De la Renta began his career at Balenciaga, followed by Lanvin
De la Renta left Santo Domingo for Spain when he was just 18, and began working with the top Spanish houses, including the formidable Balenciaga. Paris followed, where he became a couture assistant at Lanvin.
De la Renta returned to New York to in 1963 to design the made-to-measure collection for Elizabeth Arden. It was Vogue editor Diana Vreeland who advised de la Renta to take the position at Arden, noting his own name would be promoted, since Arden herself wasn’t a designer.
It wasn't until 1973 that de la Renta received international notoriety, after showing in Versailles, France, as part of a collective with other American designers, including Halston, Anne Klein, Bill Blass and Stephen Burrows. At the time WWD had called it an “American triumph,” and it did much to raise these designers’ profiles on an international stage.
From 1993 to 2002, de la Renta designed the couture collection for the house of Pierre Balmain, becoming the first American to design for a French couture house. He was awarded the Legion d’Honneur as a Commandeur. The Dominican Republic also honored him with the order al Mérito de Juan Pablo Duarte and the order of Cristóbal Colón. In 1996, de la Renta received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Hispanic Heritage Society, and in 2000 he was the Grand Marshall of New York City’s Hispanic Day Parade. That same year, de la Renta received the Gold Medal of Bellas Artes from the King of Spain.
In 1990, de la Renta received the CFDA Lifetime Achievement Award and from 1973 to 1976, and from 1986 to 1988, he was president of the CFDA. De la Renta received the Council of Fashion Designers of America Women’s Wear Designer of the Year Award in 2000.
But what about the clothes? De la Renta's silhouette changed over the decades, but his South American sensibility was always visible. In the Sixties, de la Renta designed such looks as a windowpane plaid cape over a matching suit and a tunic over short-shorts. Rich gypsy looks were among his signatures, appearing throughout the years, 70s, along with flamenco dresses, peasant scarves, spangles and ruffles.
Another staple were his tailored suits and of course his evening dresses, which later in his career became more streamlined, but more colorful and jewelled.
In 2011 de la Renta openly criticized First Lady Michelle Obama for wearing Alexander McQueen's red and black dress to a White House state dinner for Chinese President Hu Jintao. He felt that she should have worn something by an American designer. “This is an important issue,” de la Renta said. “Do you think Kate Middleton is going to be married in Marc Jacobs? Mrs. Obama does look great. She should take that and do something. She could do a great good for our industry. We need to create jobs here, create jobs on Seventh Avenue, too.”
In 2013 de la Renta appointed fallen Dior couturier John Galliano to a temporary residence in his design studio. He had hoped to find in him a successor, but talks broke down earlier this year over Galliano’s demands, presumably his financial requests. Instead, de la Renta appointed Peter Copping as creative director.
De la Renta is survived by his wife, his son from a previous marriage and three step children.
Images: Oscar de la Renta