As the world remembers and mourns the passing of a fashion legend, a true American icon, I cannot but allude to the man I knew and was fortunate enough to call my friend, Oscar de la Renta. I first met Oscar 18 years ago, fresh out of fashion school. I had an appointment to show him my embroidery designs. You could say he was the one who gave me my first break, but he did so much more. He gave me his confidence and his trust, which to this date I hold close.
Oscar had a larger than life persona. Working with him was never just about the clothes. It was the romance that went with it, the dress that Mrs Bass wore while seated next to him at the Met Opera, the oranges from his garden in the Dominican Republic or the stories of his younger days in NYC, being turned away at the door of the CopaCabana: “He took one look at me and told me that the band enters from the back,” alluding to his Latin looks.
Loaded with charm, no one told stories better than Oscar. Conversations just got more interesting with him in the room. To know him was to share his experiences, from his apprentice years working for Balenciaga to his duets with close friend Julio Iglesias or, as Oscar would say, an “unfortunate” dress worn by a celebrity the previous night.
As a designer, he transcended generations from former first lady Nancy Reagan to Sex and the City star Sarah Jessica Parker to his last stroke of genius in creating the much-publicised bridal gown for Mrs Clooney. A master craftsman, he was uncompromising in his pursuit to make women look and feel their very best. He understood the “power of a woman today”, he admired and loved them. And yes, they loved him back. It is every girl’s dream to wear something made by Oscar de la Renta and if they were lucky enough to meet him, that feeling was reinforced.
His wife Annette was his true love. She was on his mind with every dress he designed.
I have always admired the love and friendship they shared and have tried to live by his example.
Oscar loved India, from its vibrant marigold colours to “the monsoon wedding”. He had me convinced that all special fabrics and stones that India had to offer could be found in “Chandni Chowk”. He devoured Indian food. He called to ask for a recipe for yellow daal once. He said, “The Clintons are coming over for lunch, and since the president is vegetarian, I thought I would surprise him with Indian food.”
His friends were always welcome to his beautiful home in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic, which he shared with his family and a few too many dogs. He loved dogs, and any dog that needed shelter ruled the roost on his property. On one such occasion, I sat beside Oscar at dinner with his favourite dog at my foot . Oscar reassuringly told me, “Don’t worry, he only bites heads of state, he’s bitten four presidents already.” Dinners at his home were filled with song and dance. You could find yourself sitting next to Henry Kissinger or Vogue editor Anna Wintour, for instance. But only if you had enough patience for him to finish his game of dominos, which he religiously played every evening with his kitchen staff. He was a fierce competitor, and the game only ended when Oscar won. And he always won.
Oscar was no stranger to controversy, unapologetically candid about his opinions on fashion and worldly matters. I can recall several instances in the design studio when his son-in-law, Alex Bolen, would be anxiously holding his head as Oscar would give a phone interview, because he never knew what could come out of his mouth. The press took him to task for his statement made about Michelle Obama. He wished that she wore more American designers. His good friend Barbara Walters challenged him on national television: “Oscar, are you jealous?” His response was, “Of course, I’m jealous. As a designer I want everyone to wear my clothes.” He always had the last say.
I will continue to remember him with a smile and celebrate his generosity and his loving spirit. He will always live in our hearts. His mastery, grace, joie de vivre and unmatchable style will continue to dictate ideas of femininity and beauty for many, many years to come, no matter what the current or future trends may be. Oscar de la Renta will remain the metric by which all things glamorous and beautiful are measured.
The writer is co-founder of Ank International Inc, an embroidery house to fashion couture houses in Europe and the US