“What’s Senator Clinton wearing?” the designer wants to know. It’s Inauguration Day and De la Renta is in his studio, too busy tweaking his new collection to attend the festivities. He is squinting at Chrissy Haldis, a tall, willowy, and by all accounts mannequin-mute brunette who has served as his house model for the past two collections. She stands rotating in slow circles, sheathed in rare, velvety Uzbekistani fabric that, when hemmed and cut, will become a long coat retailing in the neighborhood of $10,000. In De la Renta’s adjoining office, the inauguration is being broadcast over the Internet—there is Laura Bush, pert and stately in a pearly De la Renta cashmere dress, though the designer is currently concerned about the clothes another client, Hillary Clinton, has chosen for the event.
“She’s wearing black,” someone points out.
De la Renta frowns. “What?”
“It’s a black jacket, and a—”
He cuts her off. “Oh, I always tell Senator Clinton . . .” He pauses delicately. “Well, I mean, I’m sure she looks beautiful. Hillary is a beautiful woman. But I always tell her not to wear black. She looks tough in black”—he tenses his fists and jaw to illustrate his point—“and she is more than just a tough lady. The problem is that everything else she has, every other piece of clothing that’s not black, is mine, and with Mrs. Bush also wearing something of mine today . . . ”
After a moment, De la Renta simply laughs. The designer, who grew up under a dictatorship, seems to find politics most compelling, not as an engine of policy and social change, but as a theater of bombastic personalities kept in line by social formality.
“I’m a nonpartisan voter,” he says with a smile. “I vote for the man, not the party. I voted for Clinton, but I voted for Bush. I also voted for Reagan.” He pauses. “Black! I cannot believe she’s wearing black!”
De la Renta’s interest in the marketing of femininity dates back to age 7, when the designer, playing in his large backyard, attempted to manufacture perfume. “I thought if I woke up very early, I could collect the dewdrops off the flowers, I could make perfume,” he recalls. “And then I realized the perfume was not involved in the dewdrops. I couldn’t understand how the liquid comes out of the flower!”
Imagine the designer back then, the only boy among six sisters growing up in a protective Dominican family. (“While other boys were playing in the street, of course I was not.”) At 18, he left the island for Spain to become a painter. His mother, sick with multiple sclerosis, allowed him to go, knowing she wouldn’t see him again. His father was skeptical about art. To prove to his father that he could earn money, De la Renta took fashion-illustrator jobs at newspapers. He was talented, and he had a certain verve that allowed him access into the world of fashion. Soon he was hired by Balenciaga as an illustrator, then as a designer. He moved to Paris. He painted less. In 1963, feeling the future of fashion was in ready-to-wear, De la Renta moved to New York for a job with Elizabeth Arden. He met Alex Liberman, the editorial director at Condé Nast. And John Fairchild, the editor of Women’s Wear Daily. And Diana Vreeland, the editor of Vogue. Within two years, he had his own line. By 1971, he was one of the most established names in the business and had just bought a country estate in Kent, Connecticut, for $110,000.
It was the sort of speedy ascent that instills in someone an innate grasp of the importance of first impressions. Who better to understand what a First Lady goes through?
Ask De La Renta why First Ladies feel so comfortable with him, and first he’ll tell a joke—“I hope it’s not my age”—before explaining that, much like himself, the First Lady is the ultimate outsider turned insider. “When you come from the middle of the country, and you arrive in a certain society, I think it’s very difficult for every First Lady,” he says. “After all, she’s not elected. The men are elected. But people do have expectations—more in this country than any other country. Do you know who Chirac’s wife is? Mitterrand’s? Exactly. Here people do care, people are looking. And we are so influenced by what we see visually, you know?”
Hence the gnawing effect Hillary’s black outfit has on De la Renta. When he started to dress Clinton, the first thing he did was eliminate black from her wardrobe. “The perception of what people had of her was different than what they have now,” he explains. “First of all, she is an extremely intelligent person. And caring person. And loving person. And full of charm. And full of laughter. And people never really saw her that way. So I said, ‘Let’s stop wearing black. Let’s dress you now in pale blue and pale pink.’ ” A switch to pastels isn’t quite the same as passing, say, universal health care, though the public perception of Clinton did change tremendously, which certainly came in handy during her Senate run.