The name “Oscar de la Renta” is synonymous with red carpet premieres and important political galas. His elegant, ruffled silhouettes and love of fine fabrics and rich colors made him a favorite of high society women looking to make their debut, from the socialites of the 1960s to Taylor Swift in 2014. But who was the man behind the dress? How did he acquire such a theatrical and vivid style? The new retrospective at the de Young Museum in San Francisco seeks to answer these questions, providing a look at key moments in the life of the designer as well as a stunning array of his pieces. “Oscar de la Renta's designs celebrated the best in us” Jill d'Alessandro writes on the de Young web page “beauty, optimism, and confidence.”
While de la Renta has been described as “the most French of American designers,” his roots are strictly Latin. Born in the Dominican Republic, he moved to Spain at 18 to attend art school. However, his infatuation with abstract painting didn't last long: he soon fell in love with the beau monde of fashion and the nightclubs of Madrid. He began an apprenticeship with Balenciaga, but left soon after for a real job at Lanvin-Castillo in Paris. By 1963 he was in New York working for Elizabeth Arden, and by the end of the decade he had launched his own fashion label—and married the editor-in-chief of French Vogue. From the 1970s onward he was a household name, and he remained prominent all the way up until his death in 2014, working to relaunch the Balmain brand in the 1980s and becoming the preferred designer for First Ladies and Oscar contenders in the 1990s and early 2000s.
The retrospective exhibit takes a nuanced approach to his life and body of work. Instead of being organized by decade, the exhibit is arranged thematically, encompassing areas such as his love of gardens, his impact on the red carpet, and the Russian and Spanish influences on his designs. Lovingly curated by former Vogue editor Andre Leon Talley, the pieces included have been chosen for maximum effect. The red carpet section displays the dresses worn by Rihanna, Laura Bush, and Taylor Swift, as well as a recreation of the famous 2010 “mohawks and De La Renta gowns” editorial which Steven Meisel shot for Vogue. In the garden section, three mannequins lounge in matching fur-trimmed dresses, each pattern a different variation on a floral motif. Through it all, De La Renta's flamboyant energy and love of his craft shine through. This was a man who never stopped feeling a thrill at seeing his artwork in action. “That was the biggest thing that could ever happen to him,” Talley explained “to see someone wearing one of his dresses.”