Oscar de la Renta, fashion designer, dies at 82

Oscar de la Renta, the Dominican-born fashion designer who reshaped the public image of first ladies, society muses and red-carpet regulars with grand evening wear that celebrated Latin sensuality, European refinement and American versatility, died Monday at his home in Kent, Conn. He was 82.

A family representative answering the phone at his home confirmed the death but did not provide further details. He revealed in 2011 that he had a bout with cancer earlier that year.

An astute businessman with an eye for vibrant color, de la Renta spent a half-century polishing his eponymous label into a global empire that sold perfume, accessories, furniture and, above all, elegant clothing.

During a half-century of prominence on New York’s fashion nexus – Seventh Avenue – he asserted himself as a creative entrepreneur and vivacious society player who gained access to the nation’s most esteemed women and an invitation to define how the public saw them.

He was the first Latino to be accepted into the exclusive ranks of Parisian fashion houses. Later as a U.S. citizen, he became the first American to design for a French couture house. All the while, de la Renta was building a brand that, in exclusive circles and in small-town bridal salons alike, was known by one word: Oscar.

His exuberant frocks won the trust of customers and he set formal standards for women of taste. He gave them – no matter their age or shape – the confidence to be eye-catching. “I love all his clothes because of his sense of color,” Nancy Kissinger, wife of former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, said in a 2002 pictorial biography of the designer. “There’s something very staggering about the combinations he chooses.”

De la Renta, whose dresses cost many thousands of dollars, was the master of entrance-making looks. Manhattan doyennes, Hollywood stars and Washington figures sought out his label. He designed then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton’s coral swearing-in ensemble in 1997, first lady Laura Bush’s twinkling beaded inaugural gown in 2005, and senatorial spouse Cindy McCain’s golden full-skirted dress for the 2008 Republican National Convention.

Formal gowns have long favored pale goddess-style silhouettes and daywear often dwelled on the drab. But Valerie Steele, an historian at the Fashion Institute of Technology in New York, saw de la Renta’s couture influence in his bright combinations and full skirts and sleeves. “He’s a really good colorist,”and his clothes project “a European sense of decorum, a magnificence,” she said. “He has not stuck to one look; he’s evolved as fashion has evolved.”

“When I started designing clothes for women in the ‘60s, my typical customer got dressed in a suit and had lunch with friends,” de la Renta told The Washington Post in 2001. “Today she’s on the list of endangered species.”

Many of today’s customers, even the ones with packed social calendars, now wake up in the morning and head to an office. De la Renta, through his well-cut pantsuits and jackets, goes along with them.

Oscar Aristides Renta Fiallo was born in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic, on July 22, 1932. His father, who had come from Puerto Rico, owned an insurance business and expected his only son to follow him into the family trade. But his mother and six sisters lavished the boy with attention; and the family priest, a Spaniard, encouraged his aesthetic interests and bought him a set of paints. Against his father’s inclination, de la Renta enrolled in art school.

After his mother’s death, the 18-year-old de la Renta embarked on a European adventure that began in the salons of Madrid, where he had introductions. Though interested in abstract painting, he sketched a gown that caught the eye of the wife of the U.S. ambassador to Spain, John Lodge. She commissioned a gown for their debutante daughter, Beatrice, who wore it on the cover of Life magazine.

De la Renta set aside his brushes and proceeded to fashion design jobs at Balenciaga and Lanvin-Castillo, first in Madrid, then in Paris. At night, he danced at Regine’s, among young Parisian swells like actress Catherine Deneuve and director Roger Vadim.

At a runway show, he met Francoise de Langlade, the fashion editor of French Vogue, 12 years his senior and with far more taste-making influence than the suave newcomer. The two began a relationship after he moved to New York in 1963, where he set about to meet Elizabeth Arden, the clothing and cosmetics empress. He surmised later that, for all his attempts to dazzle Arden with letters and designs, she probably hired him to steal away talent from his boss Antonio Castillo, who had long ago left her employ.

As de la Renta was launching his own line, de Langlade joined him in America. Later, as a married couple, the two opened their exotic and warm apartment and Connecticut country house to uptowners and creative professionals, where he would hone his skills at entertaining and decorating.

As he and Francoise appeared in society pages and luxury magazines, his business took off, reinforcing that a designer could project an entire lifestyle that he inhabited. Because of the public persona that he and a few peers were developing, retail executives made an unusual business decision for that age: to leave the designer’s label in the garment instead of the store’s alone. American shopping was never the same.

In 1972, de la Renta built a grand vacation house in his native country, and even as his international status rose, he knew that acceptance was complicated. In December 1974, the de la Rentas attended their first White House state dinner, in honor of West German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt.

