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KNOW YOUR FASHION HISTORY: Oscar de la Renta
“Oscar,” said the golden girl C.Z. Guest, “Doesn’t even understand what bad taste is.”
*UPDATED* I’m sad to report that Oscar de la Renta has died, aged 82 (October 21, 2014). Thanks for the fabulous designs, Oscar. You were one of my absolute favourites. Read my tribute here. Natasha xx
STYLE LEADER: A look at the man and his eponymous fashion label…
Regarded as one of the most respected designers on the market today, Oscar de la Renta has been carving an elegant silhouette in women’s wear for over sixty years.
Read a little about his life and business, below, and his homes in Manhattan, Connecticut and the Dominican Republic:
FAMOUS FOLK AT HOME: Annette and Oscar de la Renta in New York
FAMOUS FOLK AT HOME: Annette and Oscar de la Renta in Connecticut
FAMOUS FOLK AT HOME: Annette and Oscar de la Renta in the Dominican Republic
DESIGNER HOTELS AND SPAS: Oscar de la Renta’s Tortuga Bay
About the man and his brand
“If anyone defines the ethos of the scent, it is de la Renta himself. He loves his wife of 22 years, the extremely private and wickedly funny Annette, and their menagerie of eight rescue dogs, who, he says, “rule our lives.”
“He loves their house in Kent, Connecticut, where he’s created gardens that supply “the most spiritual and purest of joys,” and the house in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, where he has built an orphanage and day care center that serves more than 1,200 children.
“He works side-by-side with his stepdaughter, he dotes on his adopted son Moises, and he has an enormously wide range of close friends, all of whom say pretty much the same thing that Nancy Kissinger did years ago: “Oscar and Annette are the two most thoughtful people I’ve ever known.”
Óscar Arístides Ortiz Renta Fiallo (he changed his name to the more aspirational “de la Renta” later) was born to a Dominican mother and Puerto Rican father in Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic in 1932, and raised – the only son with six sisters – in a world filled with intellectuals, artists and politicians.
The groundwork for Oscar’s future as the designer for society’s elite was set.
Moving to Madrid in Spain at the age of 18 and leaving his mother who was suffering (and later died, not having seen him again) from multiple sclerosis, he studied painting at the Academy of San Fernando – alumni include Pablo Picasso and Salvador Dalí.
He soon found himself illustrating for some of the biggest fashion houses in Spain to help pay the bills and prove to his father than he could make a living, as well as dancing up a storm.
“…nightlife was all flamencos” he told Vogue. “I became the closest friend of every gypsy guitar player in the city.”
His passion for art and design, and illustrious social connections enabled him to work as an apprentice with Spain’s most famous designer, Cristóbal Balenciaga (1895–1972) in Madrid, and later as an assistant to Antonio Castillo (1908–1984) at Lanvin in Paris.
Designer Cristobal Balenciaga
The experience of working with fabrics, designs and techniques, as well as his advantageous friendship with a wealthy and well-connected Estonian-born baroness and two-time divorcée named Aino de Bodisco, opened the opportunity for him to live in rent-free luxury.
The relationship was short-lived but extremely lucrative, thanks to the doors that it opened. (In 1979, she tried to sue him for half of all his earnings since 1956)
Baroness Aino Bodisco, left, looks on as Beatrice Lodge wears
a dress designed by fashion designer Oscar De La Renta in 1956
In 1956, Beatrice Cabot Lodge, the daughter of the US
ambassador to Spain, appeared on the cover of Life
magazine in a debutante gown made by de la Renta.
The years spent at Balenciaga and Lanvin assisted in defining the beautiful, feminine and elegant style he is now, so famously, known for.
A creation from the House of Cristobal Balenciaga
“Working for incredible talents like Balenciaga and Antonio Castillo, I learned about the immense skill and creativity involved in couture work. Today, I apply some of that same detailing and artistry in my own designs.”
Designer Antonio Cánovas del Castillo
With the lessons of two of design’s best teachers under his belt, he gained further international fame in the 1960s as a couturier to Jacqueline Kennedy, and in the 1980s with Nancy Reagan.
Fashion icon and presidential first lady, Jackie Kennedy in 1962
His popularity with presidential wives continues today, including the dressing two consecutive First Ladies, Hillary Clinton in the 1990s, and Laura Bush in the 2000s, including outfits for their husband’s respective Inauguration Day.
First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in Vogue magazine
December 1998 wearing Oscar de la Renta
He has not, however, dressed current presidential wife, Michelle Obama, and has made some inflammatory statements about this – read more here – but he did dress Ann Romney, wife of presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, in a stunning red shirtdress during the 2012 campaign.
During his time with the grand couturiers, he saw the huge potential of designing ready-to-wear garments.
