Oscar de la Renta dressed first ladies in a manner that was both regal and accessible. He provided armor for corporate executives who fought ferocious battles in the boardroom. He gave the titans of society and the ladies who lunch a wardrobe that spoke of old money and noblesse oblige. He dressed movie stars and pop stars – Oprah Winfrey, Sarah Jessica Parker and Nicki Minaj.
With de la Renta’s death Monday at 82, the fashion industry lost a designer with that rarest gift: He understood the sweet, universal desires of women.
With French lace and delicate embroidery, he helped women subdue their insecurities. And with his eye for a gentle flounce and a keen understanding of line and silhouette, he helped them build a powerfully stylish wardrobe that never denied their femininity nor apologized for it. He helped them look like their most romantic vision of themselves.
De la Renta, who was born in the Dominican Republic, began his career in Europe, honing his craft in the great ateliers of Paris, where haute couture was the standard. He arrived in New York in the 1960s, believing that ready-to-wear and the informality of American design were fashion’s future.
He came in an unabashed search for fame and fortune. In 1973, he was one of five American designers who showed their work alongside the greatest French couturiers of the day in a gala benefit at Versailles. The Americans won over the international crowd and had them cheering “Bravo” with clothes that allowed women to move freely and to strut with independence and confidence. He helped to prove to the world that American style could hold its own on the world stage. He represented a generation of designers who’d had to claw their way forward – from backroom hacks to a place in history.
Today, there are designers in New York who are more adept at capturing the sexuality of the modern era. There are those who are able to speak to the esoteric, the experimental and the avant-garde. But de la Renta represented a kind of old-school fashion with its emphasis on propriety, elegance and good taste.
And while he helped to democratize fashion, he held on to a fundamental belief in an almost civic responsibility to be appropriately attired. It was good manners, after all. But even in retaining a certain decorum, he never allowed his vision to grow old or irrelevant. He could wow an audience with his draping technique. He could dazzle with his sense of color. But mostly, his aesthetic sensibility was predicated on the simple notion that women – all women – want to look pretty.
De la Renta was the rare designer who spoke his mind about the role that fashion played in our cultural life. He believed that Seventh Avenue represented our national identity. He was quick to defend the economics and the reputation of the industry, even taking on Michelle Obama when he felt that the first lady had missed an opportunity to celebrate the strength and creativity of American design – at a state dinner for China – when she had turned to London for her evening gown instead of Seventh Avenue.
He did not shy from controversy. He was extraordinarily competitive. But he had a wicked sense of humor and could take delight in a juicy, ginned-up contretemps – whether taking on a fashion editor whose opinion he disagreed with, or another designer. Fashion, after all, needed a bit of drama.
He leaves behind a stunning body of work and an impressive list of clients. And he’d recently announced a succession plan for his company, hiring the British designer Peter Copping as creative director. But de la Renta’s greatest gift was his ability to use fashion as a form of intergenerational diplomacy, bridging the divide between (wealthy) mothers and daughters. Between professional women and those of the leisure class. His collections were a pleasure shared by black rappers, white society princesses and one Mrs. Amal Clooney – a human rights lawyer of Lebanese descent. He wooed them all.
For fashion at its most rarefied, de la Renta was glorious common ground.