But family can be a complicated affair, a fact De la Renta has learned watching his adopted son, Moises, come of age—and take up interest in fashion. These days, the 20-year-old can be seen milling around the studio—a taciturn, handsome, frenetic kid who has been known to spend his nights crushed into sleek banquettes with Paris Hilton and other members of the empire-spawn diaspora. Last year, Moises dropped out of Marymount Manhattan College, and decided, seemingly on a whim, to become a designer, something his father struggles to process. “Moises has always needed a lot of help, which you can get in school, but once you get to college, you have to seek that help; it doesn’t come to you,” De la Renta says at Michael’s. “His first year in college he did really badly. He came to me and he said he didn’t want to stay. I felt unbelievably bad about it because I kept saying to him, ‘Moises, as a father, all I can give you is an education. I lost my mother when I was very young, and I have been working since I was 21 years old, and I didn’t have the opportunities that you have.’ But, you know, young people don’t understand.”
Moises, who’s studying at F.I.T., started working in the studio last year, asking for the lowest position possible, in the pattern room. But such humility had its limits. His first stab at designing was a hipster-looking T-shirt emblazoned with the logo ROCK AND ROLL, HEART & SOUL that his father featured in his fall runway show, paired with a ball skirt, an unexpected marriage of the old and new school. Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar raved about the edgy elegance, and the T-shirt, which sells for $150 and is prominently featured in the upcoming Mario Sorrenti–photographed ad campaign, ended up being the first item purchased at the Madison Avenue boutique. Moises decided that he was now a professional designer, too. On January 13, he debuted a small, mainly denim collection of his own at NA, Damon Dash’s nightclub, at a shoddily executed group show that was the opposite of everything his father’s name—which Moises uses for his line after deciding against “Moi”—has come to represent. (The event was produced by a company called Stop the Glamour.) Given his surname, Moises had little trouble attracting a certain kind of attention. The Post, for instance, wrote a profile of Moises (headline: THE SON ALSO RISES), describing him as building “his own fashion empire.”
“I was very upset about that article,” De la Renta says one afternoon in his office. “I think he has talent, a certain eye. Of course, parents are always very biased, but I do think he has something. I try to tell him, ‘You only get that kind of attention once.’ ”
“I always tell Hillary not to wear black. The problem is that everything else she has is mine, and with Mrs. Bush also wearing something of mine today . . . ”
Over lunch, he goes into more depth: “Moises did a little line, five or six pieces. But that doesn’t make a fashion designer. I say, ‘Moises, when I started the business, I became well known because I was making clothes that were bought by a store, and women went to that store and bought those clothes, and then people started to talk about me.’ Today, unfortunately, you have a lot of young kids who get a tremendous amount of press who haven’t sold a single dress. It’s fantastic and great to have your clothes photographed in Vogue, but”—he looks down at his $28 hamburger, which he will eventually insist on paying for—“that doesn’t buy you a meal.”
In 1983, the year before Moises was born, De la Renta’s first wife, Françoise, former editor of French Vogue, died of cancer. He and Françoise—whom De la Renta married in 1967—were a beloved institution, their East Side apartment known as the place to find Norman Mailer talking to Alan Greenspan behind the back of Candice Bergen. (De la Renta’s current wife, then Annette Reed, was also a fixture at such gatherings.) In 1980, the metaphysics of the De la Rentas’ dinner parties were deconstructed in The New York Times Magazine, in an article that deemed their home a “latter-day salon” with influence on the “New York–Washington axis.” To many, Françoise, who played no formal role in the company, was the secret weapon to De la Renta’s success—forging many of the relationships that created his deep foundation in society. “She is the éminence grise of Oscar,” Marie-Helene de Rothschild told the Times Magazine. (Similar remarks are made about Annette. “She makes Oscar more extraordinary,” says Wintour. “She is his best friend, his companion, his judge, his critic.”) He and Françoise had no children, and her sudden death left De la Renta without a family.
“That’s the time I adopted my son, between marriages,” De la Renta says, his grin subsiding a bit, his expression growing uncommonly solemn. “I never thought that I would get married again. I thought my son and I would have each other. I am very much involved in an orphanage in the Dominican Republic, and he was the youngest orphan. I’ve known him since he was 24 hours old.” Moises is De la Renta’s emotional core, his connection to his past, and his worries are indicative of an upscale version of the classic immigrant’s dilemma: De la Renta’s son was adopted into the kind of glamorous American world De la Renta (whose own father ran an insurance company) had to work to gain membership in. “He’s the sweetest, nicest human being,” De la Renta says of Moises. “But he is unbelievably naïve. He has a heart of gold. If you give him $10 and tell him ‘Here, pay for a cab,’ he will walk outside and find a homeless person. He has no sense of self-preservation.”
At which point De la Renta sips his coffee silently. It’s time to change the subject.