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Oscar de la Renta: 1932 — : Fashion designer

Oscar de la Renta is an internationally recognized fashion designer, known for his opulent creations of exotic high fashion for women. Although de la Renta has toned down his offerings to appeal to the more practical needs of working women, he continues to be the designer of choice for the rich and famous, including first ladies Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton, and Laura Bush. His innate sense of color, material, and style, combined with his business savvy, have created a fashion dynasty that few in the industry can match.

From Painter to Designer

De la Renta was born on July 22, 1932, in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, to Oscar and Maria Antonia deFiallo de la Renta. As a child, de la Renta grew up in the protective environment of seven women — a strict, loving mother and six sisters. His father hoped his only son would someday take over the family’s successful insurance business, but from an early age de la Renta knew he wanted to be a painter, a career choice not approved by his father. Despite his father’s objections, after graduating from Escuela Normal in 1950, de la Renta enrolled in Santo Domingo’s National School of Art.

De la Renta, who had already held a one-man show when he was 17 years old, stayed at the National School of Art for a year before moving to Madrid, Spain, to continue his studies at the San Fernando Art School. After his mother’s death, his father refused to continue to pay his son’s tuition and de la Renta turned to fashion. As de la Renta later told Hispanic magazine, “If I would have told my father I wanted to be a fashion designer, probably he would have dropped dead right there on the spot.” Just eighteen years old, de la Renta used his newly discovered aptitude for fashion to support himself by selling sketches to fashion magazines. After seeing some sketches of de la Renta’s original dress designs, Mrs. John Lodge, the wife of Spain’s U.S. ambassador, commissioned de la Renta to design a debutante gown for her daughter, Beatrice. When Beatrice appeared on the cover of Life magazine wearing de la Renta’s design, the artist decided to abandon his painting to become a design apprentice to noted Spanish couturier, Crist ó bal Balenciaga.

Created Off-the-Rack Designs

Now intent on a career in fashion, de la Renta moved to Paris in 1961 to become a couture assistant for fashion designer Antonio Canovas del Castillo. After taking a two-week crash course in dressmaking, de la Renta joined Castillo’s couture, specializing in tailoring. De la Renta began to excel in the fashion industry, and in 1963, after meeting fashion designer Elizabeth Arden at a dinner party, he was invited to join Arden’s New York firm as her chief in-house designer. Seeing New York as the next step on the path to fame and wealth, de la Renta quickly agreed. For the next two years he designed high-end clothing that catered to wealthy women. While at Elizabeth Arden, de la Renta became convinced that off-the-rack clothing was a largely untapped market with vast potential. When he failed to convince Arden to develop a new ready-to-wear line, de la Renta decided to step out on his own.

At a Glance . . .

Born on July 22, 1932, in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, son of Oscar and Maria Antonia deFiallo de la Renta; married Fran ç oise de Lang-lade, 1967 (died 1983); married Annette Reed, 1989; children: adopted son. Education: Attended National School of Art, Santo Domingo, 1950-52; attended Academia de San Fernando, Madrid, 1953-55.

Career: Staff designer under Balenciaga, Madrid, beginning 1949; assistant designer to Antonio Castiollo, Lanvin-Castiollo, Paris, 1961-63; Elizabeth Arden couture, New York, designer, 1963-65; Jane Derby Inc., partner, and designer, 1965-69; Oscar de la Renta Couture, Oscar de la Renta II, de la Renta Furs and Jewelry, and Oscar de la Renta Ltd., designer/CEO, 1973 – ; de la Renta specialty shop, Santo Domingo, owner, 1968 – ; couture collection for Pierre Balmain, France, designer, 1993 – .

Memberships: Board of Directors: Metropolitan Opera; Carnegie Hall; Americas Society; Spanish Institute.

Awards: Coty American Fashion Critics’ Winnie Award, New York, 1967 and 1968; Neiman-Marcus Award, New York, 1968; Golden Tiberius Award, 1969; American Printed Fabrics Council Award, New York, 1971; Coty Hall of Fame Award, 1973; Fragrance Foundation Award, New York, 1978; Caballero of the Order of San Pablo Duarte, and Gran Commandante of the Order of Cristobal Colon, Dominican Republic, 1972. Jack Dempsey Award for humanitarian efforts, 1988; Lifetime Achievement Award; Council of Fashion Designers of America, 1990; Designer of the Year, Council of Fashion Designers of America, 2000.

Address: 550 Seventh Avenue, New York, NY 10018.

