Oct 21, 2014 12:35 PM

Oscar de la Renta remembered for fun, romance

The Associated Press

NEW YORK (AP) Fun, sunny, romantic. Oscar de la Renta approached fashion and life on those terms, but there was more, so much more, those who loved and admired the designer say.

The "more," Vogue's Anna Wintour wrote Tuesday on the magazine's website, was "democratic."

By that, she meant de la Renta possessed the sensibility, the ease, to dine with the rich and famous but happily play dominoes with his staff.

The "more," to others, was his desire to make women feel feminine and pretty, and not just a coterie of first ladies and socialites.

Laura Bush favored de la Renta, and so did her daughter, Jenna, who was emotional on a Tuesday "Today" show appearance in describing the close friendship that developed when he created her wedding gown.

"It was the first dress he showed me. I put it on and he said, 'And now to the most important accessory,' and he handed me his arm and he said, 'The man.' And so I put my arm in his arm and I got to walk through his showroom with Oscar de la Renta."

De la Renta, at 82, died Monday at home in Kent, Connecticut, surrounded by family, friends and his beloved dogs after four decades in the fashion industry. A handwritten statement signed by his stepdaughter Eliza Reed Bolen and her husband, Alex Bolen, did not specify a cause of death, but de la Renta had spoken in the past of having cancer.

Wintour wrote that his strength, his courage, "must have been with him in the hospital last week when he made the decision to turn off treatment; it was not the quality of life he wanted."

Eveningwear was de la Renta's specialty, though he also was known for chic daytime suits worn by ladies who lunch. His signature looks were voluminous skirts, exquisite embroideries and rich colors.

Earlier this month, first lady Michelle Obama notably wore a de la Renta dress for the first time. De la Renta had criticized her several years earlier for not wearing an American designer label to a state dinner in 2011.

"Oscar de la Renta truly was the ultimate diplomat for American fashion, a pillar who supported an idea of this country's style beyond that of jeans and work clothes. Much like his designs, from simply elegant daywear to ravishingly gorgeous evening dresses that seduced virtually every first lady during his lifetime, Oscar himself projected an image of elegance," recalled Eric Wilson, the fashion news director for InStyle magazine.

Ruthie Friedlander, deputy editor for Elle.com, understands the "more" that set de la Renta apart. It was about women and his ability to understand their beauty.

"That is something you rarely see in a designer," she said of the generations he crossed. "You could picture yourself wearing his clothes, even if you didn't have an occasion for them. It might have been aspirational, but he had a piece for you in there somewhere."

The designer's path to New York's Seventh Avenue took an unlikely route: He left his native Dominican Republic at 18 to study painting in Spain, but soon became sidetracked by fashion, launching his own label in 1965.

He told The Associated Press in 2004 that his Hispanic roots had worked their way into his designs.

"I like light, color, luminosity. I like things full of color and vibrant," he said.

While de la Renta made Manhattan his primary home, he often visited the Dominican Republic and kept a home there. Wintour, Vogue's editor in chief, was a frequent visitor and she has said traveling with him was like traveling with the president.

She recalled last weekend, when she and her daughter paid a visit to his country home in the northwestern Connecticut town of Kent, where gardening and dancing were among his favorite diversions from work.

"We laughed about Bee's love life. He gave her advice, and then he said he had a dream to see the allee and pond he had just designed on the grounds," she wrote. "He could no longer move, so we went out and took pictures on his iPad for him to see and ate a chicken sandwich with Annette (his wife) and Janet, his extraordinary nurse. His last words to me were I love you, and I said I love you back."

Dominican President Danilo Medina said Tuesday that the country is in mourning for de la Renta, both as a symbol of national pride and for improving the lives of children through his charitable work.

"In addition to raising the profile of the Dominican Republic thanks to his art and talent, he has been a great defender of the national interests," Medina said via Twitter.

Valerie Steele, director of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, sees the "more" of de la Renta in the expanse of influences he soaked in.

"Oscar was a designer who really combined Spanish, Parisian and American sensibility in fashion," she said. "The time he spent studying with Balenciaga in Spain, the work in Paris and the tremendous success in New York all ended in creating an international style, one that focused very much on the idea of feminine beauty."

A beauty that stemmed from a love of women.

"He never shied away from saying what he did was make pretty dresses," Steele said. "The goal of the pretty dresses was to make women look pretty. He would dress a woman, her daughter and her granddaughter and they would all feel happy."


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