In a 2002 interview for an authorized biography, de la Renta recalled getting ready at the Watergate Hotel. “When we were dressing, I put my arm in my shirt and it wouldn’t go in! The maid had packed Francoise’s tuxedo shirt instead of mine,” he said.

De la Renta ran to the only Watergate shop still open at 7 p.m. and bought the only option: a white shirt with ruffles edged in black. “It was my worst nightmare come true!” he said in the biography. “You know, I really admire people who wear colored shirts, shirts with flowers on them – but I am always afraid that if I do, someone will say, ‘Sorry, the Latin band goes in the other door.’ “

De la Renta’s camera-ready gowns were favored by his tall and tasteful friends such as Kissinger and Pat Buckley, the socialite wife of conservative writer William F. Buckley Jr. Vogue in the early ‘80s was dressing its youthful cover subjects (Brooke Shields, Kim Alexis, Sheila Johnson) in de la Renta. He didn’t only work for the elites: In 1980, he redesigned the Boy Scout uniform.

Amid his growing fortunes was a personal tragedy. In 1983, Francoise died of breast cancer. A year later, de la Renta was moved by the story of an abandoned infant being cared for at the orphanage he supported in the Dominican Republic. He adopted the boy, Moises.

In 1989, de la Renta married Annette Reed, an heiress and widow with three children. Besides his wife, survivors include Moises; and three stepchildren.

Nancy Reagan included de la Renta among her preferred designers, along with James Galanos and Bill Blass. Her mission to bring glamour back to the White House made de la Renta, known for gentlemanly manners, a natural confidant to a first lady.

He touted her as a “model-size” political wife who “knew what looked good on her and had a true sense of fashion.” She rewarded him with many invitations to the White House.

Years later, de la Renta persuaded Hillary Rodham Clinton to put aside her mostly safe wardrobe in favor of dramatic pastels.

An early signature look was the pale-blue suit she wore at the 1996 Democratic National Convention. Then when word leaked out that Clinton had chosen de la Renta to design her wardrobe for her husband’s second inauguration, he would not dish before the event. “She wants to have some element of surprise,” the designer told The Washington Post’s Robin Givhan in January 1997. Clinton lit up the parade route in a de la Renta coral suit and then dazzled the balls in a gold-lace gown, with matching cape.

Soon she posed for Annie Leibovitz in the Red Room in a black velvet de la Renta dress for the December 1998 cover of Vogue, the first president’s wife to do so. In their post-presidency years, both Clintons, now New Yorkers, grew personally closer to the de la Rentas.

Laura Bush became a de la Renta devotee after her husband was elected president. She too wore some of his clothes at her own Vogue session with Leibovitz. “After the photo shoot, we called for a look book,” Laura Bush recalled in an interview with The Post. “I went to his studio and of course … like all women, I was immediately in love with Oscar.”

For her husband’s 2005 swearing-in, Bush wore a winter white coat and suit by de la Renta, and the ice blue tulle gown she wore that night remains her favorite by him.

De la Renta’s clothes became a staple of Bush women’s wardrobes: He designed first daughter Jenna’s wedding gown, as well as Laura Bush’s turquoise mother-of-the-bride dress.

“What I will miss so much about Oscar is that confidence he gave me,” said Laura Bush. “He had a wonderful talent – for being able to see what looks best on women, what shapes make women look their best and what colors are the most flattering.”

De la Renta was one of a very few American designers who drew the eye of an international clientele that favored the haute-couture houses of Europe. As a sign of his social smarts, he charmed those clients – Marie-Helene de Rothschild, Marella Agnelli, Babe Paley – as well as his fellow couturiers – Yves Saint Laurent, Bill Blass, Valentino. Plus, he has attracted red-carpet icons-in-the-making: Sarah Jessica Parker, Jennifer Hudson, Lea Michele.

His prices reflect his stature: $5,845 for a ruffled one-shoulder crepe gown, $6,235 for a feather-trimmed jersey gown, $13,990 for an embroidered floral cloque gown.

As much as the influential set shaped his reputation, he insisted that the customer was always right. “Unfortunately, success is not what fashion editors like: That is something that comes when an anonymous woman in the street wants to wear it,” he said in the biography.

Throughout his life, he emanated a joie de vivre that made him seem like he had it all. “If my life were to end now, I would have no regrets,” he said on his 40th birthday, as recounted in “The Fashion Makers,” a 1978 survey of U.S. designers. “I’ve lived every day to the fullest, and I’ve had a marvelous time. I’ve tried to be nice to the people I care about, and ignore the ones I don’t. I enjoy what I’ve done.”

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