Ask anyone who had the pleasure of meeting American fashion designer Oscar de la Renta – the man was: a gentleman, a loyal friend, humble, generous, gracious, and … “full of wicked charm,” according to his close friend and former fashion Vogue editor-at-large Andre Leon Talley.
Certainly this kind of affection for Mr. de la Renta can be felt in the current exhibition Oscar de La Renta: A Retrospective at the de Young museum in San Francisco. During the press preview last week, Dede Wilsey, President of the Board of Trustees of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco shared that this exhibit was a true labor of love, “It was like having a baby for a really long time but it turned out to be a beautiful baby.”
Ms. Wilsey, who had been a good friend of Mr. de la Renta’s, explained that she approached him with the idea of a retrospective in 2014 at the annual Saks Fifth Avenue and the League to Save Lake Tahoe Fashion Show, something he had supported for years. He resisted at first saying “it’s ostentatious” but by the end of the day he agreed. “Two months later he was dead,” Ms. Wilsey said in an unusually shaky voice. He had lost his battle with cancer.
One of Andre Leon Talley’s favorite pieces owned and often worn by Annette de la Renta. Black tulle, black silk taffeta applique. 2005
Guest curated by Mr. Talley, this exhibit is a simple representation of Mr. de la Renta’s long career designing elegant clothing for well-heeled ladies. He dressed First Ladies (Republicans and Democrats alike), socialites and celebrities. Nancy Reagan, Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, Dede Wilsey, Anna Wintour, Oprah Winfrey, Jennifer Hudson, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Taylor Swift were just some on the list of happy clients. “He lived the world he dressed,” Mr. Talley said, explaining his success.
Oscar de la Renta was born in 1932 to a prominent family in the Dominican Republic. In his youth he left for Spain to study art and ended up becoming a sketch artist for Balenciaga. From there he moved to Paris to design for Lanvin and then America to work for Elizabeth Arden. By the 1960s he was running his own design house and in 1969 he became an American citizen.
Tailor Swift sporting de la Renta in 2014. Photo courtesy of FAMSF.
Included in this exhibition are pieces loaned from Fashion Institute of Technology, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Kent State University and private collectors, including his second wife, Annette. Among the standouts are Taylor Swift’s peach silk organza gown and Sarah Jessica Parker’s now iconic black and white Duchesse satin and velvet gown with de la Renta’s signature on the train … in red! There are just a few of his early designs on display from the 1960s and a smattering of day wear. Most of the exhibit is made up of evening dresses from the 1990s on. The collection of 130 pieces is arranged by what inspired the designer over the years, such as his beloved garden. (He was an avid gardener.)
Evening ensemble coat & pants. Silk taffeta and silk embroidery. 2000.
Among my favorites were in the Eastern Influence gallery. A more casual yet still elegant collection, I liked the fabrics, rich colors, and retro feel to the designs.
Evening dress. Black silk velvet with white silk embroidery. Photo courtesy of FAMSF.
Mr. de la Renta favored luxurious fabrics – silk and satin, brocade, velvet, and tulle. He embellished with feathers, beading or jewels and a touch of mink or fox fur can be found on coat collars, cuffs, and even on the bottom of a pair of evening pants. It is said of him that he lived to make women feel beautiful.
Walking through this exhibit, the focus is on the clothing. Aside from a couple of video loops – one is of the designer’s expansive garden in Kent and the other is footage of celebrities on various red carpets – there is little technology and few additions besides the occasional decorative piece or chair borrowed from the museum’s collection. But actually, no enhancement is needed and the lack of distraction is a welcome change. Muted lighting and quiet surroundings make for a peaceful, reflective experience.
Oscar de la Renta: A Retrospective is on now through May 30th, 2016, at the de Young Museum in San Francisco.
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