“I feel lucky to work in this business at this point in time because there are a lot of talented designers working today,” says iconic fashion designer Oscar de la Renta. He will receive the 2012 Couture Council Award for Artistry of Fashion at the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology’s annual benefit luncheon on September 5, which is also the kickoff to Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week. “There is always a challenge to be at the top, and it pushes all of us to do our best work.”

For more than 45 years, de la Renta’s tiered gowns, tweed suits, and romantic blouses have been regarded as some of the best work in the fashion industry, and his numerous A-list fans including Zooey Deschanel, Cameron Diaz, and Sarah Jessica Parker attest to his immeasurable talent. But even with accolades such as lifetime achievement awards from the CFDA and Parsons School of Design, and the Coty American Fashion Critic’s Award on his résumé, de la Renta considers his work to be only as good as its wearer. “Fashion, to me, is about making a woman look her best,” he says. “I could put on the most spectacular show, but it doesn’t mean anything until a woman decides to wear my clothes.”

Convincing any style-conscious woman to don an Oscar de la Renta evening gown is never a challenge; in fact, several of his designs, like the navy silk taffeta gown with a sweetheart neckline and flamenco ruffles that Glee actress Lea Michele wore to the 2010 Emmy Awards, have left many fashionistas thunderstruck. But it’s a fitting sensation considering the serendipity de la Renta felt when he first discovered design. “I fell in love with fashion when I was studying art in Spain and I attended my first flamenco show,” he says. “I remember that Pilar Lopez was the only woman among six men and how she suddenly appeared wearing a cobalt-blue flamenco dress with the ruffles and the long train and an emerald-green shawl thrown across her. I see the whole thing now as vividly as I did in that moment.”

His upbringing in the Dominican Republic also helped spark the designer’s passion for the rich hues and floral patterns that permeate his collections. “My love affair with color comes from being a tropical person,” says de la Renta. “While growing up I was surrounded by the most extraordinary colors; the ocean there is this incredible, breathtaking blue, the best I’ve ever seen. Along with the colors, there are so many scents I grew up with that I love. Ylang-ylang, tobacco, and tuberose, all bring back memories of my childhood; they are some of my favorite notes in my own fragrances.”

Long before de la Renta was a household name creating ready-to-wear, swim, shoe, handbag, jewelry, bridal, home, childrenswear, and fragrance collections, he began in 1992 as a designer for the French couture house of Pierre Balmain—a first for an American designer. “At Balmain, we had 15 ladies and two sewing machines, because almost everything was hand-sewn,” recalls de la Renta. “In New York, I have a sewing machine for each person in the sample room, so we can make the clothes a reality for more women. Everything I did in Paris was applicable to my ready-to-wear collection, just not as practical. I was fortunate enough to get my start in couture, but my heart will always live in ready-to-wear.”

But while he loves his jumpsuits and structured coats, for generations of women who cherish his work, their dedication is motivated by the special feeling that slipping on an Oscar de la Renta gown can bring. “For me, my work is a celebration of a woman’s beauty and femininity,” says the designer. “At the end of the day, I make dresses and I want to make her happy.” The Couture Council luncheon takes place on Wednesday, September 5, at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center, 70 Lincoln Center Plaza; for tickets contact Vicki Guranowski at 212-217-4105

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