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The Fashion Legend – Oscar de la Renta Dies at 82

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Oscar de la Renta, the doyen of American fashion, whose career began in the 1950s in Franco’s Spain and sprawled across the better living rooms of Paris and New York, and who was the last survivor of that generation of bold, all-seeing tastemakers, died on Monday at his home in Kent, Conn. He was 82.

His death was confirmed by his wife, Annette de la Renta.

 

A LOOK BACK AT OSCAR DE LA RENTA ICONIC STYLE

Though ill with cancer intermittently for a decade, Mr. de la Renta was resilient. During that period, his business grew by 50 percent, to $150 million in sales, as his name became linked to celebrity events like the Oscars. Amy Adams, Sarah Jessica Parker and Penélope Cruz were among the stars who wore his dresses.

Recently his biggest coup was to make the ivory tulle gown that Amal Alamuddin wore to wed George Clooney in Venice.

Determined to stay relevant, Mr. de la Renta achieved fame in two distinct realms: as a couturier to rich socialites — the so-called ladies-who-lunch, his bread and butter — and as a red-carpet king. He also dressed four American first ladies, but it was Hollywood glitz, rather than nice uptown clothes, that defined him for a new age and a new customer. Just as astutely he embraced social media.

Many high-end designers had bigger businesses. Some were more original. But very few were fearless enough to adapt to a cultural shift. Mr. de la Renta did it twice in his career, the first time in 1980.

Normally he didn’t dwell on the subject of his legacy. In an interview in 2009, at his home in Punta Cana, in his native Dominican Republic, he said of fashion: “It’s never been heavy. Somebody might ask, ‘What is Oscar de la Renta? And you could say, ‘It’s a pretty dress.’”

Instead, he preferred to joke, or talk about his vegetable garden in Kent, or dish the dirt. He rarely shied from controversy or calling someone out. Three years ago, he chided Michelle Obama for wearing foreign labels. (He insisted that his comments were not made because she never wore his things. Eventually, this month, she did.) Once, in a speech, he offered to send three-way mirrors to certain editors who wore miniskirts. But then, all his life Mr. de la Renta loved being where the action was — whether a gala, a dominoes table, or in his various homes entertaining talented and influential friends.

“He notices everything,” John Fairchild, the retired publisher of Women’s Wear Daily, said a few years ago. A telephone call from Mr. de la Renta might begin with a familiar bit of flirtation: “How are you, my darling. Tell me the gossip.”

In 1980, he and his first wife, a former editor named Francoise de Langlade, posed for the cover of The New York Times Magazine, with the headline, “Living Well is Still the Best Revenge.” By then, Mr. de la Renta had lived in New York for 17 years — less time than rivals Bill Blass and Geoffrey Beene.

 

The article, which described the stylish couple’s uninhibited social ascent — and the array of people who came to their “salons,” ranging from Norman Mailer to Henry Kissinger — was a kind of watershed moment. Fashionable people had long been part of the city’s social scene; that wasn’t news. But, as a point of contrast, when Truman Capote held his Black and White Dance in 1966, only a tiny fraction of the 540 guests were dress designers. They became more visible during the 1970s, but The Times Magazine article, by Francesca Stanfill, now put their money and status out in the open.

As Alexander Liberman, the editorial director of Condé Nast, said, “Designers have become the new tycoons.” Mr. de la Renta soon embarked on the next phase of his career: as a designer to first ladies, beginning with Nancy Reagan.

Though Mr. de la Renta never took his job lightly, he always gave the impression that his life mattered more. He had enormous zest, displayed in his fashion — the vibrant colors, the airy sleeves, the Turkish delight numbers that so appealed to his greatest champion, the editor Diana Vreeland.

But where he really revealed himself, his hospitable nature, was in his native Dominican Republic, where he was regarded as an unofficial ambassador (he held a diplomatic passport anyway). He built two homes there. The first, in Casa de Campo, featured thatched roofs, rattan furniture, and hammocks, and images of the de la Rentas’ informal gatherings often appeared in W in the 1970s.

Mr. de la Renta also showed his ready-to-wear collection in Paris for three seasons, in 1991 and 1992. The shows were substantially backed by Sanofi, the producer of his fragrances — Oscar and So de la Renta for women, and Pour Homme, for men.

He was presented with Coty Awards, chosen by a jury of fashion editors, for having had the most significant influence on fashion in both 1967 and 1968. In 1973 he was named to the Coty Hall of Fame, and in 1989 he was given a lifetime achievement award by the Council of Fashion Designers of America.

During his long career, Mr. de la Renta was among the few designers who knew the difference between the runway and fashion.

“Never, ever confuse what happens on a runway with fashion,” Mr. de la Renta once said. “A runway is spectacle. It’s only fashion when a woman puts it on. Being well dressed hasn’t much to do with having good clothes. It’s a question of good balance and good common sense.”

Photos: GETTY Images

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