Commentary

Oscar de la Renta, Who Designed For First Ladies And 'Those Who Lunch,' Dead At 82

Oscar de la Renta, who “designed for every era’s jet set in his lifetime — from Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Babe Paley and Zsa Zsa Gabor, to Beyoncé, Sarah Jessica Parker and Penélope Cruz,” as Christina Binkley observes in the Wall Street Journal, succumbed to an eight-year battle with cancer last night at age 82 just six weeks after he made an appearance at a Fashion Week runway show for his Spring 2015 line.

He also designed Amal Alamuddin's dress for her “fairy-tale wedding” to George Clooney in Venice, Italy, in September. WriterChloe Malle and photographer Annie Liebovitz covered the final fitting, during which Alamuddin said: “He is the man every woman wants to hug!” 

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She was referring to de la Renta, not Clooney.

De la Renta was, Cathy Horyn and Enid Nemy write in their lede in the New York Times, “the last survivor of that generation of bold, all-seeing tastemakers.” But, as they conclude after a fact- and anecdote-filled appreciation, he also “was among the few designers who knew the difference between the runway and fashion.”

“Never, ever confuse what happens on a runway with fashion,” he once said. “A runway is spectacle. It’s only fashion when a woman puts it on.”

And that, of course, is what made him so perpetually successful with “the so-called ladies-who-lunch, his bread and butter,” report Horyn and Nemy. During his “intermittent” battle with cancer, they write, “his business grew by 50%, to $150 million in sales.”

And during his long tenure at the top of the fashion game, he saw a vast transition not only in taste and sensibility but also in power.

“I’ve been making clothes for so many years, and never before has there been a time where you’re dressing a consumer who knows so much about what she wants to wear,” he said in a joint interview with Elaine Wynn — who is both a longtime client and the moving force behind the opening of Wynn Las Vegas — in Vegas magazine.

“When I started designing clothes in this country in the mid ’60s, the woman had to get approval from her husband about whether she could buy a dress. Today the most important consumer is the professional woman…. I always say the 21st century is the century of the woman, there’s no doubt about it.”

Born in the Dominican Republic, de la Renta was the seventh of seven children, and the only boy. He left for art school in Madrid at age 18, where “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,” Jura Koncius and Ned Martel report in the Washington Post.

He then “set aside his brushes and proceeded to fashion design jobs at Balenciaga and Lanvin-Castillo, first in Madrid, then in Paris.” He moved to New York and talked his way into a job with Elizabeth Arden in 1963.

He also married Françoise de Langlade, the fashion editor of French Vogue, who was 12 years older and died of breast cancer in 1983. He married Annette Reed, who survives him, in 1989. A son, Moises, an abandoned infant he and de Langlade adopted from an orphanage in the Dominican Republic, also survives. De la Renta was deeply committed to charities such as New Yorkers for Children.

In 1965, de la Renta left Arden to become the partner of Jane Derby, who soon retired. He took over and “the brand eventually grew to include fragrances, boutiques in the United States and abroad, and dozens of licenses,” Horyn and Nemy report.

“Mr. De la Renta loved women,” said actress Jennifer Garner, who wore one of his gowns to this year's Academy Awards ceremony, report the Associated Press’ Shelley Acoca and Jocelyn Noveck. “Wiping away tears,” she continued: “And you saw it in every design that he did. He honored women's features, he honored our bodies. He wasn't afraid to pull back and let the woman be the star of the look.”

“His name was so synonymous with high fashion that an entire ‘Sex and the City’ episode was based on the idea of Carrie Bradshaw receiving a knee-length red poufy dress from her boyfriend…,” according to Variety, which is compiling celebrities’ social-media comments to his death.

Meanwhile, the Washington Post’s Amy Argetsinger has put together a gallery of “10 memorable de la Renta gowns.”

De la Renta’s Variety obit points out that “though his ruffles and slinky satin dresses were undeniably feminine, he told Elle magazine, ‘I hate pretty. It’s a very empty word. It gives a bad name to beauty.’”

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