Thursday, October 30, 2014

A Manner of Style and a Style of Manners: Remembering Oscar de la Renta

Fashion designer Oscar de la Renta (1932-2014) 

Manners never go out of style, and for that reason Oscar de la Renta, a great fashion designer who was also big on manners, will forever be remembered as a style icon. I came to witness first-hand the man’s elegance, reflected in both his demeanour and his drop-dead gorgeous dresses, on more than one occasion. As The Globe and Mail’s fashion reporter, I interviewed him in Toronto in 2002 at Canadian launch of his fruity-floral perfume, Intrusion by Oscar de la Renta. He autographed the modernist bottle for me. I also travelled to New York several times to attend his fashion shows, writing about them for my paper’s Style section. I remember one of the them vividly, both for what went down the runway and for what was happening behind the scenes. The gossip first.

The Dominican-born designer who became an American citizen in the 1969, dressed Hollywood stars (Nicole Kidman, Penelope Cruz, Sarah Jessica Parker), American first ladies (Jackie Kennedy, Nancy Reagan, Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama) and wealthy socialites (Nancy Kissinger and Lady Lynn de Rothschild). He was the Oscar who owned the Oscars; his gowns dominated the red carpet. Just before his death on October 20 at age 82, he had designed the wedding dress worn by Amal Alamuddin at her September wedding to heartthrob George Clooney. Oscar de la Renta was always relevant, always au courant. Which would explain why his shows were standing-room only affairs. Even to be seen at an Oscar de la Renta show was enough to make the participant seem a part of fashion. A-listers wanted to be seen in the front row to make their own stylish selves be known through association. Not that C.Z. Guest needed to have tried so hard.

C.Z. Guest and Oscar de la Renta (Photo: Mary Hilliard)
The American socialite, a former horsewoman, columnist, and fashion icon who in the 1980s had designed a line of a cashmere sweaters, had been married to Winston Frederick Churchill Guest (yes, a relation of the British statesman) and was known for her beauty, charm and social connections; Ernest Hemingway was best man at her wedding. She was in Town and Country and Vogue magazine so many times I knew her as if she were family. So when I stood behind her in line at the Oscar de la Renta show, I knew instantly who she was. Except she wasn’t right then being charming. In fact, she was nastily berating the poor harried female staff trying to give everyone their seat assignment. I am not entirely sure of what the problem was. C. Z. as she was known, had a seat. Count on it. But it might not have been where she wanted to be. In any event, at a bitchy 81 years of age the rickety blonde was ripping a strip off everyone trying then to help her, and loudly pronouncing she’d have them all fired. She was a friend of Oscar’s you know. Which is about when the great man himself stepped in. With a winning smile and an outstretched arm, never chiding her (which he could have), and showing the utmost restraint, he smoothed things over. C.Z. finally sat down, and we all got to see the clothes. The wait had been worth it.

“De la Renta’s show, unabashedly luxurious with its jewelled suede hobo handbag and gold sequin embroidered top paired with a mahogany silk taffeta sunburst pleated skirt,” I reported on his Spring 2003 collection, “flowed forth from a painted backdrop right out of A Passage to India. Gobs of semi-precious stones were heaped round the models’ necks or dangled decadently from hips encircled by gold-link belts. Ankle-wrap sandals or jacquard slingbacks that matched the embroidered gowns flouncing down the catwalk for the grand finale were the icing on de la Renta’s sweet wedding cake of a show.”

It was his first outing since the attacks on the World Trade Centre the season before (fashion works a year in advance) and also the first time that New York Fashion Week was back in business. Oscar de la Renta was not a natural-born citizen, but at that moment he was more American than the Americans. The star spangled banner stood attention at the gates of his runway show. His inspiration behind the gold metelasse trenches that marched down the catwalk may have been more in the vicinity of the Taj Mahal. But the overall feel was old Hollywood – circa 1940: “This is when glamour ruled in the shape of screen sirens like Rita Hayworth and Joan Crawford,” I wrote. “Not coincidentally, this was also another time when America was poised for battle. The beautiful, deluxe clothes of the era served to distract from the grim realities of war.”

