October 21, 2014

OSCAR DE LA RENTA – AMERICAN FASHION LEGEND

I’ve been privileged to do this internship at Oscar de la Renta, in New York. I had been wishing a lot to be able to have this experience, given that the designer, even if best known for his ready to wear collections, is, maybe, the most highly regarded couturier of the 21st century. There virtually is no other American fashion house where a young design student, like I was, can develop their fashion knowledge in a classic framework, like they used to do it in the Parisian ateliers back when fashion was an artistic endeavour, made with passion for passionate people! Oscar de la Renta, thanks to his experience working with Cristobal Balenciaga or as Creative Director at Lanvin and Balmain, was the only designer not to have forsaken the perfume of fashion’s golden age, as well as its legendary know-how.

Everything around him breathed fashion.

Even the building in which Oscar de la Renta has its headquarter: it’s right in the middle of NY City’s fashion district – Times Square! Wherever you turn, it’s impossible not to run into fashion. For example, one floor down, are the offices of Michael Kors. If you leave the building, just the by next block is the home of Vogue USA, plus all of the other industry magazines belonging to Conde Nast.

It was a daily occurrence running into Anna Wintour or Grace Coddington on the street or in the restaurants nearby. Or rather sharing the elevator with buyers of the great American department stores.

In New York, even if you don’t want to, you’re surrounded and taken by storm by fashion. Even if it’s America we’re talking about, the fashion industry from across the pond works rather like a Swiss watch. And to have it reach this stage, Oscar de la Renta himself contributed to reforming the system. That’s why I wanted so badly to add to my portfolio this experience in a legendary, traditional (Oscar de la Renta had just celebrated half a century in fashion) fashion house, that would, nonetheless, function in the most modern system, by the standards and demands of marketing-driven objectives – and here the Americans are second to none. De la Renta is the only House to meet all of these qualities, and I can only be extremely grateful for having been given the opportunity to learn from the ones to have been writing, for over 50 years, fundamental pages of fashion history.

Yet, the first contact that I had with Oscar de la Renta’s fashion wasn’t at his fashion house. Preparing for my internship, I had arrived in New York two days early. And the moment I stepped off the airplane, I had an instant thermal shock. It was so cold that regardless of the fact that I already had on all the clothes in my luggage, I had to rush to the first store I came across and buy myself a warm coat.

I went in at Bergdorf Goodman’s, on Fifth Avenue, and the very first coat to jump to my attention was a superb cape designed by Oscar de la Renta together with John Galliano – a collector’s item, the last one on the rack as a matter of fact.

I’ve never believed in love at first sight, but the ODLR coat has provided me with arguments to spare that I had thus far been completely wrong.

I hesitated for a few minutes, kept giving it circles. I actually must have spun more than a whirling dervish. The price was staggering. Perfectly normal, Oscar de la Renta is just one of the most exclusivist brands in the world.

Finally, I couldn’t resist the temptation and, just like that, I spent my first to last pennies on my very fist day in NYC. A month’s worth of expenses went, in a matter of seconds, by the way of a superb ODLR coat. The bad thing in the story actually is that I was still cold, since I had set out intending to buy myself a warm coat, and ended up getting a light one and paying for it all of my money, at that. Yes! But it was worth it. I now have a unique ODLR by John Galliano coat!

On my very first day, I enter the building and stop by the elevator, where an extremely gracious presence demands my full attention. She was wearing a backless dress, sandals as high as the Statue of Liberty and a fur coat casually hanging from her shoulders, while outside snow was making its presence very much felt. Of course, a valet parking strategically placed just outside the door made every wardrobe extravagance possible.

It was the PR of the fashion house, Erika Bearman, known in the digital world as Oscar PR Girl, one of the most beautiful and elegant women I have ever seen.

Following a warm introduction, during which I’ve been introduced to the offices, I was given a 20-odd pages confidentiality contract, in which also stipulated were the series of obligations of those working at Oscar de la Renta.

20 pages that made reference to the most unexpected requests I have ever seen. I immediately understood that being a House with a reputation to protect, the image of every person working for there is very important, as its team also represents the brand.

I was, thus, surprised, pleasantly, of course, to see that even an impeccable manicure was among the items on the job description and stipulated in the contract.

And by the way of seeing its female staff all glamed up, I also realised that everything was being followed to the letter.

Going back to Oscar de la Renta, he thought that elegance – ’’It’s a discipline. And if you don’t dress well every day, you lose the habit. It’s not about what you wear, but about how you live your life.’’ A philosophy adopted by all of those near him, no matter the weather or other inconvenients. Thinking about my own fashion habits, I realized just how right he was. And if today I live my life at least a drop more beautifully and elegantly than I used to, I owe it all to Oscar de la Renta!

I already knew they design around 8 to 10 collections a year (two prêt-à-porter, one resort, one pre-fall, one or two bridal, one for children, one of interior design, without even mentioning accessories and perfumes). Just fantastic work! Only Karl Lagerfeld is also able to reaches these heights today. So my curiosity was fully focused on the mechanism that makes this hundreds of thousands of euros business spin flawlessly.

And I was fascinated to learn that all of the departments (be it creation, financial, PR, marketing, merchandising or even delivery) are situated in the same building as the designer. Even the runway shows are organised in the same place, with the catwalk starting from very near the designer’s office door.

Everything is operated from New York by a relatively small team for a business so large. So, efficiency is at a premium!

They work 12 hours a day with passion, patience and the eye for things getting well done. It’s quite simply staggering to see that the outfits sent to fashion magazines from Asia, Latin America, Australia or Europe all leave from the same office, coordinated by a PR team of just 3 people, who, if I had the necessary ropes to pull, I’d award for exceptional performance. Even if I don’t doubt it a second that the designer hasn’t done it already.