A modern-day Balenciaga jacket paired with an Oscar
de la Renta gown in a Bergdorf Goodman shop window
After receiving an offer from Christian Dior, he sought career advice in 1963 from the new editor-in-chief of Vogue who had been at Harper’s Bazaar from 1936–1962, the legendary Diana Vreeland (1903–1989), and mutual friend of the Vicomtesse Jacqueline de Ribes.
Vreeland agreed that he should “get into ready to wear, because that’s where the money is…”
“Then go to (Elizabeth) Arden because you will make your reputation faster. She is not a designer, so she will promote you. At the other place, you will always be eclipsed by the name of Dior.”
The ultimate fashionista, Diana Vreeland, with a model in the 1960s
He didn’t disappoint, taking her advice and moving to America, and being strategically seated next to Ms Arden at a ball by his friend and New York socialite, performing arts and public relations agent, and novelist Count Lanfranco Rasponi.
De la Renta went on to charm the beauty entrepreneur – “Oscar has quite a way with the ladies,” journalist Eugenia Sheppard recounted later – and proceeded to join Elizabeth Arden (1884–1966) on her couture range, working for Arden for two years.
While more known for her beauty line, Arden joined de la Renta’s name to her fashion line to gain more publicity.
Florence Nightingale Graham, the Canadian-American business
woman behind the brand, Elizabeth Arden
Being included in Vogue in October 1964, with photos by the iconic Helmut Newton, and receiving support of Vreeland was clearly a major advantage.
“I design clothes for women to wear. I am not interested in shock tactics. I just want to make beautiful clothes.” he told the “Palm Beach Daily News” in 1963.
Vogue October 1964: A sky blue silk faille with crystals
embroidered at the wide waist and hem, by Oscar
de la Renta for Elizabeth Arden
This helped him form a more distinct profile of his own, and in 1965 he went to work for Jane Derby (1895–1965), an American ready-to-wear fashion designer since the 1930s, where he took a 33% stake in the company.
Oscar de la Renta for Jane Derby in Vogue January 1967
When Derby died in August of that year, he took over, at first using the label “Oscar de la Renta for Jane Derby” but changing it to his name on 1966.
Society darling: Oscar de la Renta designed the 1965
wedding dress for automotive heiress Anne Ford
June 1968: Vogue included the water-skiing
designer in a “Beautiful People in the Sun” feature
In 1974, he took full control of the Jane Derby business, incorporating it to the Oscar de la Renta brand.
Life in the social world’s elite advanced for Oscar when he became the third husband of Françoise de Langlade in 1967.
Oscar de la Renta and his first wife Françoise de Langlade
the day after their wedding in their New York city apartment
Françoise (1921–1983) was the editor of French Vogue, joining the magazine in 1951 after a stint at Harper’s Bazaar. She was also a famed hostess, and once worked for the fashion house of Elsa Schiaparelli (1890–1973).
She had been a mistress of Baron Elie de Rothschild, and married firstly to French businessman Jean Bruère, and secondly, diplomat Nicholas Bagenow.
Françoise de Langlade with her then-lover Baron Elie de Rothschild
She moved to New York to live with her new husband, Oscar, joining American Vogue in 1968, where she was editor-at-large, as well as a short period as fashion and beauty editor at Elizabeth Arden International, and she also held an editorial role for House & Garden magazine.
Oscar de la Renta and Françoise de Langlade
Their dinner parties – in their homes in Manhattan, Connecticut and the Dominican Republic – were legendary, mixing old and new money with fashion, entertainment and politics.
She died of cancer, aged 62, in 1983, survived by her husband, Oscar, and son Jean Marc Bruere, from her first marriage to Jean Bruere, a French businessman. Read her obituary in the New York Times.
A black crepe dress with tassels by Oscar de la Renta in
Vogue in February 1969
In December 1989, he married his second wife, Anne Frances Mannheimer Engelhard Reed (born 1939) – known as Annette – an American philanthropist and socialite, and member of the International Best Dressed List Hall of Fame.
Oscar and Annette de la Renta at the New York Public
Library for the CFDA annual awards gala
Annette’s mother, Marie Antoinette Jeanne Reiss but always known as Jane (1917–2004) had been born in Shanghai to German-Jewish father and Californian-Catholic mother, and raised in Shanghai and Paris.
At 21, she was only married to a Dutch-German banker and art collector, Fritz Mannheimer (1890–1939) for two months before he died suddenly, leaving her pregnant with Annette.
Annette de la Renta’s mother, Jane Engelhard,
in a 1949 photo by Horst
The widowed Jane Mannheimer moved several times after Annette was born, including to London, Buenos Aires and New York. In 1947, she married again, to billionaire American industrialist Charles Engelhard Jr (1917–1971).