Leaving Elizabeth Arden in 1965, de la Renta partnered with Ben and Gerald Shaw in the purchase of the Seventh Avenue ready-to-wear design firm of Jane Derby, who was preparing to retire. Although the move was risky — de la Renta took a drastic cut in pay — the deal provided him with one-third ownership of the company, a challenge and an opportunity he couldn’t refuse. After Derby’s death the following year, the firm’s name was changed to Oscar de la Renta Inc. In 1967, the same year in which he won his first Coty American Fashion Critics Award, de la Renta married Fran ç oise de la Langlade, editor-in-chief of French Vogue magazine. With his wife’s help, de la Renta received valuable publicity, and comments on his designs, and those who had been seen wearing his clothing began to appear in the society columns. This added to de la Renta’s name recognition and to the aura of his signature style.

Growth of Oscar de la Renta Ltd.

Throughout the following decades, the Oscar de la Renta organization continued to grow, as did de la Renta’s personal fame. The company spread its operations into Europe, Asia, South America, and North America. Product lines expanded to include a wide range of products bearing the signature of Oscar de la Renta, including perfume, jewelry, shoes, and swim-wear. In 1969 fashion giant Richton International bought de la Renta’s company, and for the next four years de la Renta served as a member of the Richton board of directors and as chief executive officer of four divisions: Richton’s Oscar de la Renta Couture, Oscar de la Renta II, Oscar de la Renta Furs, and Oscar de la Renta Jewelry. As a result, through Richton, Oscar de la Renta became the first fashion company in the United States to offer its stock to the public. However, in 1973 de la Renta reclaimed ownership of his organization, which became Oscar de la Renta Limited.

Throughout his career, de la Renta continued to push into new territory in the fashion industry. In 1966 he launched an innovative line of designer ready-to-wear clothing that carried a moderate price tag. He also was one of the first designers of women’s clothes to delve into designing clothing for men. In 1977 de la Renta introduced his first fragrance, “Oscar.” The perfume was a commercial success, becoming one of the top five fragrances sold in the United States. De la Renta also launched a men’s fragrance, “Pour Lui,” which also became popular among consumers. By the mid-1990s, fragrances made up one third of de la Renta’s business. In May of 2002 de la Renta launched a new women’s fragrance, “Intrusion,” introduced to symbolize the allure and feminine power of women. In 1993 the French couture House of Balmain, which had lost its financial footing after the death of its founder Pierre Balmain in 1982 and increased competition from ready-to-wear designers, asked de la Renta to serve as its lead designer. It was the first time an American (de la Renta received his U.S. citizenship in the 1970s) had ever been at the helm of a French couture firm.

High Fashion and Working Women

One reason for de la Renta’s sustained success has been his ability to provide fresh, elegant styles for modern women. At first catering to the expensive tastes of the upper classes, de la Renta’s style has evolved to consider the likes and needs of working women. He told National Review, “Today you don’t make your name by selling one dress to an extraordinary lady. You make your name and your money by selling to the masses. … Back in the Sixties, when I designed expensive clothes, my customer was a woman whose first occasion of the day was to put on a nice dress and have lunch with a friend.” According to de la Renta, women’s needs have changed, as has their role in society. Rather than focusing on a singularly important designer outfit, women want clothes with less vivid colors and more durability so that they can be worn repeatedly. In other words, de la Renta designs the women’s equivalent of men’s basic grey and navy outfits, but adds to his women’s designs a unique sense of softness and style that allow women to retain their femininity.

Because of the important roles that image and name recognition play in the fashion industry, de la Renta has continued to design high fashion clothing for the wealthy and famous, which garners high levels of publicity. However, his operations depend largely on the success of his fashion accessories, which provide the majority of the company’s profits. The designer also balances his design offerings to appeal both to the fashion world and to the general public. Explaining himself to National Review, de la Renta noted, “The most important thing for any collection is that it is identifiable as the style of the designer, but in doing that I try to arrange my collections so that they will be a balance of clothes where some will be more appreciated by the press and others by the real customer.”

In 1983 de la Renta’s wife died, and the following year he adopted a son, Mois é s Oscar, from Casa de Nios, an orphanage and childcare facility in the Dominican Republic that de la Renta built and continues to fund through an annual benefit fashion show. For his charitable efforts to care for the needs of the children of his homeland, the Dominican Republic has bestowed on de la Renta two of its highest honors, El Merito de Juan Pablo Duarte and the Order of Cristobal Colon. In 1989 the designer married Annette Engelhard Reed, heiress to the Englehard metals dynasty. De la Renta continues to live and work in New York, although he maintains multiple homes around the world, including a 200-acre estate in Connecticut and a home and working fruit plantation, Casa de Madera, in the Dominican Republic.

Contemporary Designers, St. James, 1997.

Dictionary of Hispanic Biography, Gale Research, 1996.

Contemporary Fashion, St. James, 1995.

Periodicals

National Review, October 13, 1997.

American Decades CD-ROM, Gale Research, 1998. Reproduced in Biography Resource Center, The Gale Group, www.galenet.com/servlet/BioRC

Hispanic Heritage Awards Foundation, www.hispanicawards.org

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