Oscar de la Renta wishes he had the luxury of lying. Telling the truth hurts, especially in the fashion industry, where egos are more fragile than most. But this self-described “people person” has made it in his practice to never, ever tell a fib, even if it would benefit him to do so. “Lying is a big luxury, because the problem is when you tell a little lie, the next time around you have to tell a bigger lie to cover that lie,” he explains. “I always tell people how I feel, even if it’s painful to hear.”
This practice has obviously served the 81-year-old designer, nee Óscar Arístides de la Renta Fiallo, quite well. For example, he was honest about his reasons for substantially whittling the guest list of his recent 2014 Spring/Summer New York Fashion Week show, even though it may have disgruntled those who found themselves unexpectedly seat-less. Given that he cut the number of guests to 350 from last year’s whopping 632, that’s almost 300 dissatisfied customers. But Oscar doesn’t care. He has reached that great pinnacle of success where the only rules he plays by are his own.
Though celebrities were completely cut from the list, no one was foolish enough to voice their indignancy to the man himself. The world forgives. He is Oscar de la Renta after all, a man who was trained by Cristobal Balenciaga and Antonio Castillo, who dressed Jacqueline Kennedy, who worked for Lanvin and Balmain and whose name is synonymous with luxury. “Nobody has come to me and said, ‘Why wasn’t I invited?’” he reassures. “I see that people do understand why I made that decision.”
“I’ve had an extraordinary life. I love what I do and I hope that I will be able to do it for many more years to come.”
The rationale for cutting the amount of people eager to see his female-friendly frocks is a pure one. “It’s so much better for the clothes to be looked at closely and by true professionals, journalists or buyers,” he explains. “These mega-shows are out of hand. There are too many shows in New York. There are too many shows, too many designers, too many people. I do love to dress celebrities, but [at the show] I think they are a distraction to the ultimate goal, which is your presentation. The focus is not on the clothes; it detracts from the whole experience.” The only celebrity in attendance was newswoman Barbara Walters. Her presence, however, was for moral support. “Barbara was not there as a celebrity or a telecaster, but as a very, close friend,” he says firmly. If only the New York Fashion Week experience was more like his annual summer show in Lake Tahoe, Nev., the Dominican Republic-born designer would be eternally happy.
His annual Saks 5th Avenue-presented luncheon is considered to be the event of the summer by the Silicon Valley elite. VIPs like Marissa Mayer and Karen Caldwell joined de la Renta at the lakeside fete, which has raised millions for the League to Save Lake Tahoe.
“I’ve been doing Lake Tahoe for many years, and it’s one of my very favorite shows,” he says. “It’s an extraordinarily beautiful place, really one of the most magical places in this country. It’s a show that doesn’t happen anywhere else in the world; it’s a very special kind of event.” Regrettably, he’s only in town for a “very short, very intense period of time”, but then, he’s Oscar de la Renta. He’s a man in demand with many, many commitments.
One of said responsibilities was designing the elegant wedding dress of actress Kate Bosworth for her Sept. 8 nuptials to director Michael Polish. De la Renta was pleased with the outcome of her gown, a minimal confection with a dramatic fall of fabric in the back. “Kate had a very specific idea about what she wanted to wear because her wedding was in Montana. She wanted something simple that had some drama,” he explains before waxing poetic on his bridal opinion. “Your wedding day is the most important day of any woman. You have to hear from them what they want to look like on that day. Kate is such a beautiful girl that it was easy to design something for her. Once I had a conversation with her and had a clear picture of what she wanted, we sketched something that she really loved and went ahead and made it for her.”
Another responsibility would be preparing for next year’s Met Ball, of which he is co-chairing with Vogue Editor-in-Chief Anna Wintour, Lizzie and Jonathan Tisch, Bradley Cooper and Sarah Jessica Parker. Of his involvement in the fashion industry’s biggest event of the year, de la Renta says, “Anna asked me to be vice chairman, and how can anyone say no to Anna?” He also agreed in part to work with Parker, of whom he ran into by accident during his summer vacation on the Ionian Sea.
“I love to make beautiful clothes and that’s about it. Every single day I say ‘God, thank you for my life. I come to work every day and it’s like walking into a candy store.”
“The world is so small,” he says with a laugh. “It’s so funny, because I went for a small vacation to the western part of Greece recently, and I looked at my iPad and there were these emails that said ‘Look to your left’. Sarah Jessica was on another boat opposite me! She came on to our boat and we had lunch together and spent some time together. I love her. She’s extraordinary, a great, great girl. She embodies the Oscar de la Renta woman.”
Oscar is reverent when discussing the those who best embody his brand. He is especially fond of power women, the kind of women who could eat a man for lunch. This is who he caters to, designs for and define what he does.
“I love women. Women have always been my source of inspiration. The 21st century woman is unbelievable,” de la Renta enthuses. He continues, “We have to celebrate all that women have achieved in such a short period of time. The women that wear Oscar de la Renta are strong and powerful. My most important customer is a wonderful woman walking down the street, a woman who is proud to be a woman today, a woman who has an extraordinary life. I always say that what’s important is that what a woman is wearing is a projection of her own sense of individuality. It makes our work much but challenging, but also much more exciting.” One such woman that personifies these traits is “good friend” Hillary Clinton. “We have a very close relationship,” he divulges. “She is somebody I have a tremendous amount of admiration for. She is the perfect example of what a modern woman can accomplish.” Though she doesn’t always take his advice – he once tried to convince her to cut her hair, which she didn’t heed until this past August – the former Secretary of State listened when it mattered the most.
It was de la Renta who convinced Clinton to appear on the December 2009 cover of Vogue magazine; it was the first time that a First Lady had ever done so. “I was able to convince Anna to put her on the cover,” he reminisces now, adding, “I did a lot to define to the viewer who Hillary actually is. [The cover shot] was taken when she was still in the White House. I do remember at the time her advisers weren’t sure if it was the right thing to do, but in the end, she said, ‘Oscar, you have a great instinct about me. Let’s do it.’”
It is his predilection for knowing exactly what to do to build his brand that has made the designer so successful. He is a visionary, and will make decisions based on his intuition, not on public opinion. For this very reason, it should have been unsurprising that disgraced Hitler-hailing designer John Galliano was seen spending three weeks in de la Renta’s atelier this past February. As it were, Oscar is not only forgiving, but strategic as well. If all goes to plan, Galliano will be working with Oscar de la Renta in the near future. “We’re still in conversations with John,” Oscar reveals. “He’s a very talented and wonderful man, and everyone in life deserves a second chance. I’ve known him for over 30 years. I’m not alone in that I have a studio and many talented assistants that work with me, and one more opinion would be wonderful. He would be a member of our studio. If it comes to a successful conclusion, we will be working together.”
‘Together’ is the operative word. A man who loves what he does as much as Oscar isn’t going anywhere soon. “I love to make beautiful clothes and that’s about it,” he says. “Every single day I say ‘God, thank you for my life.’ I come to work every day and it’s like walking into a candy store. I’ve had an extraordinary life. I love what I do and I hope that I will be able to do it for many more years to come.”