The creation process is just a small piece of this complex mechanism, vitally depending on all of the other pieces to function properly. And it all runs smoothly at Oscar de la Renta.

All the more since it happens daily that a star come in for fittings. Jennifer Garner picked out her Oscars dress, another day Taylor Swift came along, having a red carpet dress being done for her.

And for the stars who happen not to be in the vicinity, packages are being religiously sent via Rachel Zoe, the biggest stylist in Hollywood, dressing the most stylish stars – stylish thanks to her and Oscar de la Renta, of course.

Oscar de la Renta

Born in 1932 in Santo Domingo, the youngest and only son of a family with seven children, de la Renta used to often say that he could get almost anything from his parents. He came from a family influent in the society of the Dominican Republic, a family including reputed businessmen, doctors, members of the Academy, poets or officers. His great-grandfather was among the first Puerto Rican mayors elected through popular vote.

Yet he left home – first to study, in Spain, then to America, to cut for himself a life worthy of a Hollywood script.

At 17 he was leaving home for Madrid, to study painting at the Academy of San Fernando. From there on, he would shortly make his way to the exclusivist realm of European couture. As from the very beginning of his stay in the Peninsula, he began making sketches for fashion magazines, for then, not after long, to become apprentice to one of the time’s greatest couturiers, Cristóbal Balenciaga. Not after long, and not for long, as de la Renta wanted to reach Paris. And when Balenciaga told him he didn’t yet have the experience to be appointed at the House’s Parisian office, he was already ready for France and ready for Dior. With his newly obtained job for Christian Dior under his belt, he then met Antonio del Castillo, designer at Lanvin. And even before starting work at Dior, he had, already, obtained with him a contract that he saw as having better perspective. A tremendous string of successes were already leaving their mark on the career of the young designer who knew very well what he wanted.

And after Paris, the next step de la Renta wished to take was towards prêt-à-porter. He felt it was the future of fashion, and also his own. This meant, in 1963, coming to New York for Elizabeth Arden. Before long – a new shift – he was working for Jane Derby. And in 1965 Oscar de la Renta was born.

Then, the Dominican designer was president of the CFDA – Council of Fashion Designers of America -, under the mandate of which he initiated a series of reforms addressing the promotion of American designers. Indeed, here started the long string of First Ladies wearing American brands and contributing to the growth of the fashion sector’s contribution to the American economy.

As ODLR had realised the power of example they could have on the fashion consumer, thus contributing to the resurrections of the national fashion industry.

More than that, the Hispanic designer convinced them, through the years, to also update their wardrobes with out of the box pieces from young designers.

Up until the 1960s, in the United States there were two categories of First Ladies. Those who dressed modestly, to provide an example of frugality, like Eleanor Roosevelt – perfectly justifiable, since this was the time of the World Wars, when the economy did not allow for excess. As a counterweight, later came the Jackie Kennedy typology, staying true to a wardrobe made up of designs mostly from French Houses, such as Givenchy.

Inspiration provided by presidential wives that gets to boost young designers came, in fact, from the Old Continent. In the ’70s, Vittoria Leone, wife of the Italian president, was bringing to the forefront Valentino Garavani, while Raisa Gorbaciov brought Yves Saint Laurent or Pierre Cardin new heights of notoriety.

’’Fashion is non-political and non-partisan.’’ Oscar de la Renta used to say. He nonetheless had an intuition about the potential politics had for supporting American fashion, a field only just budding when Oscar became president of the CFDA.

Then came years of glory. First Ladies Jackie Kennedy, Nancy Reagan, Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, all fell in love with his designs and had history-making moments wearing Oscar de la Renta.

As a matter of fact, Michelle Obama, recently declared that ’’You can’t go wrong with Oscar.’’ And this makes the point more than anything else.

From another point of view, the designer’s complex personality has been always able to highlight his outstanding education. A self-explaining reality if we are to think of de la Renta’s upbringing in an influential Dominican family.

Further put into play were his jovial nature, his humour and outstanding joie de vivre. In his book, At the Emperor’s Table, Valentino mentions de la Renta’s ability to be an exquisite host, organising opulent dinners and parties with the American high society in attendance. An inclination also turned also into business: the designer’s home accessories line.

Also obvious was his interest and philanthropic involvement, outstandingly by Casa del Niño. An orphanage where 1 500 Dominican children are being taken care of, and from where de la Renta adopted a son, Moises.

As far as his design abilities are concerned, the situation is even better nuanced. Current CFDA president Diane von Fürstenberg was able to best summarize the effect that ODLR’s creations have on the one wearing them: ’’He makes a woman look like a woman, feel like a woman, feel like a princess.’’ It’s not for no reason that royalty such as Queen Noor of Jordan, Princess Charlene de Monaco, Princess Mary of Denmark, Princess Marie-Chantal of Greece, Princess Madeleine of Sweden or Queen Letizia of Spain have made history in (and for) Oscar de la Renta.

Even Bill Clinton said in an interview that the dress given to his wife was ’’the best gift Oscar ever gave us, beyond his friendship’’.

Dresses for which de la Renta was designated winner of the The American Fashion Critics’ Award – twice – as well as numerous other distinctions and honorary titles granted, among others, by the French government or King Juan Carlos of Spain.

Oscar de la Renta was also an honorary ambassador of the Dominican Republic. In short, a fashion ambassador on multiple continents, in more countries and in a more elegant manner than any other designer so far.

Oscar de la Renta

 

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Photos: Oscar de la Renta