He defined upscale American chic
Oscar de la Renta could never be described as a groundbreaking or challenging designer. Whether he was dressing Hollywood actors in ruffles and silk or creating luxe skirt suits for the Park Avenue set, De la Renta’s approach was measured, feminine and appropriate. Having worked with the creme de la creme of European couturiers in his early career, de la Renta is old school, part of the fashion establishment. And yet, unlike American contemporaries like Bill Blass and Anne Klein, he has remained a worldwide household name, with his high-profile red carpet work speaking of a deep and very contemporary understanding of the power of celebrity. He attitude to women was modern, too. In 2013, he said: “‘The ladies who lunch’ is one of the corniest phrases and one I deeply hate … it doesn’t exist, not any more. Whether the woman is working for a salary or working as a volunteer, what’s important in the modern history of American fashion is the emergence of a woman who is no longer a socialite.”
He embodied the American dream
Born in Santa Domingo in 1932 to a wealthy family, De la Renta was an immigrant whose name become synonymous with the American upper class. The youngest of seven brothers, he arrived in the US via Madrid and Paris, where he had worked for Cristóbal Balenciaga, Lanvin and Balmain. The money his father sent him while he was in Spain he spent on fancy clothes and “senorita” suits. He remained joyously and impeccably dapper – three-piece suits with starched collars to entertain influential friends at his various holiday homes – until his death. His close friendships with the women of the White House and the fact that his label represents American society (in the way that big gowns and Upper East Side skirt suits just do) underlines his journey as the designer who arrived and made it big.
He became a pop-culture hero
The designer’s work became relevant to a wider audience thanks to Carrie Bradshaw in Sex and the City. She spoke of “Oscar’s” dresses in hushed, reverential whispers. But the high point of the romance came in season six when Carrie’s Russian lover buys her a hot-pink cocktail dress by the designer, with a tight shell top and a cropped debutant full skirt, which she ends up wearing to McDonald’s, dancing and eating fries. It became a small-screen sartorial cult moment. It wasn’t the only time De la Renta was name-checked in recent pop culture. In the notable The Devil Wears Prada speech, when fictional editor-in-chief Miranda Priestly explains to her assistant the fashion food chain and why she is wearing a blue Gap jumper, she namechecked De la Renta’s 2002 collection of cerulean gowns. Meanwhile, in real life, Sarah Jessica Parker was a regular exponent of the brand on the red carpet.
He took on the critics
De la Renta took pleasure in a spat. In 2012, the then New York Times fashion editor Cathy Horyn described his 2012 collection in damning terms, saying: “Mr De la Renta is far more a hot dog than an éminence grise of American fashion.” In bombastic fashion, he bought a full page advert in the trade sheet WWD to publish his retort: “If you have the right to call me a hot dog, why do I not have the right to call you a stale three-day old hamburger?” For her part, Horyn said that she meant hot dog as in “showman” rather than as a derisory comment. But De la Renta didn’t stop at the fashion establishment. He criticised Michelle Obama in 2009 when she wore J Crew to Buckingham Palace (“You don’t … go to Buckingham Palace in a sweater.”) And Flotus came under fire again in 2013 from the designer for wearing foreign labels to welcome the Chinese prime minister to the White House.
He was White House style
De la Renta has been associated with the corridors of power from the beginning of his career. His big break as a designer came in 1956, when Beatrice Cabot Lodge – daughter of the American ambassador to Spain – wore one of his gowns on the cover of Life magazine. In the 1960s, he dressed Jacqueline Kennedy. In the 1980s, he was firm friends with Nancy Reagan, who wore his tomato-red, shoulder-padded gowns to presidential dinners. In the 1990s, he was credited with creating Hillary Clinton’s signature suited silhouette during her husband’s second term in office. Clinton – who now describes herself as a “pantsuit aficionado” on her Twitter biog – has said: “He’s been working for 20 years to turn me into a fashion icon.”
He ruled the red carpet
Though he had been sick with cancer for almost eight years, De la Renta’s business had been booming – it grew by 50% in the last decade. His frothy, feminine, highly photogenic gowns continued to rule the Oscars – from Cameron Diaz in shimmering gold in 2010 to Amy Adams in dove-grey ruffles in 2013. Even more recently, De la Renta enjoyed publicity his competitors could only have dreamed of when human-rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin wore a lace, ivory dress for her spectacular wedding to actor George Clooney. It was this month, too, that Michelle Obama – who had previously broken with White House tradition by declining to wear the designer’s work for seven years – finally wore a De la Renta cocktail dress. The choice was perceived by some commentators as a goodwill nod to the brand and its history.
His label lives on
De la Renta flirted with controversy by working with John Galliano on his autumn/winter 2013 collection. But his design legacy is really in the hands of Peter Copping – announced as creative director of Oscar De la Renta earlier this month. Copping is, appropriately perhaps, a quieter fashion talent. The English designer worked for Nina Ricci for five years before moving to the American brand, and made clothes that had a kind of delicate elegance that chimes well with his new gig. Copping is cut from the same cloth as De la Renta – one that’s reassuringly expensive and fits into a tradition of champagne reception glamour but appeals to the next gen of young socialites with clean lines and pops of colour. His first collection, to be shown in February, will no doubt be chockablock full of brand references. We also predict that the Oscars red carpet – taking place in the same month – will be awash with starlets wearing vintage OdlR dresses. Always a Hollywood favourite, Oscars for the Oscars seems like a fitting tribute.
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