When you go to see a fashion exhibit at an acclaimed art museum like the de Young Museum in San Francisco, you’re really going to see the clothes. To be sure, the Oscar de la Renta show is a total success. Curated by former American Vogue editor-at-large André Leon Talley, the exhibit is broken down into key thematic groupings. This shows off the clothes beautifully. But take a deeper look at de la Renta’s designs, and you might just see how the times he lived in, and the way in which he lived created more than gorgeous clothes for wealthy ladies. He created a cult of personality.
Privilege has its privileges. Born into a family with deep ties to the early history of his native Dominican Republic, family connections from his mother’s side opened doors immediately. One of his mother’s brothers was a diplomat, stationed in Spain, and this brought a young de la Renta to Madrid to study painting. For extra money, he sketched clothes, and this caught the attention of the U.S. Ambassador to Spain, obviously a colleague of his uncle.
These diplomatic doors, and growing up in privileged circumstances landed de la Renta an apprenticeship with the most successful couturier of the day, Cristóbal Balenciaga. He had a great mentor in Balenciaga, whose designs are directly referenced in numerous pieces throughout the de Young Museum’s exhibit.
de la Renta was ambitious, though. So he needed to leave Balenciaga’s huge shadow and find some light of his own. He had a little stint at Lanvin in Paris before taking off for New York, where he met – on the first day of his arrival – Diana Vreeland, editor-in-chief of Vogue. She offered him some direction, based on his desire to want to get into ready-to-wear clothes, where the money was.
He worked for Elizabeth Arden and then on to an American fashion house, Jane Derby. In six months’ time, Derby died. Oscar de la Renta was in the right place at the right time, and he had taken over the business and established his own label.
Now, Oscar de la Renta was not the first designer to socialize with his clients. But doing so certainly helped him to engineer an idealized image. His first wife was very socially prominent and he was able to parlay those connections into business. His clients were fiercely loyal, and they worshipped him.
In 1973, de la Renta was asked to be one of several American designers to “compete” against a number of French fashion designers for a fundraiser to benefit the restoration of Versailles. It’s a very fabled story among fashionistas from that time. The Americans beat the French on their own territory, and a lot of that had to do with de la Renta’s leadership and showmanship. This further added to this cult of personality.
What I found to be so lovely about the exhibit wasn’t at all about who wore the clothes. If you’re into that sort of thing, you will not be disappointed one bit. It seems that across the political, societal, and artistic spectrums, de la Renta dressed them all. What I really liked were the actual clothes, and how various influences in his life inspired his clothing designs.
Similar to Balenciaga, but in his own way, de la Renta was highly influenced by Spain, and by bullfighting. Lots of his designs are derivations on this overarching theme. His clients also had a certain wanderlust and they heavily inspired de la Renta’s design direction, especially Asian and Russian themes. He also kept inspirations a bit more local and homey with a strong garden emphasis. And, of course, he took things grand with ballroom dresses fit for the red carpet.
Oscar de la Renta created such a name for himself, created such a following, that many thousands of people will have poured into the de Young Museum by the time the exhibit closes on 30 May. If you haven’t made it there yet, and you love well-made fashionable clothes, you should make it your business to plan a special visit. I highly recommend it.
Joseph Rosenfeld helps successful Silicon Valley technology entrepreneurs and executives discover their personal brands and design their personal styles. Get Joseph’s free report that helps you know “6 Secrets to Success in Silicon Valley.” Get details about Joseph’s proven program that transforms your life through personal brand and style development