An Ode to Oscar

In a cultural era where the high fashion industry became dangerously fixated on the excess of pseudo-artistic novelty and shock value, Oscar de la Renta took on the bold undertaking of bringing class and practicality back to the runway. Oscar de la Renta passed away recently at his home in Kent, Connecticut due to complications suffered during his battle with cancer. In spite of the tragedy of his long-term illness, which was first diagnosed in 2006, the legendary designer maintained an inspiring level of pride and dignity throughout his life. His continued self-respect and vibrant personality became a defining feature in his reputation that was displayed by his refined choices as both a designer and a cultural icon.  In the highly judgmental world of fashion, de la Renta drifted from the norm by shunning the ostentatious trends that his contemporaries promoted and instead produced timeless, feminine fashion that appealed to political giants and fashion fanatics alike.

De la Renta was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. He was the seventh child and only boy of Carmen María Antonia Fiallo and Óscar Avelino Renta. As he was the sole male heir to the family, Oscar noted that his parents generously indulged his desires. His family was deeply rooted in Dominican culture with a bevy of important figures, such as poets, scholars, and leaders, falling under the same family tree. Due to the high social standing of his family, de la Renta was afforded the ability to pursue art that a child of a lesser socioeconomic status would have been denied. After high school, however, the burgeoning artist was conflicted about what path he should choose: the path with a predetermined outcome, joining his father’s insurance business or the path fraught with uncertainty and appeal, traveling to Madrid to study art.

Fortunately for the fashion industry today, de la Renta selected the option that he could wholly invest his passion and creativity into art. In Madrid, however, he adopted an unconventional approach to studying art that transformed his outlook on fashion in unforeseeable ways. De la Renta spent his days in Spain, not pondering the greats at Museo del Prado, Madrid’s foremost art collection, but immersing himself in the nightlife of the city.  There his exuberant personality flourished. De la Renta became enthralled with the effect fashion has on one’s confidence. He invested the 125 dollars that his father sent monthly on expanding his newly assembled “señorito” wardrobe.

Using the connections he made due to his commanding presence in Madrid’s nightlife, de la Renta was able to leverage himself into a job at the Lanvin house in Paris. At the time, he was utterly inexperienced for his new position as the assistant the chief designer at Lanvin, forcing him to cram a whole year’s worth of education at design school into two weeks. With a combination of charisma and wits, de la Renta was surprisingly successful in his endeavors. The rookie designer, however, was overflowing with ambition and was eager to move onto bigger opportunities.

De la Renta then underwent an amazing metamorphosis from a nascent artist who lived day to day, to a master with immense cultural and political influence.   In the harsh reality of the complicated political sphere, image often precedes qualifications and morals. This focus on tailoring one’s image causes politics to be interlaced with fashion. Understanding the importance and the contradictions of the two, de la Renta’s true forte emerged: amalgamating these two opposing worlds.

His particular area of expertise was styling the nation’s first ladies. De la Renta’s role in the outfitting of some of America’s most influential women was not limited to dressing them in his own, opulent gowns.  As the former head of the Council of Fashion Designers of America, de la Renta passionately advocated to these women that they select and promote designs of a more modest price in order to cultivate young, promising, American talent.

In dressing America’s first ladies, he understood that fashion is largely a subconscious decision influenced by a number of underlying factors including one’s self-image, one’s aspirations, one’s class, etc. In an interview with South China Morning Post de la Renta highlighted how political fashion is magnified in order to accommodate the voice and personality of the wearer but also the nation that wearer represents, “To dress a first lady is an enormous privilege. When you design clothes, you often think of a woman in general, but in this special case, that woman is larger than life. She will mean many different things to different people. She is an icon.” De la Renta’s understanding of the philosophy behind fashion helped him secure a reputation as the most astute designer with the ability to make or break the public view of a first lady.

Oscar de la Renta’s surprising political prowess was a product of the union of his magnetic personality and his dignified style. The anthology of his work was masterfully displayed both on the runway and on some of the nation’s greatest female political figures.  His work is representative of a self-aware boldness that is deeply rooted in the principle that fashion should make people feel confident, not like an abstract art exhibit. The fashion industry and the political world alike will mourn this tragic loss of Oscar de la Renta, but hopefully will continue to honor and build off of the matchless contributions he fashioned.

— Colette Juran, Staff Writer

Posted by on October 23, 2014. Filed under Arts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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