Remembering Oscar de la Renta

Name an American fashion icon and chances are she wore Oscar de la Renta: Jacqueline Kennedy, Audrey Hepburn, CZ Guest, Oprah, Sarah Jessica Parker.

The core clientele of the designer, who died yesterday at his Connecticut home at age 82, were the ladies of Manhattan’s Upper East Side. In the ‘80s and ‘90s, I attended his shows in the gilded ballroom of the Plaza Hotel, a room as old-world and alluring as de la Renta’s manners.

The hall would be wall to wall society ladies, Nan Kempner, Pat Buckley, Nancy Kissinger, and the lone working gal Barbara Walters, always in current season Oscar, almost always a skirt suit and crocodile pumps. This was Tom Wolfe territory, the women who inspired the term social X-ray in Bonfire of the Vanities and for the most part, it fit. They were a cookie cutter crew who favoured the same hairstylists and plastic surgeons.

And they worshipped Oscar. He gave them clothes that were feminine, dignified and luxurious, never vulgar. And he charmed them with his suave smile, and his ability to talk cooking and gardening.

He won me over too, when he came to Toronto to launch the fragrances that, along with his many licenses, made him a wealthy man. Fans (all women) would line up for hours to meet him, huge crowds that overwhelmed even the Toronto Eaton Centre.

They would walk away swooning. He could flirt with anyone.

De la Renta was of another era. He built his business at a time when designers were client-focused and free of the business forces that now put enormous pressure on bottom line. Peter Copping has moved from Nina Ricci to carry on the de la Renta legacy of romance and femininity. But the chances of there ever being another Oscar de la Renta are slim.

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