Dominican-born American designer Oscar de la Renta (1932–2014) built one of the most enduring luxury labels in 20th-century fashion. For decades his designs captivated socialites, First Ladies, and a long list of prominent public figures who chose his dresses for their elegant silhouettes and vividly hued floral motifs.
Óscar Arístides Renta Fiallo was born on July 22, 1932, in Santo Domingo, the capital of the Dominican Republic. The seventh child and first son born to Carmen María Antonia Fiallo, he was named after his father Óscar Avelino Renta, who owned an insurance company; the nobler version of the family name, “de la,” was adopted by the designer when he moved to Europe as a young man.
On his mother's side of the family, de la Renta's Fiallo lineage included diplomats and military officials who had first come to the Caribbean island of Hispaniola in the late seventeenth century. The affluent family weathered the turbulence of Latin-American politics of this era through its ties to the authoritarian regime of longtime president General Rafael Leonidas Trujillo. De la Renta later recalled that his formidable grandmother, a woman who married a widower with eight children then produced another eight offspring, was one of his earliest influences, as was a stylish uncle with a Russian-émigré girlfriend who would regale him with tales of the European beau monde.
At age 18, de la Renta moved to Madrid, Spain to take art classes at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando. His ambition to become a painter led him into illustration work when his father's remittances proved an unreliable source of financial support. “I thought I could make some extra money,” he told Women's Wear Daily writer Bridget Foley. He was so skilled at sketching the female form that he landed a job at Eisa, the Spanish haute-couture boutique founded by legendary fashion designer Cristóbal Balenciaga. “At Balenciaga, I could spend time in the sample room and see how clothes were being cut and being made,” he told Foley. “That was so valuable, because I really didn't know anything.”
De la Renta's gracious manners and indefatigable dancing prowess made him a popular figure in the city's muted social scene, and a number of well-connected women in Madrid helped launch his career in earnest. He scored his first important design commission—and invaluable piece of publicity for a fashion-design newcomer—when he appeared as the dapper man fitting an American debutante in the July 9, 1956, issue of Life magazine. The dress was made for 18-year-old Beatrice Cabot Lodge, daughter of the U.S. ambassador to Spain, and her fetching portrait appeared on the issue's cover.
Like de la Renta's homeland, however, Spain was now governed by a firmly right-wing military regime and conspicuous spending was limited. In 1961 he moved to Paris and landed a job as a couture assistant at Lanvin, the legendary French fashion house, expanding his skill set by taking design and pattern-making classes. Two years later he made the leap to New York City, joining the migration of other French fashion-industry professionals. “I must have made $400 a month in Paris and there were all these people who were already working here and making that in a week, or double that,” he recalled to Foley. “Also, at that time, ready-to-wear was not really such an important scene in Paris. The ready-to-wear collections were done by the assistants.”
De la Renta quickly found work in New York City designing ready-to-wear (RTW) lines for Elizabeth Arden. “At 31, he has developed a personal following that is enchanted by his Spanish charm as well as the pure line of his clothes,” reported New York Times fashion writer Bernadine Morris in March of 1964, critiquing his third collection for Arden. Years later, de la Renta would recall that when he first arrived in New York City he could barely speak English and struggled with persistent impostor syndrome. “Do you know why I almost always wear a tie?,” he joked with John Heilpern, who interviewed him for Vanity Fair in 2009. “I have this complex that if I walk into a place wearing a colorful shirt someone will stop me and say, ‘I'm sorry, but the Latin band comes through the other door.”’
In 1965 de la Renta was hired as a designer at a successful Seventh Avenue RTW company, Jane Derby, whose eponymous founder had died just months later. Executives promoted him to chief designer and his collections continued to garner strong accolades from fashion editors, who paired his designs with feature stories about a particularly chic set of East Coast debutants and New York City socialites.
Although he created custom wedding dresses for automotive heiresses and extravagantly constructed evening gowns for prominent Manhattan socialites, the majority of his designs were appealing RTW ensembles sold at Bergdorf Goodman, Saks Fifth Avenue, and other high-end stores. In 1967 and 1968 de la Renta won back-to-back honors at the Coty American Fashion Critics Awards, the forerunner of the annual June gala hosted by the Council of Fashion Designers of America, or CFDA. “I thought I was world-famous,” he quipped to Foley in Women's Wear Daily. “The following year, the collection didn't do so well, and Ben Shaw, who was then the major stockholder in the Oscar de la Renta house, wanted to replace me. I was lucky that I had a contract and said, ‘If you want to fire me, buy my contract out.”’
