Remembering Oscar de la Renta: His Career Highlights & More
by linda fargo
This interview ran in Gotham Magazine's September 2013 issue.
In a long, fabled career, Oscar de la Renta has won countless industry awards, dressed the world’s chic and powerful, and built a global brand known for luxury at its refined best. A proud son of the Dominican Republic, de la Renta also has been a generous benefactor in his native country, establishing La Casa del Niño, a school and charity for the island’s neediest children. But even after 50 years at the top of a notoriously competitive business, de la Renta shows no interest in slowing down.
And the accolades keep coming: In June he was presented with the Council of Fashion Designers of America’s prestigious Founder’s Award. In July, he jetted to Arkansas to be fêted by Bill and Hillary Rodham Clinton for the opening of the “Oscar de La Renta: An American Icon” retrospective at the William J. Clinton Presidential Center. In remarks celebrating the exhibit opening, Chelsea Clinton noted how de la Renta, like her parents, was always “more interested in the future.” It’s a point well underscored when you consider how the designer introduced his fall fashion campaign—not in traditional print but via social media, through his company’s popular OscarPRGirl Twitter and Instagram feeds.
Here, he talks with Linda Fargo, the style guru and senior vice president of the fashion office and store presentation at Bergdorf Goodman, about a career that has always moved forward with great style, and a life lived with impeccable taste.
Linda Fargo: What’s it like to be called an icon by the former Secretary of State?
Oscar de la Renta: I am not an icon; that was Hillary’s idea.
LF: I loved how at the CFDA Awards you put it right out there and said, “You know who I want for our next president?” I thought, He’s so fearless!
ODLR: Well, I love Hillary. She’s extraordinary, a symbol of where women want to go. I assume we will have a woman president soon.
LF: While we’re on the subject of Hillary—didn’t she say that whenever she wore one of your dresses, her husband would comment on how great she looked?
ODLR: Yes. And doesn’t she look great now? I told her a while back [when she was Secretary of State] she should cut her hair. She said she couldn’t do it then because when she arrived in a foreign country and asked for a hairdresser, Homeland Security would have to check the person out. [Editor’s note: With long hair, she could style it herself.] But doesn’t she look fantastic now?
LF: How did you pick the pieces for the retrospective at the Clinton Presidential Center?
ODLR: It’s a small show, because we only kept archives the past 10, 20 years. I never thought of clothes as something that had a life; what’s good about fashion is the now.
LF: I guess the process of looking back is a little weird because you always move forward. You’re starting a whole new social media program and are expanding your store on Madison Avenue....
ODLR: The most important thing about fashion is to have the memory of a mosquito. Don’t ever look back; always look forward. You are as good as your last collection.
LF: It would be hugely challenging to pick just 35 looks with a career as extensive as yours, but do you have favorites?
ODLR: You become so emotionally involved with what you are doing that it’s difficult to choose.
LF: How has the consumer changed over the course of your career?
ODLR: We have a very different woman today. When I first came to New York, a woman wearing pants would not be allowed into a restaurant. And a lot of the time, especially in my case, doing pricey clothes, the husband was paying for them. Today, women have the power to make their own decisions. Obviously that makes our job far more difficult because we are dealing with a consumer who knows much more about herself. She doesn’t really care so much about whose dress she will wear; she cares about how she identifies with that dress, how that dress represents [how] she feels on a particular day.
LF: It’s expressive.
ODLR: You’re expressing your own identity, not the identity of whoever created that dress. That’s what we are trying to accomplish.
LF: Now women are so much more self-determined.
ODLR: Here’s how I explain the differences between women then and now: In the past a woman would see a dress that came in pink and red. She’d prefer the red but remember her husband loves her in pink. Then she’d buy the pink dress. Today she’d buy the red.
LF: While we’re on the topic of women’s empowerment, I wanted to ask you about the influential women in your life. Were they responsible for your interest in fashion?
ODLR: I’m the youngest in a family with six sisters. My family was in the insurance business, and as the only boy, I felt that eventually I would work in that business. But I never saw myself selling insurance. I had an extraordinary mother who was always very supportive. Because of her, I was able to go to art school in the Dominican Republic. I was 15 or 16 at the time, five or six years younger than everyone else in my class. And in my second or third month at school, we had to draw….
LF: A nude?
ODLR: I was terrified. I had never seen a naked person, and I was so worried—I didn’t know what would happen to me! Of course I got used to it right away. It was a great, great school. Because of the Spanish Civil War, we had a lot of painters and teachers who had left Spain for the Dominican Republic.
LF: What else did you learn in art school?
ODLR: One time friends said, Let’s go to a bar after classes. While I had heard of things like rum and Coca-Cola, I’d never had an alcoholic drink. One friend asked for a very dry martini, the other a Manhattan. I was terrified wondering what to order. And then I remembered a name and said, “I want a peach melba.” They asked, “A peach melba? That’s a dessert!” Of course I didn’t want to admit I didn’t know what I was ordering so I said, “Yes, that’s what I want.”
LF: Because you’re the epitome of sophistication, Oscar, it’s so funny to hear a story like that, but charming, too, recounting when you were so young and fresh. After art school, you went to live abroad, in Madrid, then in Paris?