De la Renta’s patriotism ran deep. Steven Kolb, CEO of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, said in his published appreciation of the designer that he was a great champion of American fashion. “Having served twice as the organization’s president from 1973 to 1976 and from 1987 to 1989, he strongly believed in the talent and business of American designers,” Kolb told online fashion news source, The Daily Front Row. De la Renta had established the CFDA Fashion Awards in 1980 and was the recipient of four CFDA Fashion Awards, including Womenswear Designer of the Year in 2000 and 2007, a Lifetime Achievement Award in 1989, and the Founders Award, presented to him at the 2013 Awards by Hillary Clinton. “He remained an active member of the CFDA Board of Directors,” Kolb added, “and hosted the organization’s members at private tours of exhibits at the Queen Sofia Spanish Institute and was supportive of the CFDA Foundation’s charitable work.” A class act, in other words.

Oscar de la Renta poses with models and his collection in 1965.
He believed strongly in fashion as an expression not just of designers but of feminine beauty. He had devoted his life to the fair cause. Born Oscar Aristedes de la Renta in Santo Domingo on July 22, 1932, he had been the youngest of seven children and the only boy. His father had worked in insurance and had wanted his only son to join him in the business. But young Oscar persuaded his mother to send him instead to Madrid to study painting at the Academy of San Fernando. There, he began working for Spanish designer, Cristobal Balenciaga, one of the fashion world’s great couturiers. Gifted in art, de la Renta sketched dresses to send to clients. He asked Balenciaga to transfer him to his main studio in Paris, but was denied. De la Renta went to Paris anyway and was soon working at Lanvin as assistant to the fashion house’s chief designer, Antonio del Castillo. There he worked from 1961 to 1963, before leaving for the U.S where he soon joined Elizabeth Arden to design the label’s couture collection. In 1965, the new York Times reported, he left Arden to join the Seventh Avenue company of Jane Derby as a partner and designer. When she retired, de la Renta assumed control. His signature ready-to-wear brand grew over the years, eventually encompassing accessories, a bridal line, boutiques, a children’s line, homewares, sportswear, shoes and fragrances. Which brings me back to the beginning.

When he sat with me to talk about Intrusion, he as perched on a stool at the make-up counter of the Hudson’s Bay, it’s Queen St. flagship. Dozens of women flitted past us, young and old, but this handsome man in his blue suit and crisp white shirt accented by a patterned tie, very much a celebrity in his own right, wasn’t giving them any heed. In retrospect, I think it is because his gaze was fixed on mine. He was talking about Intrusion but he wasn’t allowing for any intrusions into our conversation. He made me feel as if I were the only woman who mattered to him at that moment as he shared with me stories about his homes in Santo Domingo and Connecticut where he lived with his second wife, Annette de la Renta, and their adopted son, Moises, and also stories about his beginnings in fashion. I told you he was well-mannered.

I have since read that many women lucky enough to have stepped into his orbit, even for a moment, have similarly described feeling special in his presence. Making women feel feminine, pretty, valued for who they are, was his secret weapon. “My job as a designer is to make a woman feel her very best,”he once said. And many women loved him for it. I asked him what fashion meant to him, and I remember his response. Flashing a kilowatt smile, his voice smooth as silk, he said that fashion was about following the trends. “Style,” on the other hand, what interested him more, “was about being true to yourself.” A class act all the way.

Deirdre Kelly is a Toronto-based journalist, author and internationally recognized dance critic. She writes for Dance Magazine in New York and the Dance Gazette in London, and is a contributor to the International Dictionary of Ballet (St. James Press). A staff writer at The Globe and Mail, she was her newspaper's award-winning dance critic from 1985 until 2001 before transitioning to the Style section as the fashion reporter. She has also served as the paper's rock critic and as an investigative reporter in the visual arts with a focus on art crime. The best-selling author of Paris Times Eight and Ballerina: Sex, Scandal and Suffering Behind the Symbol of Perfection, recently re-released in paperback, she writes on dance, theatre, the visual arts and fashion for Critics At Large.

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