It would be Shaw's son Gerald who helped de la Renta build a licensing behemoth in the mid-1970s. Another figure of vital importance to the designer's early career was Françoise de Langlade, editor in chief of Vogue Paris during the mid-1960s. When de Langlade and de la Renta wed in late 1967, they became one of the fashion world's most intriguing power couples, with de Langlade's deft networking skills deployed to promote her bon vivant husband's image as a top U.S. designer with European credentials. The de la Rentas entertained lavishly, with invitations to their frequent Manhattan townhouse dinner parties becoming a coveted signifier of social standing in the early 1970s. Their opulently furnished homes, including an estate in Kent, Connecticut, were featured in Vogue, House & Garden, Architectural Digest, and other glossy magazines.
As the 1980s dawned, de la Renta's name and opulent eveningwear became indelibly identified with what cultural historians characterized as a return to America's Gilded Age, a time of conspicuous consumption. Their place in the pecking order was cemented in a December 12, 1980, cover story for the New York Times Magazine by Francesca Stanfill, which ran under the headline “Living Well Is Still the Best Revenge.” Three years later, Françoise de Langlade de la Renta died of cancer.
In 1989, de la Renta married Annette Mannheimer Engelhard Reed, a prominent New York City socialite from a family whose immense fortune had been made in South African gold and metals mining earlier in the century. In 2005, Stanfill interviewed de la Renta at his tropical-island bolthole in the Dominican Republic for Town & Country. “I've had the great luck to have married two amazing women—and two completely different women,” he admitted then, adding that de Langlade and Reed shared a birthday, December 24. “My one regret is that Françoise lived so little for someone who loved life so much. She was twelve years older than I and seemed fifty years younger. She gave me so much, and I learned so much from her.”
De la Renta and his second wife were formidable philanthropic partners with longstanding ties to the Metropolitan Museum of Art and its Costume Institute. He was also active in his industry's major professional association, the Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), and twice served as its president. Along with Venezuelan-born Carolina Herrera, de la Renta was one of the first Hispanic designers to attain industry-leader status in American fashion. His reputation was further enhanced in 1993 when the owners of Pierre Balmain, the legendary Paris fashion house, recruited him to take over its haute couture division.
For 19 years de la Renta maintained both jobs, frequently commuting to Paris for Balmain while continuing to put in long days at the same Seventh Avenue atelier he had first entered in the 1960s as the newcomer at Jane Derby. “Starting a new collection is always the hardest time,” he explained to Heilpern in Vanity Fair. “And at the very end, when I'm two or three days away from the show, it's panic time. Because there's never enough time to make all the clothes I would like to make.”
De la Renta dressed a long and illustrious roster of women for high-profile events, starting with Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis in the 1960s and her sister Lee Radziwill. First Lady Nancy Reagan favored his signature embellished gowns, and both Hillary Rodham Clinton and Laura Bush chose de la Renta couture for their spouses’ second inauguration galas. His company posted roughly $200 million in annual sales after four decades in operation, becoming one of the most durable success stories in American fashion. His aesthetic continued to evolve, but as Tanya Basu noted in an Atlantic Monthly tribute, he was ultimately “the epitome of the American dream—an immigrant who created a fantasy world of wearable art that toasted the American woman and celebrated an emerging American identity.”
In what turned out to be the last custom wedding dress de la Renta would design and fit for a high-profile bride, Lebanese human-rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin requested his help in creating a showstopper for her September 2014 wedding to the actor George Clooney in Venice, Italy. De la Renta died just weeks later, on October 20, 2014, from cancer at his home in Connecticut. By then the designer had ceded some executive duties to Eliza Bolen, his stepdaughter, and her husband, Alexander Bolen. “Eliza is extremely outspoken,” de la Renta told Foley in his Women's Wear Daily interview. “She can say, ‘I don't know. I will never wear that.’ To me, that is very important. Sometimes I will say, ‘Explain why.’ I want to hear…. The most exciting thing in life in general is that every single day I have something to learn. You can never say, ‘I have learned enough in life; I don't need to know more.’ You need the curiosity to learn and understand and appreciate. You have to keep moving.”
New York Times, March 5, 1964.
New York Times Magazine, December 21, 1980.
Town & Country, August 2005. p. 110.
Vanity Fair, September 2009.
Washington Post, October 21, 2014.
Women's Wear Daily, June 14, 2005, p. 6B.
Atlantic Monthly online, http://www.theatlantic.com/ (October, 2014), Tanya Basu, “Oscar de la Renta's All-American Fashion Revolution.”❑