It takes a very particular design talent to bring elegance and romance to settings as varied as the White House, the red carpet, the boardroom, and the high-society charity gala. Oscar de la Renta, the legendary American designer best known for his dramatic but well-mannered looks, managed to work at that level for more than five decades. De la Renta died yesterday at 82.
De la Renta’s fashion innovation was twofold: achieving balance through slim tailoring paired with exuberant colors and accents, and bringing the courtly, personalized service of Europe’s great fashion houses to American women.
“There was always a sense of the flourish of a great flamenco flounce in his dinner and evening dresses,” former Vogue editor-at-large André Leon-Talley wrote in memoriam to the Santo Domingo native.
That drama served de la Renta well in photographs, as starlets and socialites posed for the cameras in his Dominican Republic-inspired floral patterns, tiered polka-dot ruffles, and John Singer Sargent-worthy silver satin.
In recent years up-and-coming New York-based designers like Jason Wu and Misha Nonoo have embraced de la Renta’s proclivity toward ladylike shapes imbued with wit, turning out demure looks that fly in the face of the prevailing street wear trend. But so far, no one has yet to take up his mantle of serving women while at the same time delighting and elevating them. De la Renta’s clothes were aspirational–not in the way of other luxury goods, but in the sense that he offered the woman buying his clothes a chance to become the version of herself that she aspired to be. That understanding, drawn from Europe’s couture tradition, inflected all of de la Renta’s ready-to-wear.
For de la Renta, the confidence to set his own course outside of fashion’s prevailing winds stemmed from his rigorous training in Spain under Cristobal Balenciaga, and then in Paris, where he worked under Antonio Castillo at Lanvin. He moved to New York in the 1960s, and from there onward his rise to the highest echelons of American design and Manhattan society was swift and sure. His eponymous empire, which has grown to include a home collection, mid-priced sportswear, and accessories, earns $150 million in annual sales.
De la Renta died at his home in Kent, Connecticut, after an eight-year battle with cancer.