Oscar de la Renta
Born: Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic
“There is always an emotional element to anything that you make.”
―Oscar de la Renta
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One of the richest Hispanic Americans, Oscar de la Renta is a very successful and popular fashion designer. Best known for his evening gowns, de la Renta expanded his business to include varying priced lines of women’s wear, men’s wear, accessories, fragrances, household items, perfume, and furniture.
Born in 1932, in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, de la Renta was raised in a middle-class household with his six sisters. His father worked as an insurance executive. When de la Renta was 17 years old, he went to Madrid, Spain, to attend art school. He became a student at the Academia de San Fernando, where he studied painting with Vasques Dias. De la Renta’s original goal was to become an abstract painter.
While art had its allure, fashion was also of interest to de la Renta. He liked to buy fine suits, and learned the basics of fabrics and fit during his fittings. To buy the suits, de la Renta began doing illustrations for magazines and for a couture house in Spain called Balenciaga. De la Renta created his first dress on a freelance basis for the daughter of a U.S. ambassador. A picture of the debutante in the dress appeared in Life magazine.
Of this time in his life, de la Renta told Catherine Patch of the Toronto Star, “Soon I found that I was more interested in fashion design than I was in continuing as an illustrator. I think that any experience you have; anything you pay attention to is part of what I call the ‘baggage’ you carry with you all your life. My early involvement with painting, even the fact that I come from a tropical country, are part of who and what I am today.”
De la Renta soon became more interested in designing clothes than painting, and moved into fashion design. While on a working vacation in Paris in 1961, he was hired for his first job at Lanvin-Castillo, where he worked as an assistant to Antonio del Castillo. In 1963, de la Renta moved to the United States to work for Elizabeth Arden. He worked in couture and the ready-to-wear salon.
De la Renta moved to Jane Derby designs in 1965 to work as a designer, though his vision was not fully realized until the end of his tenure with the firm a year later. When Derby retired, de la Renta and colleague Jerry Shaw founded their own company in 1966. De la Renta’s first output was a boutique line.
As de la Renta’s professional career took off, his personal life also underwent a transformation. He married Françoise de Langlade, the editor of French Vogue, in 1967. Her tastes influenced the way her husband designed clothes and ran his business. The couple was also high-profile socially, and their lives were covered regularly in magazines.
As a designer, de la Renta had his first big success with ball gowns. Many of his first clients were married women of leisure. The simple romantic styles of dresses for them often featured ruffles and bows. De la Renta’s styles evolved over time. His lines in the 1970s retained the romantic touch, but with exotic influences such as Russian- and gypsy-themed gowns. He struggled a bit in the mid-1970s when androgyny ruled, and his ideas did not fit the times. However, he did bounce back by the end of the decade.
By 1980, de la Renta’s company was doing about $200 million worth of business. One very successful product produced by de la Renta was perfume. He introduced his first perfume in 1977, and regularly added new fragrances over the years. They included Oscar de la Renta Esprit de Parfum in 1988, and both Volupte and Ruffles in 1992. In 2000, he launched his first fragrance for men called Oscar for Men. New perfumes for women called Intrusion and Rosamor were introduced in 2002 and 2004, respectively.
De la Renta’s personal life evolved in the 1980s. His wife died of bone cancer in 1983. Shortly after her death, de la Renta adopted a son, whom he named Moises Oscar, on his own. He found the boy in his native country though an orphanage/day care center named Casa de Niños that he funded and remained actively involved with. The center gave children who lived in poverty a place to go and parents a place to leave their children in safety. As soon as he saw the boy who became his son, de la Renta became extremely drawn to him and despite the fact that friends were against the adoption, the designer took the child home as his own.
De la Renta’s business continued to grow in the 1980s. His evening gowns moved away from the ruffled, romantic look and became even bigger, bejeweled, and full of glamour. However, de la Renta realized that his core audience was changing to career women who need to look good for night and day. While they wanted to be feminine, the clothes had to fit their needs. To that end, he created new styles of day suits for women which became quite colorful. Quilting, close cuts, and bold coloring became trademarks of his pieces in this time period.
By 1985, de la Renta’s fashion business was worth $250 million. Part of the increase came from the success of new product lines. He added more day wear and ready-to-wear items as well as a cheaper Miss O line to appeal to less prosperous consumers. The de la Renta name was also put on accessories and linens.
Sales of de la Renta’s products greatly increased in the late 1980s. He had one of his best years ever in fashion in 1988, doing about $400 million of business annually. In 1989, his licensed goods alone brought in about $500 million on the retail level. De la Renta did not just dominate in the business sector. In this time period, he served as president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America.
