NEW YORK » Oscar de la Renta, the worldly gentleman designer who shaped the wardrobe of socialites and Hollywood stars for more than four decades, has died. He was 82.
The late ’60s and early ’70s were a defining moment in U.S. fashion as New York-based designers finally carved a look of their own that was finally taken seriously by Europeans. De la Renta and his peers, including the late Bill Blass, Roy Halston and Geoffrey Beene, defined American style — and their influence is still spotted today.
De la Renta’s specialty was eveningwear, though he also was known for chic daytime suits favored by the women who would gather at the Four Seasons or Le Cirque at lunchtime. His signature looks were voluminous skirts, exquisite embroideries and rich colors.
First lady Laura Bush wore an icy blue gown by de la Renta to the 2005 inaugural ball and Hillary Clinton wore a gold de la Renta in 1997. On the red carpet at the Academy Awards, Penelope Cruz and Sandra Bullock were among the celebrities to don his feminine and opulent gowns. His clothes even were woven into episodes of "Sex and the City" with style icon character Carrie Bradshaw dropping his name — and comparing his designs to poetry.
De la Renta’s path to New York’s Seventh Avenue took an unlikely route: He left his native Dominican Republic at age 18 to study painting in Spain but soon became sidetracked by fashion. The wife of the U.S. Ambassador to Spain saw some of his sketches and asked him to make a dress for her daughter — a dress that landed on the cover of Life magazine.
That led to an apprenticeship with Cristobal Balenciaga, and then de la Renta moved to France to work for couture house Lanvin. By 1963, he was working for Elizabeth Arden couture in New York and in 1965 had launched his own label.
He told the AP in 2004 that his Hispanic roots worked their way into his designs.
"I like light, color, luminosity. I like things full of color and vibrant," he said.
And while de la Renta made Manhattan his primary home, he often visited the Dominican Republic and kept a home there. Vogue editor in chief Anna Wintour was a frequent visitor and she has said traveling with him was like traveling with the president. "He’s a superstar," she said.
He also had a country home in northwestern Connecticut. Gardening and dancing were among his favorite diversions from work. "I’m a very restless person. I’m always doing something. The creative process never stops," he said.
As a designer, De la Renta always catered to his socialite friends and neighbors — as the designer and his wife, Annette, were fixtures on the black-tie charity circuit — but he did make occasional efforts to reach the masses, including launching a mid-priced line in 2004 and developing a dozen or so perfumes, the first, called Oscar, was introduced in 1977 and more recently, Rosamor.
He was an avid patron of the arts, serving as a board member of The Metropolitan Opera and Carnegie Hall, among others, and he devoted considerable time to children’s charity, including New Yorkers for Children. He also helped fund schools and day-care centers in La Romana and Punta Cana in his native country.
The Dominican Republic honored de la Renta with the order al Merito de Juan Pablo Duarte and the order of Cristobol Colon. Here in the U.S., he received the Coty American Fashion Critics Award twice, was named womenswear designer of the year by the Council of Fashion Designers of America in 2000 and also received a lifetime achievement award from the CFDA — an organization for which he served as president in the 1980s.
In addition to his own label, de la Renta spearheaded the Pierre Balmain collection from 1993-2002, marking the first time an American designed for a French couture house, and he was awarded the French Legion d’Honneur as a Commandeur. He also received the Gold Medal Award from the king and queen of Spain.
De la Renta gave up the title of chief executive of his company in 2004, handing over business duties to stepdaughter Eliza Reed Bolen and her husband, Alex Bolen, but he remained active on the design end, continuing to show his collections during New York Fashion Week.
De la Renta also is survived by an adopted son, Moises, a designer at the company.
De la Renta’s first wife, French Vogue editor Francoise de Langlade, died in 1983.