My Afternoon with Oscar de la Renta

One hour was the allotted time I had to interview Oscar de la Renta some years ago for V magazine. The house was expanding and he hoped to reach a younger audience. Although I entered his bustling Seventh Avenue studio without preconceptions, I did assume he’d be the very essence of charm. Who didn’t know of this gift of his? And indeed he was, to the point where I stopped asking questions because asking them would mean interrupting him. In this way I was lulled out of deliberative journalist mode and into gurgling fan mode. When we reached the one-hour mark, he didn’t want to stop and neither did I. So we didn’t.

Upon hearing of the couturier’s death yesterday, losing his battle with cancer, it occurred to me he might have learned of his diagnosis around the time we met. Yet even in the face of this terrible news, if in fact he knew, he conveyed the easy warmth, the natural grace, the casual geniality that made him one the most popular public figures in his adopted home of New York City and a true gentleman’s gentleman. “There is, perhaps, no one more adored in American fashion than Oscar de la Renta,” I so began the story. “Not only are his confectionary creations coveted by everyone from gamines to grannies, drag queens to First Ladies, socialites to Hollywood heavies, but a single disparaging word about the Latin legend won’t be found.”

Here are other salient bits from the interview, plus additional quotes from the transcript that bear new relevance…

Wearing a light suit and a disarming smile, he waxes nostalgic about his early days in the mid-60s apprenticing for the Spanish couturier Cristóbal Balenciaga, delights in extolling high-profile clients ranging from beauty heiress Aerin Lauder to Sarah Jessica Parker (who became a fan after she played one on TV), and is perfectly comfortable detailing a business strategy to roll out new freestanding stores.

Oscar de la Renta is not one to waste time chasing some elusive hip factor or pushing a cult of personality. That would be vain. Instead, the quintessential traditionalist maintains, as he always has, that he’s interested in only one thing: “designing for women.”

“I travel quite a lot around the country. A journalist might know it’s my first time in Cincinnati. I’ve been there 15 minutes and the first question they’ll ask is what do I think of the woman of Cincinnati? I say that nowadays thinking of a woman by region is putting a woman down. Never has there been a woman as much in control of her destiny as a woman of today. What’s important to her is a projection of her own sense of individuality. I used to design day clothes, afternoon clothes, cocktail clothes, evening clothes. That’s how I was trained, but I’ve had to ‘detrain’ — can you use that word? — my mind. I am not old-fashioned at all.”

“The customer I started dressing back in 1965 is very different from women of today. Today’s woman has very different needs. Her first preoccupation of the day is not to get dressed in a pretty suit and have lunch with friends. My job is to understand who she is, and then try to keep that clientele, which I think is what made our business successful. Every day there is a new client.”

At Balmain in Paris, de la Renta delivered a string of well-received collections until 2002, when he became disheartened by that highest of fashion disciplines and opted instead to concentrate on his own line back in the States, which, while not languishing, had become estranged. In a rare critical moment, he says, “I hated [designing for Balmain]. I personally think that a lot of houses today only use couture as a vehicle for selling handbags and all the other stuff, but I think ultimately it undermines what couture means.”

“When I was working in Paris and doing the collections for Pierre Balmain, at the end I quit because of practical reasons. I felt it was really important to my business. I was in Paris for Balmain just two and a half months a year, but I thought it was two and a half months I should have dedicated to my own business.”

Helping with the smooth operation of all things Oscar, still a privately-owned company, are his stepchildren, one of whom, Eliza Bolen, is the VP of Licensing (and there’s a lot of it, to the tune of $650 million annually), while her husband, Alex Bolen, is the CEO. Add to that de la Renta’s adopted Dominican son Moises — who designed a T-shirt for Dad’s spring ’05 collection, causing something of a sensation as it was paired, in a cross-generational nod, with a bell skirt — and you have a truly family-run business.

Achieving the American dream and living it out in charmed social swirls — i.e. hanging out with Gore Vidal and pondering the decline of Truman Capote or rubbing shoulders with mayor Bloomberg — de la Renta is bursting with sage advice. Given his gift as a raconteur, the grandfather of American fashion launches into story after tangential story, offering up bon mots as brightly colored as the silk chiffon that fill his collections. Sometimes they end with cautionary morals (“The day you say you don’t need to learn anymore is the day you have to start”); often they praise his staff (“Coming to work everyday is like going to Disney World”); while other times they’re simply wise (“Good manners are always revealed in difficult times”).

Clearly, while Manhattan has become his new island home, de la Renta sees his heritage as a source of inspiration and pride. He can often be found in Washington Heights (which contains the largest population of Dominicans after Santo Domingo), where he indulges in its culture and cuisine, rice and beans being his dish of choice. “I’m a Dominican,” he says. “It’s the fabric of who I am.”

“There’s perhaps one very frivolous thing, if you want to call it frivolous, that a woman still indulges in on a daily basis. Regardless of where her mind is, at one point everyday she looks in the mirror and wonders, ‘How do I look?’ Fashion is how you live your life and how you perceive yourself, therefore fashion is full of possibilities.”

“When I went to work at Lanvin [in 1961], there were almost 800 people in the couture house. Today couture is tiny, tiny, tiny. When I started couture for Balmain in 1992, it was still a whole week of shows, but today there are only two or three days of shows. There is still a customer, but it’s something that is shrinking. I personally think, and I don’t meant this critically, that a lot of houses today use the vehicle of couture to address the image of the house. I always say, regardless of what you create, you always have to address the customer. That’s what is happening with all the houses today except Chanel. Karl really has a vision and makes beautiful clothes.”

“I have never lived downtown. I wish I could, but my wife would never have done it, although we have thought about it. The great thing about downtown is an energy that you don’t find anywhere else in the city. There is the neighborhood life. I think that’s what makes it so special. You can walk around the streets any time of day or night, and there is life, there is always something going on. I live on Park Avenue and to buy an aspirin I have to go 25 blocks.”

“I love my island. I look at it through tinted glass, and that tinted glass is pink. I never worked there, so I go there and I look at my childhood, at when I was a little boy, obviously there are a lot of problems in my country but those problems don’t in any manner reflect upon my life because I lived a very privileged life there, but that privileged life was given to me by the city where I live, which is NY

“My first wife [Françoise de Langlade, former editor-in-chief of French Vogue and editor-at-large of US Vogue] was very close friends with Gore Vidal. He and I were talking about Truman Capote and what a genius he was at the time when he was writing really great books and how one day that talent was no longer there. Gore said, ‘You know, you have to exercise your craft on a daily basis. Every day I sit at my typewriter and write. Some things go straight to the wastepaper basket, some things I keep, and some things I might look at a few years down the road. I do it everyday because it can slowly slip away.’ [Truman] became enamored with a way of life. He discovered the most glamorous life of yachts, etc. He thought he was really successful and he could have this wonderful life. When the money ran out, he thought he could just write another book and make money again, but unfortunately it didn’t happen that way.”

“In the Dominican Republic, I have a kind of orphanage. We operate a little like a daycare center. We try to help children in the community, children most in crisis, from newborns to 15-year-olds. The children stay with us all day or they live with us for a certain period of time. We try to understand what their needs are. It’s a happy place, never sad. There’s singing and dancing. In our organization we try to work with children who are the most vulnerable. They’re the ones whose lives can more easily be affected.”

“I am three times the age of anyone working here in the studio, although I feel far younger than any of them. I always wonder what will happen to the business beyond my life, not that I ever want to think of death. I would love to think I am immortal, [but] the only reality in life is one day you’re born and one day you die. Now I see a continuity to my brand and my name beyond my lifespan.”