Why you should care
Because the man who died this week was at the top of his field.
His audience included members of highfalutin Parisian society, an Arab princess or two, a member of an African royal family and New York’s social doyennes, who had flown in for the show. I was there as well — it was Paris in the late ’90s, and we were all present as witness to one of Oscar de la Renta’s stunning couture shows at Balmain, one of the world’s greatest fashion houses.
The fashion megastar passed away on Monday at the age of 82. He is best known, perhaps, for being a designer to celebrities. Laura Bush spoke publicly on his passing; Taylor Swift Instagrammed a tribute. De la Renta designed for Balmain for several years through the ’90s, jetting between Paris and New York, where his own eponymous company was based.
De la Renta’s dresses have been the first choice among first ladies since becoming a couturier to Jackie Kennedy in the ’60s. Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush and, after seven years in office, Michelle Obama have all donned a de la Renta design. But as far as politics went, he voted for “the man not the party.” He voted for Clinton, but also Bush and Reagan.
But if you want to know what the de la Renta ethos really was, look not to the celebrities but to the socialites, the lesser-known but no less glamorous women whom he dressed through the years. They were known as the Met Set, the kind of socialites who were fixtures at museum galas at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and other cosmopolitan and classy locales — and they truly defined his look, his brand and perhaps even the man himself. Later on, the celebrities came a-calling, and they inevitably made his business what it later became.
De la Renta knew how to make you look like money.
Before them, there were women, like these in Paris, who chatted softly among themselves about the glory of this not-so-young but no less rising star of a designer, while they sipped from champagne glasses.
In the early ’90s, Balmain hired the Dominican-born de la Renta to design for the fashion house. He was already a star in the design world, and had been since the late 1960s. He had designed for Cristóbal Balenciaga. For Balmain, that was enough. But, as anyone in the style world knows, you don’t mean much until you’ve made it in France. And this chance to break into the French world was when he began to soar.
You never knew but … de la Renta redesigned the American Boy Scouts’ uniforms.
The man himself was a charmer who knew how to treat a lady and, better yet, how to dress a lady. People in their 40s called him Mr. de la Renta even behind his back. That’s what elegance earns you.
Most recently, de la Renta designed the ivory tulle gown donned by Amal Alamuddin for her Venice wedding to George Clooney.
And the women he married were equally élan: His first wife was the former editor of French Vogue, Francoise de Langlade. She was de la Renta’s first love and also his “secret weapon,” forging many of the industry relationships that vaulted him to stardom. Their apartment on Manhattan’s East Side was a modern-day salon for the East Coast’s who’s who in politics, fashion and business. It was where you could find “Norman Mailer talking to Alan Greenspan behind the back of Candice Bergen,” wrote David Amsden for New York Magazine. His chic second wife, Annette Engelhard — whom he married after Francoise died of cancer in 1983 — was a common sight at these get-togethers; she was the daughter of the formidable philanthropist Jane Engelhard.
His other ladies-in-waiting, so to speak? There was Carolyn Roehm, a designer who worked with de la Renta and married (then later divorced) the billionaire Henry Kravis. There was also Pat Buckley (wife of William F. Buckley) and Connecticut billionaire Anne Bass. It was not unusual to see black town cars with tinted windows parked along Seventh Avenue where de la Renta had offices, waiting for a socialite like Nancy Kissinger while she did a fitting with the designer. These women graced not red carpets but exorbitant galas. They were luncheon ladies, philanthropists who were worth enormous sums of money but they did not, ironically, turn him into the icon he later became. But even non-celebrity rich women need refinement with a dose of showmanship.
De la Renta is survived by a son, Moises, who’s now a successful designer in his own right. Moises has a surprising origin story: When Oscar was home in the Dominican Republic, he heard tell of a baby found by nuns in a dumpster. He adopted the child.
De La Renta knew how to make you look like money, how to get you into the society pages, but, crucially, he knew how to design without a whiff of vulgarity. A bare-arm dress with rich color; an accentuated waist; a single, spare ruffle — these things were quite de la Renta whether he was designing for Balmain or under his own name.
Even as he got bigger and bigger, de la Renta continued to court and charm the rich women who loved him in the early days. And in return, they stayed with him for years and passed on a taste for his finery to their daughters. A young generation of Lauders and Bushes coveted dear, late Oscar’s work quietly, unobtrusively behind the scenes. And we will continue to covet his legacy of style for years to come.