My junior year in college, Oscar de la Renta visited my university as a guest lecturer. Dressed in an impeccable gray suit, he looked every inch the older gentleman. He spoke about how he got his start in the fashion industry and about what inspired him season after season. He described the woman he designed for and said his goal was to make the woman wearing his clothes feel beautiful, powerful, yet feminine. I tell you, by the end of that hour, I wanted to sell everything I had to buy one of his dresses.
When I heard about Oscar de la Renta’s passing, I felt incredibly sad. His death seemed to signal the end of age when fashion designers created looks that were just beautiful, rather than shocking or unusual (read: unwearable). He also seemed to be this charming, suave, old-school type of guy—in the best sense. While Peter Copping has designed collections that have that de la Renta DNA with great attention to craftsmanship and intricate detail, the brand undoubtedly lost its best ambassador: the man himself.
It’s no surprise, then, that the Oscar de la Renta Retrospective at the de Young Museum is something I’ve been looking forward to for months. I knew the timing would be tricky with the baby’s due date just a week and a half before the exhibit’s opening. I also knew that I wanted to bring my mom there. After years of having her bring me and my siblings to different museums, it was my turn. Fortunately, the kids cooperated—Sofia was excited to go to the museum and see pretty clothes and Caleb was content to sleep in the Moby wrap for a couple of hours.
The exhibit began with de la Renta’s designs for Elizabeth Arden in the 60s, and quickly moved into the pieces from his own label. The Spanish-inspired gowns call to mind the time he spent studying in Madrid and working under Cristobal Balenciaga.
The next two rooms were undoubtedly my favorite. One held all the designs that referenced the exotic East and Africa, with bejeweled caftans and balloon pants. There were also lush velvet and fur coats that referenced Russia during the reign of the tsars. You can see the intricacy and incredible detail that went into each piece.
From far flung lands to the pastel-infused garden dresses of Versailles, the attention to detail included the wall treatment, which was made up of two different fabrics cut to look like a wall of leaves.
The last gallery celebrated the cult of celebrity, with gowns from recent awards seasons and Met Balls lining the walls. While this was the least interesting part of the exhibit for me (perhaps because I’ve seen all of the dresses and they had less of a sense of fantasy than the previous groups of clothing), Sofia was fascinated by one feathered number. She kept blowing on the feathers and I was surprised that one of the docents—who were pretty strict throughout the exhibit—didn’t try to stop her.
It was a fitting way to remember a very iconic fashion designer, and a wealth of inspiration for creatives in any field. If you’re in the Bay Area, it is a definite must-see. Oscar de la Renta: The Retrospective runs through May 16, 2016.
What del la Renta look is your all-time favorite? Comment and add a link to a photo below.