Designer of the Now: A Survey of Couture Council Award-Winner Oscar de la Renta's Illustrious Career

Designer of the Now: A Survey of Couture Council Award-Winner Oscar de la Renta's Illustrious Career
A model in a look from Oscar de la Renta's Spring 2012 Collection.
(Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

Oscar de la Renta is known worldwide for his dedication to timeless glamour, extreme femininity, and impeccably crafted clothes that flatter the female form. “I design clothes for women to wear,” he told the New York Times in 1963. At the time, he was creating safari suits and embroidered ball gowns for Elizabeth Arden, where he served as head designer from 1963 to 1965. “I am not interested in shock tactics. I am not trying to impress people; I just want to make beautiful clothes.” he added. Throughout his illustrious, more than 50-year career, he has done just that. And today, he will be awarded the Couture Council at FIT’s prestigious Artistry of Fashion award during the organization’s annual luncheon at Lincoln Center.

Indeed, de la Renta is in good company. Since the award’s inception in 2006, the likes of Dries van Noten, Lanvin’s Alber Elbaz, Valentino Garavani, and Karl Lagerfeld have received the honor. The selection committee is packed with fashion’s movers and shakers, like Vogue’s Hamish Bowles, Bergdorf Goodman’s Linda Fargo, Musée de la Mode curator Pamela Golbin, and Harpers Bazaar editor-in-chief Glenda Bailey, among others. “We have a mixture of people who are looking at the long fashion history view as well as people who are looking at who’s most popular now. And I urge [the committee] to look not just in terms of the designer’s most recent work, but in terms of his or her life’s work and how that embodies a creative contribution to the field of fashion,” said fashion scholar Valerie Steele, who serves as the director and curator of the Museum at FIT and is the chair of the Couture Council.

Steele noted that, as the award has gained prestige, the Couture Council has been tasked with finding increasingly successful designers. And while 2010’s winner, Karl Lagerfeld, is a tough character to top, Steele said, “Oscar has already sold more tickets than even Karl. This is going to be a very, very unusually exciting and glamorous Couture Council luncheon. I think all over town, many hundreds of ladies are busily shopping.” And why shouldn’t they? After all, they’re fêting a man who’s been a defining force in American beauty for half a century.

Through his full skirts and demure suiting, de la Renta has been instrumental in defining the American aesthetic, but it’s difficult to pigeon hole him as an “American designer.” Born in the Dominican Republic in 1932, de la Renta served as Cristobal Balenciaga’s apprentice in Spain after studying painting in Madrid. He moved to Paris to work under Antonio Castillo at Lanvin in 1961 and, after serving a three-year tenure at Elizabeth Arden and launching his own line in 1965, he designed the couture collection for Balmain from 1992 to 2002. It is this international sensibility — the fusion of French couture, Latin drama, and American modernity — that makes de la Renta’s work entirely unique. 

Characterized by dramatic femininity and an innate sense of color (which Steele likens to that of the late Yves Saint Laurent), de la Renta’s blossoming gowns and smart separates have been enduring favorites of the social set. He has a keen eye for ornamentation — always luxe, never gaudy. Case-in-point: the sequins, décolleté ruffles, and rosettes in his spring 1972 collection or the bejeweled everything from fall 2012.

While de la Renta may be the go-to designer for Park Avenue’s gala-going women, he remains relevant by embracing the sartorial cravings of a more youthful clientele. “He’s not just dressing society ladies of a certain age,” Steele told ARTINFO. “He has picked up their daughters and their granddaughters as clients as well.” Stars like Lea Michelle and Anne Hathaway are among his new fans. And even members of the downtown fashion pack dream of draping themselves in de la Renta’s frocks. “I’ve always had a fantasy of pulling an Oscar dress out of my closet, throwing it on with Converse, and meandering through the streets of New York like it’s no big deal,” said model-cum-actress Dree Hemingway, proving that his looks are not only for uptown ladies who lunch.

Furthermore, he’s a role model for emerging designers trying to build an American brand. “You see all the young designers in New York wanting to be the next Oscar de la Renta,” said Steele. One such up-and-comer is CFDA-nominated Wes Gordon, who interned with de la Renta before launching his own line in 2009. “I am so grateful that I was able to spend time in Mr. de la Renta’s studio,” Gordon said. “For me, it was a real life version of my fantasies about fashion. Mr. de la Renta comes to work every day and he’ll do a beautiful sketch and drape a gown on the house model. It’s that romance and passion that initially made me fall in love with fashion. And the company he’s built is incredible. If, when I’m 80, I could have a company that’s a fraction of what Oscar’s is, I’d be so happy.”

So why, after so many years at the top, is de la Renta only now receiving the Couture Council’s honor? “It’s always a little bit unclear as to why one year rather than another,” explained Steele. “Names come up and he’s certainly always been on our radar.” One could speculate that, considering de la Renta’s presence in both Democrat and Republican wardrobes (Jackie O. was known to don de la Renta’s frocks, as was Nancy Reagan and Laura Bush. Hillary Clinton is a fan of his pantsuits and Ann Romney wore a red taffeta de la Renta cocktail number to the Republican Convention last week), it is fitting that he’d receive the award in an election year.

Or perhaps it is because of de la Renta’s ability to keep his finger on the pulse while developing an empire of high-end and moderately priced fashions (he launched his diffusion line, O Oscar, in 2004), accessories, beauty products, and a home line. “When we did our ‘Impact: 50 Years of the CFDA’ show at FIT, we asked him what he felt was his biggest masterpiece,” said Steele. He chose a burnt yellow taffeta gown with a black Guipure lace bodice from his spring 2012 collection. “In subsequent interviews, he’s also expressed that what he really loves is the thing that he’s done most recently, which is a very fascinating thing. He’s somebody who’s very much looking at the present and never looking at the past.”

De la Renta’s penchant for the now was apparent in his 2013 resort collection. During the presentation, models in youthful gingham suits and flirty floral dresses sported neon streaks in their hair. Don’t expect ladies of a certain age to be rocking that look. Although, if de la Renta says it’s in, maybe do.

At 80, de la Renta has expressed no desire to retire. His unrelenting quest to help women feel beautiful makes him all the more impressive. And the award all the more deserved. 

Click on the slide show to see images of pieces from Oscar de la Renta’s 50-year career.

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