ODLR: At the time, my parents thought going to Paris was like going to Sodom and Gomorrah. Spain was a second choice; I had family there.
LF: You worked for Balenciaga when you were in Spain.
ODLR: When I was in art school in Madrid, my mother passed away. My father started to pressure me to come back to the Dominican Republic. He felt that being a painter was okay for a hobby but not a profession. A friend in school was doing fashion illustration for newspapers and magazines and I thought, I can do that, too. I wanted to prove to my father that I could generate some income. I used to be a very good sketcher; I’m not as good now because I don’t do it as much. The friend said, “I know Cristóbal Balenciaga very well.” And that is how I landed a job at Balenciaga. In life, a lot of good things happen by accident.
LF: Tell us more about your time there.
ODLR: I still work today in the manner that I saw Balenciaga work. Because you know, if you make one sketch and give that sketch to eight people in the sample room—and I am very lucky; I have a fantastic sample room—everyone will make a different dress from that sketch, as each will interpret it in his or her own way. That dress only becomes yours when you start manipulating it, which is what I do.
LF: You are the quintessential modern American. You come from somewhere else, you bring something from where you’re born, and you became a really big contributor to what America is now.
ODLR: This is an extraordinary country, a country of immigrants. There is no other place in the world that offers these opportunities.
LF: Do you believe in luck?
ODLR: Of course, but you have to go and find it.
LF: An example?
ODLR: When I first arrived here in 1963, all the names on clothes were the name of [the store]. You made your clothes, you sold them to the store, and they quickly removed the label and put the label of the store. If it was a dress at Saks Fifth Avenue, the label was Saks Fifth Avenue. Bergdorf Goodman was Bergdorf Goodman. But it was a time of transition. A lot of credit [for designer prominence] has to go to John Fairchild because he’s the first one who said, “I want to know the guy who made the dress.”
LF: What was your first big career highlight? Was it the Life magazine cover when you were 19?
ODLR: It was not a cover actually; it was a cover story.
LF: Who was wearing your clothes?
ODLR: It was on the daughter of Francesca and John Davis Lodge, who was the American ambassador to Spain at the time. Their daughter Beatrice was having a big coming-out party. I was lucky that Francesca saw one of my dresses when I was just beginning. There were so many people who wanted to make that particular dress, and they chose me, probably because I was unknown, so the others would not be jealous.
LF: I heard when you moved to this new space, you said you didn’t really need an office because you lived in the workroom.
ODLR: I’m not a loner. My big Achilles heel is that I cannot be by myself; I like to be with people—that’s very important.
LF: I’ve had the pleasure of being at your apartment once. You invited me to lunch, and I remembered everything about that afternoon, from what we talked about, the warmth, the dogs.
ODLR: That apartment hasn’t been painted in 23 years—we’re in the process of having it done right now. Annette and I have so much stuff to move, so we are painting the entrance hall this year and the living room the following.
LF: I remember the meal—a soufflé that looked like a porcupine. It was so delicious. Your sense of design and what is beautiful is 360 degrees. It’s not just about fashion, but rather a fashionable life.
ODLR: It’s about an appreciation of life and an appreciation of people. Two days ago was my birthday—I hate birthdays. Everyone lies about their age except me. I think today I am a better designer than I was 30, 40, 50 years ago. I have a much better understanding of the woman I’m dressing. You know my first wife was French, and every Wednesday she would have lunch with Coco Chanel, who was not the nicest person, but they had a lot of fun. And Coco said something that rings so true: Birthdays are only important to a woman before 18 and after 90. In between you never ever talk about it. Because after all, age is in your mind.
ODLR: I’m making a wedding dress for the daughter of a sheikh in Abu Dhabi. She sent me an e-mail on my birthday, so I responded, saying that when one reaches a certain age, it’s better to forget that day. What’s important is to make each day the best day of your life. Right now, all I want to do is make sure you have the most beautiful dress I have ever made. She answered right back: “Surely age is relative to the person who is experiencing it. I hope each day is the best day of your life. I am certain that my dress will be as beautiful as the name that’s inside it.” Isn’t that sweet?
LF: Describe yourself—and I don’t mean from a fashion point of view.
ODLR: I always say this: live, love, and laugh. A huge mistake we make is forgetting that one day we will die. We think that we are going to live forever. I always say life is a little like a garden. There is a time to plant, then a time you have to weed. Just think about people you’ve deeply cared for. And then think of the people you wish you’d spent more time with. Or about the things you had loved and [whether] you’d given [enough] time to them.
LF: Whenever I think of you and I think about the fashion, of course, and the joyousness and beauty of your clothes—there’s a real grace—but I also think of your elegance and humanity. You have a great warmth, humanity—I feel like that’s the universal reaction to you. I’ve never heard otherwise.
ODLR: For me it’s so much easier to love than to hate. It’s funny because I think of my friend Julio Iglesias, who sang a certain song about love in 1973 and stopped. And I said, Julio, why don’t you sing that song? He just started to sing it again. It’s a wonderful song because it says there are people to whom love never happens and there are people to whom by the time it happens, they have somebody already in that place. To experience love is a wonderful thing.
photography by jason bell
Behind the scenes with Sigourney Weaver in her Gotham cover shoot.