"A garden is probably the most spiritual and purest of joys. It's a communion with nature and beauty in the most simple and fundamental form," said Oscar de la Renta, shortly before he passed, in 2014. Himself a talented gardener, the designer was beloved for his exceptional floral prints. Now open at the de Young Museum, Oscar de la Renta: The Retrospective, is a full-bloom tribute to the dazzling career of a man who truly celebrated life.
In his native Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic, de la Renta was surrounded by the vibrant colors and vivid aromas of a tropical paradise that would inspire his coveted spring collections. These and more iconic works from his 50-year career give life to the expansive exhibition, curated by Andre Leon Talley, Vogue's well known editor-at-large and dear friend of de la Renta's who was in San Francisco this week for the opening events.
Six rooms in the museum are staged with the stuff of dreams—gowns, jewel-encrusted taffetas, luxurious jersey silks, and a few mind-blowing concepts all dreamed up by a visionary. Though dimly lit, the presentation transports viewers into a calm, evocative space where we might begin to imagine being inside the mind of the man himself. Here is everything from the dramatic Spanish-inspired pieces of the 1960s to Hillary Clinton's more conservative wardrobe to today's contemporary red carpet looks. Feelings of death and birth bubble up in the transitions from room to room—Oscar was a man of great depth and diversity of style.
As de la Renta's own work evolved, so did the fashion industry with him. His ready-to-wear collections set the example for emerging American designers, never mind that he wasn't originally from here. Born in the Dominican in the early 1930s, he trained at Balenciaga in Madrid and worked with Antonio Castillo at Lanvin in Paris in the 1950s before moving to the U.S. in 1963 to work for Elizabeth Arden.
But it was in 1973 when Oscar and his American design contemporaries set the world on fire. At the Battle of Versailles Fashion Show—an epic fundraiser to restore old Louis' palace that pitted French designers (think Saint Laurent, Dior, and Givenchy) against our own (de la Renta, Halston, Blass)—the Americans turned up with a singing-and-dancing Liza Minelli and 10 African American models. This was the 1970s, and suddenly American fashion became electric. Pieces from de la Renta's runway showing at Versailles now grace these SF halls, alongside contemporary designs for former First Lady Laura Bush. Yes, the man had range. But from ready-to-wear to couture, his work was always romantic, sensible, and modern.
"He makes you think you are his only customer," said Sarah Jessica Parker, whose black-and-white Met Ball gown, emblazoned with Oscar's signature on its train, is among the exhibit's showstoppers. And this attention and care for other people was evident to anyone who ever had the pleasure of meeting Oscar, who was known as a nurturer of individualism whilst never breaking his iconic ear-to-ear smile. For so many years, he made the trip to Lake Tahoe for Saks' annual Save the Lake benefit luncheon and de la Renta fashion show. Held in the dead of summer in blazing heat—ladies who lunch melting beneath their sunhats—Oscar handled it all with unflinching elegance and good humor.
In a talk held the de Young's media preview this morning, Talley reinforced de la Renta's reputation for a lovely sense of humor:
"Oscar used to play pranks on me all the time," he recalls. "They were always in good fun, and he would always try to infuse humor into any situation." It was in this moment that Talley brought a tissue from his coat pocket to blot at his tearing eyes: "We did so many things together—he was such a wonderful man."
The icon that was Oscar, recognized worldwide for his first name alone, passed away in 2014 after a long fight with cancer, at the age of 82. His brand, now under the creative direction of Peter Copping, continues to flourish and reach a new generation of clients (ahem, Taylor Swift). And his legend lives on.
"It's not about what you wear, but how you live your life," he famously said. Oscar lived his with grace and flair.