Jane Engelhard in one of her numerous homes
According to some sources, the fictional character of Auric Goldfinger in the Ian Fleming’s Bond novel Goldfinger, was based on Engelhard, who was a friend of Fleming’s.
Mr and Mrs Charles Engelhard in the
library of their Cragwood estate in New Jersey
They set up several homes for the family including New Jersey, New York, Nantucket and Maine in the US, as well as South Africa, London, Paris, and Quebec.
The Engelhards had four daughters together, and Annette was officially adopted by her step-father, taking on his surname.
Charles and Jane Engelhard with four of their daughters
In 1960, at the age of 21, Annette Mannheimer Engelhard married her first husband, the financier Samuel Pryor Reed (1934-2005), a vice president of Engelhard Industries, the family company.
Annette de la Renta when she was Mrs Samuel Pryor Reed
Annette de la Renta’s first husband, Samuel Pryor Reed in 1966
They had three children: Beatrice Reed Morrison Niven Phelps, Eliza Reed Bolen, and Charles Reed. Beatrice went on to marry three times, to Roger Morrison, David Niven Jr (son of actor David Niven), and David Phelps; Eliza married Alex Bolden; and Charles married Natalie Witgosky.
When the Reeds divorced in 1967, Samuel distributed his fortune to their children to ensure Annette got only 15% of their joint estate.
Samuel, Annette and young Beatrice Reed in 1966
Annette Engelhard Reed in the 1960s
When Annette Engelhard Reed married Oscar in 1989, she became Annette de la Renta, and his family not only increased but so did their input into the business.
Moises de la Renta, with his father Oscar
He now had stepchildren from his marriages to both Françoise (a son, Jean Marc Bruere) and Annette’s three Reed children (Beatrice, Eliza and Charles), and his own son, Moises de la Renta, who he adopted in 1984 shortly after Françoise’s death.
The next generation of the Oscar de la Renta brand:
Son-in-law and CEO, Alex Bolen, step-daughter Eliza Reed Bolen,
Oscar de la Renta, and son Moises de la Renta
Today, his step-daughter Eliza Bolen serves as Vice President of Licensing at Oscar de la Renta, and son-in-law Alex Bolen is the brand’s Chief Executive Officer. Read more about this via New York Magazine article from 2005.
In August 1998 Eliza Reed married Alexander Bolen in a dress
by her stepfather Oscar de la Renta
Alex Bolen and Eliza Reed Bolen
Annette de la Renta has been in the news since 2006, coming to the defence of her friend and New York society icon, Brooke Astor (1902–2007). It has been alleged that Mrs Astor was abused and financially exploited by her son Anthony Marshall.
Despite Astor’s death aged 105 in 2007, Annette has continued to fight the legal battle over her estate.
Annette de la Renta and Brooke Astor on their way
to the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue in 1990
In addition to numerous philanthropic activities, Annette is a trustee at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and has served on the boards of the New York Public Library, Morgan Library and Museum, Animal Medical Center, the Charles Engelhard Foundation and Rockefeller University.
The Oscar de la Renta empire continues
From the 1970s onwards, Oscar de la Renta continued to extend his business to include fragrances (1977), accessories (2001) and homewares (2002).
The brand now includes a high end sportswear collection (OSCAR by Oscar de la Renta), cosmetic cases, eyewear, furs, jewelry, lingerie, scarves, sleepwear, and swimwear, as well some menswear through a licensing arrangement.
Brooke Shields in Oscar de la Renta for
Vogue September 1981
In Vogue magazine’s “Charmed Circles” in September 1989, Georgina Howell reported that Oscar de la Renta’s half-billion-dollar business includes three fragrances and 45 licenses and that his friends call him “the most attractive and generous grand seigneur in New York.”
Cindy Crawford on the cover of Vogue February
1990 in Oscar de la Renta
Linda Evangelista wearing Oscar de la Renta photographed
by Arthur Elgort September 1991
Oscar de la Renta collection for Balmain photographed by
Peter Lindbergh for Vogue October 1997
April 2000: Irving Penn photographs Maggie Rizer
wearing Oscar de la Renta for Balmain couture
Oscar de la Renta has not limited his creativity to fashion, beauty and homewares.
In June 2001, he created a garden for Lord Jacob Rothschild at Waddesdon Manor, the turreted French château-style home built for the Rothschild family in Buckinghamshire, England. Read more about it here.
In 2002, he created uniforms for the Dominican Republic’s police force.
And in October 2004, Oscar de la Renta collaborated with the Duchess of Devonshire on the Chatsworth furniture collection for Century.
