Oscar de la Renta has passed away, Monday, at the age of 82. In honor of his passing, I wanted to celebrate the man — and for more than his lingerie. Though, I’ll admit, that was how I first met de la Renta — the label (I never met the man!). One of my first camisole & matching tap pants sets was by Oscar de la Renta. (It was much like the one shown here, only in a solid blue, with matching lace.) That was back in the 1980s, a very pivotal time for Oscar de la Renta — and fashion itself.
While de la Renta’s career may have begun in the early 1960s (first in illustration, then as an assistant designer Antonio del Castillo at Lanvin-Castillo, before working in couture and ready-to-wear for Elizabeth Arden), it was the Me Decade of the 80s that really made designer de la Renta. In fact, while the many changes of the 1980s killed plenty of fashion designers, it was these very changes that de la Renta worked so well that his business didn’t merely survive, it thrived!
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Oscar de la Renta realized that one of the fundamental changes the decade brought in the US was the working woman — and he fully embraced them.
The designer didn’t just change with the fashion looks of them time, moving from the romantic ruffled gowns of the 70s to the bigger, glamorous, jeweled gowns of the 80s. No, Ocsar de la Renta noticed that so many women entering the labor market meant women needed different clothing entirely and he went to work:
Now is the most exciting time in fashion. Women are controlling their destiny now, the consumer is more knowledgeable, and I have to be better every single day.
No longer were evening gowns the primary fashion need of women. If not “instead”, then at least “in addition”, career women needed feminine fashions that worked in the daytime as well as the night. So de la Renta focused on bold suits for women, quite often playing on the 1940s looks (emphasizing those shoulders, of course!) creating power suits, often with bright colors.
He added new product lines, including the ready-to-wear Oscar de la Renta Studio line as well as the even cheaper Miss O line, and licensing the Oscar de la Renta name.
Unlike some designer spin-offs, which lend the name to casual wear and jeans, the Studio label is a line copy of the designer’s creations.
“Originally we were trying to make the Studio very different from the couture,” says Mr. de la Renta. “Then, when I saw a lot of designers copying my couture clothes — like Victor Costa who copies clothes exactly — I decided it would be much better to copy myself. Obviously, we do not use the same fabrics because of the high price, but we try to bring the same looks in at a third of the cost. I can only work one way, and I do the same work in designing at a lower price.”
Beyond the clothes, licensees for the de la Renta name include manufacturers of shoes, hosiery, sewing patterns, crystal, lingerie, sheets, furs, sunglasses, beauty products, luggage — just about everything that can touch a lifestyle.
In this time period, he also served, for the second time, as president of the Council of Fashion Designers of America (1986 to 1988).
Oscar de la Renta did far more than this, of course. But as a woman (especially one of a certain age), I find the designer’s attitude of embracing women in the workplace — and viewing women in general as sophisticated customers — a true thing of beauty.
We’re dealing with sophisticated customers. What’s most important to these women is individuality. I have to create things she’ll want to wear, no matter who she is.
For all this & more, Oscar de la Renta has his much deserved spot on Garment District’s Fashion Walk of Fame.
PS If you’re looking to date a vintage piece of Oscar de la Renta, here’s a little guide.