Oscar de la Renta is trying to eat his hamburger. This is a challenge, what with the burnished ladies and regal gentlemen sauntering by every few minutes to say hello, to say he looks terrific, to ask after his wife, to ask after the First Lady (and the former First Lady), and to congratulate him on his continued success. The 72-year-old fashion designer is seated at a central table inside Michael’s, the midtown restaurant favored by powerful people who like to be observed eating lunch by fellow powerful people, an establishment where the De la Renta presence—impossibly crisp suit, elongated resort-bronzed face, narrow brown eyes—is a familiar one.
“You know, as I get older and I look back, I think that I have been probably working harder now than I’ve worked in my whole life,” he says, having just exchanged hellos with yet another “good friend” before returning to the subject at hand: how, when most of his contemporaries are either happily retired, governed by clunky conglomerates, or no longer living, he is launching new lines, developing young talent, wooing younger women, opening his first boutiques, revamping, reviving, rethinking, cementing a plan of succession for the day when “I will no longer be around.”
De la Renta, who was born in the Dominican Republic and always seems to be slyly grinning at a private joke, speaks in a charismatic, heavily accented purr. “I remember when I was a little boy living in the island that I come from, time went soooo slow,” he continues. “Now . . . well, very seldom do I go out to lunch. When I started working—going back 25, 30 years ago—I went out to lunch every single day, you know? But I don’t drink—well, I like to have a glass of wine at night—but if I drink during the day now, I get very sleepy. Please pardon me. I am famished and need to eat for a moment.”
He relieves the medium-cooked hamburger of its bun. Using a fork and knife, he cuts himself a small piece of meat. Carefully dipping it into some Dijon mustard, he brings the bite to his lips, when suddenly—
“Oscar, hel-lo dear.”
He is forced to go hungry a little longer.
People are saying hello more than usual this afternoon, and this is just fine. (“I hate to be alone,” De la Renta is fond of saying. “More than anything, I hate to be alone.”) It’s the day before President Bush’s second inauguration, 24 hours before Laura Bush will appear—at the podium as her husband is sworn in as leader of the free world, at the balls afterward where she’ll celebrate this swearing-in—wearing head-to-toe De la Renta, a series of outfits that will be widely applauded in the following days. It is all very similar to what Hillary Clinton had experienced during her husband’s second inauguration, way back in a different America.
“Congratu-laaa-tions with the inaugu-raaa-tion,” the woman coos, sounding like she’s praising the winner of a middle-school science fair. De la Renta stands up—he is a man who always stands in the presence of women—kisses the woman’s professionally exfoliated cheek, and thanks her graciously. Then, once she’s vanished, he takes his seat, sighs, sips his Pellegrino, and, at last, devours his hamburger in quick, minuscule bites. After a moment, he leans in to his table companion and whispers, “Do you know who her husband is? He’s Gerry Schoenfeld. He owns all the Shubert theaters.”
It is a perplexing, and revealing, moment. Here is De la Renta—consummate host of the city, the insider’s insider—making an outsider’s comment, a striver’s comment, the sort of utterance being whispered just then by those seated at less-prime tables, living less-prime lives. Do you know who that is? That’s Oscar de la Renta. He designs gowns for First Ladies.
You can be having dinner with Oscar and the Clintons, and he’s a vivacious host who takes care of everything,” says Vogue editor Anna Wintour, summing up the charming bipolarity that makes Oscar, Oscar. “Then, after the meal, he’ll go back into the kitchen and play dominoes with everyone who prepared the meal.”
It’s an approach to life that guides De la Renta’s business as well. He’s always been something of a throwback, a reminder of an opulent, ruffled, conservatively glamorous era that in all likelihood never really existed. But he’s also up-to-the-minute, having recently introduced a new line, O Oscar, in which no single piece retails for more than a hundred dollars. On Monday, under the tents in Bryant Park, the designer will show his fall collection—his 40th year doing so since leaving his post at Elizabeth Arden in 1965 to design his own label. In that time, he’s built a sizable personal fortune (estimated net worth: $100 million, making him, by one list, the 29th richest Latino in America) as well as one of the more eclectic, iconic social networks of anyone in town (close friends: the Clintons, the Kissingers, Sarah Jessica Parker, Gore Vidal, the doorman of the Ritz). As the fashion world has gradually mutated into a blander, more corporate beast, he’s remained a constant: the elegant gent who makes clothes for elegant women, designer of choice for ladies who lunch and First Ladies like Jackie Kennedy and Nancy Reagan and Hillary Clinton and, most recently, Laura Bush.
These days, he’s gearing up to capitalize on this legacy. In an era in which most major designers have watched their companies flounder after being sold to corporate conglomerates—Donna Karan to LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton; Gucci to Pinault-Printemps-Redoute—De la Renta is the last of the independent old guard, and he’s using it to his advantage. “I have resisted corporate ownership,” he says, sipping a decaf coffee after lunch. “Not that I haven’t been tempted. I have had offers in the past”—he declines to go into specifics—“but I always am very worried about the private investors. From the moment you sell a big percentage of your business, you know that you no longer control your business. I always thought, If I had private investors, I’d be able to expand my business, but we’re doing it now without any outside help. We’re masters of our own destinies.”