After marrying for a second time in January of 1990 to Annette Engelhard Reed, a philanthropist and socialite, de la Renta continued to grow in business. In 1991, he built on the success he had with fashion in the United States by becoming the first major American designer to show his work in Paris. De la Renta’s debut in Paris for the fall 1991 season was a hit. He focused on light, wearable pieces, many of which featured plaids. In 1992, checks dominated his pieces. With this success, de la Renta was essentially on top of the American evening wear market.
De la Renta’s business continued to expand in the early 1990s. In 1992, he signed a deal with the Paris-based house of Pierre Balmain to create two lines, couture and a ready-to-wear line called Ivoire. (De la Renta did not have his name on his label.) This deal made de la Renta the first American to design for the fashion house, but did not preclude the continuation of his own business or designing under his own name.
De la Renta was up to the challenge of reviving a house that had always been important but never at the top and that had suffered from major financial losses. Martha Duffy of Time wrote, “Oscar, as everybody calls him, fits perfectly into the Balmain aesthetic. He is not an innovator—his few enemies call him a copyist—but he executes gorgeous costumes and with a peerless eye for fabric, detail, and nuance.”
De la Renta’s first show for Balmain came in February of 1993, featured spring wear, and was well-received. The pieces were very wearable, elegant, contemporary, and sexy with polished touches. De la Renta continued to produce several lines a year for Balmain until 2002.
Though Balmain remained a priority for de la Renta, he did not neglect his own company. He continued to show his own designs in Paris in the early 1990s, but moved his shows back to New York City by the middle of the decade. De la Renta also added more product lines to the company. In 1996, to expand his appeal, he began creating a bridge sportswear line for women called Oscar by Oscar de la Renta. These clothes were less expensive than many other lines produced by him.
While all of de la Renta’s lines took on a new, more simple aesthetic in the 1990s to reflect the style of the times, his pieces remained flattering. Though de la Renta’s clothes always remained popular, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, his work became the preferred wear of American First Ladies. De la Renta had dressed First Lady Nancy Reagan in the 1980s, then provided the gowns for inaugural events for both Hillary Clinton in 1997 and Laura Bush in 2005. Clinton also wore his designs for other big events during her husband’s presidency, including a speech to the Democratic National Convention in 1996, and after she became a senator in 2000.
By 1997, all of de la Renta’s businesses were worth $500 million. While his fashions remained profitable, he was making more from his related lines, including accessories and perfumes, than his clothing. In 1998, he launched a line of lingerie, as well as petite division for Oscar by Oscar de la Renta, then plus sizes in 1999, both of which proved very popular. Other products that carried his name included eyewear, swimwear, handbags, and men’s accessories. De la Renta continued to design two men’s lines, the more expensive Oscar de la Renta Pour Homme, and the less expensive Oscar de la Renta.
In early 2000s, de la Renta entered his seventies, yet remained a vital designer who still enjoyed designing clothes. He continued to show his designs in the United States to good reviews, and his gowns remained in demand. His 2001 fall-winter collection featured some gowns that updated the “Dynasty” gowns from the 1980s in a restrained yet opulent way, while his 2004 collections featured Spanish touches. He always produced feminine clothes that appealed to a higher-end audience. Nancy Kissinger told Julia Reed of Vogue, “Oscar is the only one left who makes practical clothes. They fit the times; they fit people’s lives.”
De la Renta added his name to a whole new business in 2002: furniture, a new frontier for fashion designers. He put together a collection of 100 pieces for Century Furniture that featured dining tables as well as upholstered chairs and couches. He also expanded his fashion lines. In 2004, de la Renta added an even less expensive line of clothing called O Oscar. He wanted to attract new customers, women whom he could not reach before, despite the risk that it could lessen the value of his brand as a whole. The line was sold in mid-level department stores. De la Renta also opened his first boutique, located in New York City, in November of 2004.
As de la Renta grew older, his family became more involved in with his business. His stepdaughter, Eliza Bolen, worked for him overseeing some of the licensed products, while her husband became the company’s chief executive officer in 2004. Even de la Renta’s son Moises decided on a career as a designer. He dropped out of college and wanted to make his own name in the fashion world. He began with a T-shirt before moving on to a small collection of denim in 2005.
The heart of de la Renta’s business remained the designer himself. InStyle wrote, “The name Oscar de la Renta is so lushly rhythmic that even women who own nothing more than his perfume spritz it with the confidence of knowing that these six melodious syllables ensure entrance into a world of limitless grace and polish. After more than 30 years on and around Seventh Avenue, his presence is proof that a man can possess impeccable taste and manners without displaying the slightest trace of dandyism and also design unrepentantly feminine clothes without ever misreading the desires of today’s women.”