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De la Renta, Oscar
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Dominican-born American fashion designer. De la Renta’s illustrious career spans nearly six decades and is part of the canon of American fashion design (see fig.). Known for flattering, highly wearable designs characterized by sophisticated femininity and romantic details, de la Renta made a name for himself both as a designer and as a man of style at the centre of prominent social circles.
Oscar de la Renta was born the youngest child and only boy in a family of six sisters, to a Dominican mother, Maria Fiallo, and a Puerto Rican father, Oscar Ortiz de la Renta. Raised under the matriarchal rule of his maternal grandmother, de la Renta’s childhood experiences in the lushly tropical community surrounded by grand and proper women in crisply starched ruffles shaped his perception of femininity as strength. The regalia of the Catholic Church and the aristocratic European glamour of an uncle’s Russian mistress supplied his romantic nature with an exotic aesthetic vocabulary.
De la Renta’s earliest ambition was to be an artist. Despite his father’s practical concerns, de la Renta’s mother supported him and, at the age of 16, he enrolled in the Escuela Nacional de Bellas Artes in Santo Domingo. In 1951, de la Renta transferred his studies to the Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando in Madrid. In order to support his increasingly social lifestyle, and to avoid incurring further debt to his father, de la Renta sketched fashion illustrations for leading Spanish fashion houses from 1951 until 1955. In 1955, Mrs John Lodge, wife of the US ambassador to Spain, asked de la Renta to design a gown for her daughter, Beatrice, to be worn at the young woman’s début. Because of the ambassador’s political position and the social significance of the debutante ritual, the dress was featured on the cover of Life magazine.
Eventually de la Renta was hired by the celebrated couturier, Cristobal Balenciaga, to sketch for his Madrid house, Eisa. Less than a year later, de la Renta traveled to Paris where he exaggerated his experience in order to secure a position under Spanish-born designer, Antonio Castillo (1908–84). After a two-week crash course in draping and tailoring, de la Renta began his career as an assistant designer in the Paris couture house, Lanvin–Castillo.
In 1962 de la Renta was offered work in the houses of both Christian Dior and Elizabeth Arden. Taking the advice of Vogue editor Diana Vreeland, de la Renta joined Elizabeth Arden as head designer—a higher position than was being offered at Dior. In 1965, de la Renta observed market trends towards ready-to-wear and left Arden’s Fifth Avenue custom establishment for Jane Derby Manufacturing, where he began his signature ready-to-wear label. In August 1965, the elderly Mrs Derby died and de la Renta partnered with Ben and Gerald Shaw to purchase the company. In 1969, Richton International bought de la Renta’s business, making his the first name of a fashion designer listed on the stock exchange. In 1973, de la Renta reclaimed ownership of the organization, naming it Oscar de la Renta Limited.
De la Renta’s label grew to offer his signature style to a diverse audience through ready-to-wear, fur, accessories, fragrance, and bridal collections. His women’s collections range from boutique to high-end ready-to-wear lines, including his Signature Collection, “Oscar by Oscar de la Renta” (which launched both petite and plus size divisions), “Pink Label,” and “O for Oscar.” His menswear collection comprises both formal wear and sportswear. Oscar de la Renta Ltd has experimented with several licensing agreements to produce accessories and home furnishings and, although the company has in large part moved away from licensing in order to better control brand image, a home furnishings agreement with Century Furniture has remained successful.
In 1992, Oscar de la Renta was signed by Pierre Balmain to design both haute couture and ready-to-wear, making him the first American designer to head a Parisian couture house. He held the position until 2003.
From the beginning of his career, de la Renta was recognized for his contributions to the field of fashion. In June of 1967 he was awarded his first Coty Award for his Russian Collection. In 1968 he received a Coty Return Award for his 1968 Belle Epoque look. He was elected to the Coty Hall of Fame in 1973. Also in 1973, de la Renta was one of five American designers chosen to participate in a first-time collaboration between French and American designers for a fashion show at the palace of Versailles. In 1980 de la Renta received the Lord and Taylor Creative Design Award. In 1990 he was awarded the second Crystal Star Award for Design Excellence from Drexel’s Nesbill College of Design Arts. Also in 1990, de la Renta, a two-time Council of Fashion Designers of America ex-president, received the organization’s lifetime achievement award.
De la Renta launched his first perfume, Oscar, in 1977; enormously successful, it received the Fragrance Foundation Perennial Success Award in 1991. Subsequently, de la Renta offered additional perfumes for women: Ruffles (1983), Volupté (1992), SO de la Renta (1997), Intrusion (2002), and Rosamor (2004). His scents for men include Oscar for Men and Oscar Pour Lui.
De la Renta was recognized as often for his charm as for his fashion designs. His first marriage to Françoise de Langlade from 1967 until her death in 1983 was a powerful social union. Their home was acknowledged in a 1980 New York Times Magazine article for its elegant salon-like dinners where fascinating figures from all disciplines would meet. After Langlade’s death, Oscar adopted an orphan from La Casa del Niño, the orphanage he had founded in 1982, naming him Moises Oscar de la Renta. In 1989 he married Annette Reed, heiress to the Englehard metals fortune, expanding his family to include stepchildren. Though de la Renta’s family adopted a quiet and more domestic life, de la Renta was famous for his gregarious hospitality.
De la Renta became an American citizen in 1971, but maintained a home and very close ties in the Domican Republic. In 1970, de la Renta was made a Knight of the Order of Juan Palo Duarte and Grand Commander of the Order of Christopher Columbus by the Dominican Republic’s president Joaquin Balanguer. In the early 1970s, de la Renta began a continuing effort to give back something to his homeland by sponsoring charity fashion shows to benefit a Dominican Republic orphanage. In 1982 he founded La Casa del Niño, a home and school for orphans and the children of poor families that he continued to support and visit regularly.
De la Renta’s design aesthetic blends an exotic femininity defined by ruffles, elaborate surface treatments, luxurious textures, and unapologetic use of colour with flattering silhouettes to create extremely wearable garments. Consequently, periods of menswear appropriation and minimalism proved difficult for him. He most recognizably designed gowns for inaugural events, such as those for First Ladies Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton, and Laura Bush. Known for making pretty, well-crafted clothes rather than designer statements, de la Renta attributed his success to an understanding of women’s needs achieved through instinct and observation. Critics challenged him for being excessively romantic or unoriginal, but his enormous success with America’s most stylish and high-profile women defies critique.
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Stewart, K. E. "Renta, Oscar de la." Grove Art Online, November 9, 2018. https://libproxy.fitsuny.edu:3206/10.1093/gao/9781884446054.article.T2080137