Oscar de la Renta, who died this evening at age 82 after a long battle with cancer, was fashion’s favorite ladies’ man. His Latin-lover good looks, fascination with feminine style, strong color sense and impeccable social skills — a wonderful sense of humor among them — made him a court dressmaker to a large portion of the international set and a designer for First Ladies from the time of Betty Ford. He was a particular favorite of three of the last: Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton and Laura Bush — and Michelle Obama recently donned one of his dresses at the White House event for fashion students.
While de la Renta could design clothes that were editorial darlings, his genius was in making women, regardless of their own intrinsic pulchritude, look and feel beautiful. Romantic, glamorous styles were his signature: tastefully extravagant, Paris-influenced, with an undercurrent of Latin pizazz. He was best-known for his designs for the Ladies Who Lunch, the likes of Babe Paley, C.Z. Guest and Marella Agnelli, along with a glittering constellation of other aristocrats and socialites, performers, broadcasters and top executives, who often became, not just customers, but friends. Yet de la Renta always remained current and in recent years, a younger set — who included actresses Sarah Jessica Parker, Jennifer Garner and Lea Michele — fell under his spell.
De la Renta was born July 22, 1932, in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic. (As he once put it, “I am the only Third World designer.”) At 18, he went to Madrid to study painting at the Academy of San Fernando. There he began sketching for top Spanish fashion houses; before long, he was working with the legendary couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga. De la Renta’s next stop was Paris, where he became a couture assistant to Antonio Castillo, then designer of Lanvin. As de la Renta recalled in 1979, “When I worked in Paris, Castillo and Balenciaga always had evening dresses inspired by Spanish peasants, flamenco; dresses taken from paintings by Goya, Zurbaran, Zuloaga; the bullring colors; the Princess of Eboli [a 16th-century Spanish beauty with an eye patch]. Balenciaga’s dresses never looked ethnic, like costumes.”
These descriptions also evoke the styles that made de la Renta’s name.