

In more recent years, Nancy Reagan, Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama have also chosen Oscar de la Renta’s creations. From reality to fiction it is a short step: in the series Sex and the City, de la Renta is praised by Carrie and the other protagonists as an icon of style.

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A student of Balenciaga, the designer was the first non-European creative to lead a French fashion house, Balmain. His legacy is now entrusted to the creativity of Laura Kim and Fernando Garcia, but to better understand his style we must go deep into Oscar’s life.

Oscar de la Renta, small biography of a designer perfect for the White House

Oscar de la Renta was born in 1932 in the Dominican Republic to a Dominican mother and a Puerto Rican father. At the age of 18, he left the Caribbean country to study painting at the San Fernando Academy in Madrid.

During his stay in Spain he discovered a passion for fashion and began to make sketches. He becomes known thanks to the dress designed for the debut in society of the daughter of the American ambassador, which conquered the cover of Life.

Oscar de la Renta’s early style reflects his love for Spain, from art to traditional women’s clothing, from flamenco to bullfighting.

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The apprenticeship at Balenciaga and Lanvin

Joining the Madrid-based fashion house Balenciaga allows Oscar de la Renta to learn the most refined techniques of cutting and tailoring, as well as the history of fabrics.

In 1961 Oscar leaved Spain and moved to Paris where he worked as an assistant to Antonio Castillo at Lanvin.

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His American adventure begun in 1963 when, following the advice of Diana Vreeland, the historical director of Vogue US, he moved to New York.

Here he began to design the couture collection of Elizabeth Arden. In 1965 he left Arden to work as head designer for Jane Derby. At the death of the latter, in the same year, he took over the maison, giving it his own name.

Oscar de la Renta maison is born

Oscar de la Renta soon becomes synonymous with a classic, timeless, sensual style without ever falling into vulgarity. His style mixes bright colors, typical of the Latin American tradition, and the European textile heritage. Oscar’s apprenticeship in couture allows him to transfer his hyper-feminine and glam mood also in the ready-to-wear, and in the outfits designed for everyday life.

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His evening gowns go beyond the trends and adapt perfectly to the women who wear them.

For several collections, between the 60’s and 70’s, he refers to the Belle Époque and abstractism. Among the frequent inspirations also the oriental world. In those years the brand produced women’s and children’s clothing, accessories, eyewear and lingerie. After presenting a collection of men’s sportswear, in 2002 the brand debuted in perfumes.

Oscar de la Renta at Balmain

From 1992 to 2002, Oscar de la Renta was also the artistic director of Balmain, a position that he left before the natural expiration of his contract for health reasons. In October 2002 he is one of the 11 designers invited to the Shangri-La Hotel in Beijing for The Fur Show Beijing 2002 (Roberto Cavalli, Max Mara and Gianfranco Ferré come from Italy), a kermesse in which each designer presents eight to ten exclusive garments.

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Oscar de la Renta’s death in 2014

Oscar de la Renta dies in 2014, at the age of 82, in Connecticut, after a long illness. The fashion world rallies around the designer’s family, remembering a career full of professional and institutional awards (the two Coty American Fashion Critics Awards won in 1967 and 1968, and the position of President of the Council of Fashion Designers of America).

Alongside these are charitable initiatives, such as the funding for the construction of the Casa del Niño in Punta Águila, his home country, which is an orphanage and a school that take care of almost two thousand children.

The creative helm of the Oscar de la Renta fashion house passes to Peter Copping, who credits the founding designer with redefining the canons of American elegance for generations of women. Copping left his role in 2016, replaced by the brand’s current creative directors, Fernando Garcia and Laura Kim.

Quote from the designer most loved by divas and First ladies:

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Walk as if you had three men walking behind you

In the 60’s his fashion house became the preferred brand of the First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. Afterwards, other wives of US presidents gravitated to the atelier, from Nancy Reagan to Laura Bush, up to Hillary Clinton, to whom it seems that the designer recommended a pantsuit as the standard look.

During the Fashion Education Workshop, even Michelle Obama, the most beloved first lady of recent years, wore one of his creations for the first time.

He invented, among many other things, the term fashion victim. For de la Renta fashion was a set of trends, while style was something innate in people’s souls.

Elegance, in turn, was a kind of discipline.

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Luxury is not about buying expensive objects, luxury is about appreciating the things and people you surround yourself with. The qualities I love in women are kindness and self-confidence.”

Cameron Diaz, Nicole Kidman, Oprah Winfrey and Jessica Chastain were some of the most loyal customers on the red carpets of the Oscars. While Barbie, the doll, exists in a collectible model signed de la Renta.

Last but not least, in 2014, Amal Clooney asked the maison de la Renta to design not only her wedding dress, but an entire wardrobe, used in the three-day party for her wedding to George Clooney in Venice.

5 min read


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