He was the son of globalization—born in the Dominican Republic to a mother of Spanish descent and a father hailing from Puerto Rico, beginning a storied career in French couture before launching in America. His was a family of intellectuals and civil servants. He dabbled in painting before diving into the cutthroat world of fashion design. He played bridge with investor whiz Warren Buffett and once nearly got in a fistfight with journalist William Norwich.
He was a true American pioneer.
With the death of Oscar de la Renta on Monday night at the age of 82, the fashion world has lost not only a brilliantly talented artist, but also arguably the very first American designer with street cred on the world’s runways.
That his designs clothed American celebrities and the elite for decades is but one component of de la Renta’s contribution to American fashion. De la Renta began his career with Arden, working in the burgeoning ready-to-wear business. Within a few years, de la Renta had worked his way up to launching his very own label.
“I have a creative block on a daily basis,” he said in an interview with Norwich for New York magazine’s The Cut. “To be a good designer, you have to keep your eyes open. You have to understand the consumer. You have to understand the woman you are dressing.”
Once he’d scored a label, de la Renta’s rise was meteoric. He splashed onto the political scene with the silk boatneck dresses favored by then-First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. Though Kennedy was often remembered as a fashion trailblazer, de la Renta’s role in creating her image—and that of American women in the swingin’ ‘60s—should not be ignored. The fitted bodices splaying out into full skirts kicked off a decade of iconoclastic rebellion in fashion while preserving a unique sense of American tradition within folds of taffeta.
“I always say in my role as a designer is to bear, to do the very best I can for that woman, to make her feel her very best,” de la Renta said in a 2013 video shot for the William J. Clinton Presidential Center’s celebration of him, “Oscar de la Renta: American Icon.”
And make many a woman feel her very best he did. From first ladies since Kennedy through Obama, Hollywood starlets, and urban sophisticates, de la Renta clothed women over half a century, focusing on the intersection of simplicity in form and breathtaking complexity in design to create pieces that were inimitably de la Renta, undeniably American.
Before de la Renta’s entrance, American fashion was ruled by copycats: Runway looks from Paris and London were adjusted for American tastes, which strayed towards the practical and avoided the cutting-edge risks that defined the European scene. De la Renta changed that—he focused on the American woman, her needs, her cultural outlook, her sense of practicality but desire to be beautiful. De la Renta combined these sensibilities into what became his unmistakable brand of strong lines, very little skin-show, sumptuous fabrics, vibrant single hues, ornate details like lace and bows and pearls that evoked a purity that was at once sultry and innocent, and, most importantly, a tag bearing his calligraphic name, scrolled in smooth strokes both delightfully unexpected and surprisingly expected, just like his line.
“Obviously, the woman I dress today is very different from the woman I dressed when I started in the business,” he told Norwich. “But you know, fashion is an illusion. [It’s about] how good you are at projecting that illusion.”
Indeed, de la Renta’s revolutionary designs were, ironically, steadfast in their dedication to classic form and structure, stridently maintaining a fairy-tale quality that gave the women he dressed an ethereal aura. He favored ruffles, billowing tiered gowns that evoked a concoction of Renaissance grandeur with graphic Warholian splashes of color. Unlike some of his peers, de la Renta avoided making political statements or overt experimentation (“Fashion is non-political and non-partisan,” de la Renta said in that same Clinton video while discussing how he dressed then-First Lady Hillary Clinton for a Vogue shoot).
This intense passion for femininity and elegance—without cutouts or statements—made de la Renta groundbreaking and shocking, both in post-war America and the global stage of the new millennium. The classic nature of his fashion was timeless and maintained a stoic, coy sense of majesty that both made a woman imminently approachable while also giving her a sense of mystique.
Years later, de la Renta’s iconic brand has transformed into something beyond legendary. De la Renta is, in fact, the epitome of American dream—an immigrant who created a fantasy world of wearable art that toasted the American woman and celebrated an emerging American identity. De la Renta’s outfits never oversexualized women, never attempted to make them seem skinnier or more bootylicious or false in any sense. He was a man who understood the juxtaposed layers that made an American woman who she was and created outfits that perfectly grasped that definition.
“He makes a woman look like a woman, feel like a woman, feel like a princess,” fellow designer Diane von Furstenburg said of de la Renta. “He has that old-fashioned elegance, and yet he’s able to interpret it in such a modern way.”