The beautiful Chatsworth Castle in England, home to the
Duke and Duchess of Devonshire
Vogue September 2006: Kirsten Dunst in Oscar de la Renta by Annie Leibovitz
Photographer Steven Meisel and style director Grace Coddington‘s
“Asia Major” feature including gowns by Oscar de la Renta
for Vogue December 2010
The new business venture encompassed 100 home furnishings for Century Furniture including dining tables, upholstered chairs, and couches.
He has also had collaborations with other fabulous designers such as this tableware collection with Miles Redd, below.
In addition, he became busy in 2006 designing and co-owning a resort, Tortuga Bay in Punta Cana, in his home country of the Dominican Republic.
In particular, he has developed his evening gowns range, making his dresses a must for America’s society princesses, and in 2006, brand further diversified into bridal wear.
From 1993 to 2002, de la Renta designed the haute couture collection for Balmain, the fashion house famous for its classic, luxurious style, founded by fashion and costume designer Pierre Balmain (1914–1982).
This made Oscar the first Dominican-American to design for a French couture house. (He became a US citizen in either 1969 or 1971)
A 1950s creation from Balmain Paris
With son-in-law Alex Bolen as CEO, the brand saw significant international wholesale growth from 2003, moving from five to seventy five locations, as well as online.
Vogue’s current editor-in-chief, Anna Wintour, echoed Diana Vreeland’s belief in him, by saying in 2004, “Everything Oscar does is feminine, romantic, and appropriate.”
Famous friends, recognition and giving back
Oscar de la Renta is universally adored by the social set, royalty, political wives, and celebrities.
Designer Oscar de la Renta with style
icon Audrey Hepburn
Mikhail Baryshnikov dives into the de la Rentas’ Connecticut pool as the
designer and three society beauties (Eliza Reed Bolen, Aerin Lauder and
Marina Rust) look on. Photo by Annie Leibovitz, September 2000.
Oscar de la Renta with actress Sarah Jessica Parker
Oprah Winfrey wears – and is accompanied by – Oscar de la Renta
to co-chair the Costume Institute Gala – May 2010
Beyonce photographed by Patrick Demarchelier wearing
Oscar de la Renta in Vogue March 2013
He has been the recipient of multiple honours and awards for his contribution to fashion, perfume and design, including:
- American Fashion Critic’s Award and induction into the Hall of Fame
- Council of Fashion Designers (CFDA) Designer of the Year Award and CFDA Lifetime Achievement Award
- Living Legend Award from the American Society of Perfumes
- Coty Award and induction into the Coty Hall of Fame
- The Dominican Republic’s order al Merito de Juan Pablo Duarte and the order of Cristbal Coln
- Lifetime Achievement Award from the Hispanic Heritage Society and Grand Marshall of New York City’s Hispanic Day Parade.
- Spain’s Gold Medal of Bellas Artes and the La Gran Cruz de la Orden del Mérito Civil
- France’s Légion d’honneur as a Commandeur
Oscar de la Renta Spring 2013 RTW Collection
Thanks to the popularity of his label and his ongoing success, in 1982, Oscar de la Renta was able to open an orphanage in La Romana called ‘La Casa del Niño’ and helped build a school near his Dominican Republic home in Punta Cana, enabling him to give back to the community and people from which he came and made him who he is.
Read more about Oscar de la Renta via Wikipedia and his website.
- Elegant, sophisticated, romantic, ladylike clothes, using vintage-styles, intricate details and ethnic references produced in a modern way
- Ready-to-wear collections for “ladies who lunch”
- Cocktail dresses, evening gowns and bridal wear
“Oscar is romantic,” Hebe Dorsey wrote in Vogue in 1982. “Not only does he look and project romantic, he also delivers romantic clothes for romantic women on both sides of the Atlantic.”
“I don’t really know how to do casual clothes,” Oscar de la Renta once told Women’s Wear Daily.
Key players at the brand
- Oscar de la Renta, founder and chief designer
- Alex Bolen, Chief Executive Officer
- Eliza Reed Bolen, Vice President of Licensing
- Carolina Irving, Creative Director of Oscar de la Renta Home
- Catherine Monteiro de Barros, Creative Director of Oscar de la Renta Childrenswear
- Annelie Hofstrom, Executive Vice President of Footwear
- Alexia Aubert, Director of Design
- Previously, Miles Redd, who has recently left the company to focus on his own interior design business
- Erika Bearman, social media personality and Senior Vice President of Marketing and Communications, aka OscarPRGirl – take a look inside her closet via The Coveteur and see her home in the Hamptons
- Jean Hoehn Zimmerman, consults as Executive-at-Large for Oscar de la Renta fragrances
Scroll through our Oscar de la Renta fashion archive for lots more: