The designer was surprised when Laura Bush approached him. “With Mrs. Bush, Vogue magazine was going to photograph her when she was going into the White House,” he recalls. “Anna Wintour called me and asked if I would send some clothes to Vogue. I told Anna, ‘You know, I have been so closely identified with Mrs. Clinton that I don’t think Mrs. Bush would want to be photographed in my clothes.’ She said, ‘No! No! No! Please send some clothes.’ So I did send some clothes, and apparently Mrs. Bush arrived at the shoot in a red suit of mine that she had bought in Austin, Texas. She asked if there were any other clothes of mine there, so they showed her, and she chose another pantsuit for the shoot.” De la Renta sent the First Lady a thank-you note, and shortly after received a call from the White House: Mrs. Bush was going to be in New York and wanted to stop by his studio. “This was the very first First Lady that had come to Seventh Avenue, which I found extremely nice and kind. The very first time I met her—have you ever seen her in person? No?—well, I have never seen blue eyes like hers. They’re like sapphires! The very first time I met her, I said to her, ‘Mrs. Bush, I’m going to ask you a very indiscreet question, and I hope that you won’t consider it rude. Do you wear contact lenses?’ She laughed and said, ‘No, I don’t.’ Ha!”
Later that morning, reps for Penélope Cruz call the office to let it be known that the actress would like to wear De la Renta to the Oscars—possibly-maybe-definitely —but would need to see some sketches first, before finalizing her decision. While De la Renta speaks highly of many stars—he credits Sarah Jessica Parker with having helped revive his image by fawning over a De la Renta gown in an episode of Sex and the City—he is not particularly well versed in celebrity, and in general doesn’t admire actresses.
“They are more of a hassle to deal with than anything else,” he says. “They tend to be insecure people. Insecure and capricious. These are two bad qualities.”
He turns to his assistant.
“Send her the sketches,” he says.
A week after Inauguration Day, De la Renta flies down to Miami to celebrate the opening of his store, which is located in the luxurious Bal Harbour Shops mall. The boutique—a cozy, brightly lit, high-ceilinged quarters with walls tiled in stone from a Dominican quarry near De la Renta’s home there—is packed with types who, depending on your aesthetic tastes, are either freakishly stunning or stunningly freakish: the face-lifted, the orange-skinned, the heavily bejeweled, all with suspiciously white teeth. They drink passion-fruit Bellinis and make good use of the word fabulous. A 15-year-old model from South Africa who looks 25 weaves her way through the room in a series of De la Renta gowns being stroked by strangers. Alex is on hand, ever the micromanager—picking up a shawl that fell off its hanger, shaking hands, keeping an eye on De la Renta, who’s dapper in a dark pin-striped suit, at all times. When asked how he feels about the store, he says, “The cash registers apparently are working, so that’s a plus.” Then he notices something in the distance and excuses himself. “Oh, Oscar’s talking to the store’s landlord. I need to go make sure he doesn’t say something he’s not supposed to.”
Annette de la Renta spends the majority of the event sandwiched inside a display, half-hidden by two of her husband’s gowns, talking with Miles Redd, the magnetic, high-cheeked, Georgia-born creative director for Oscar de la Renta Home. As Redd explains his role in the store’s look—“These plaster palm trees,” he says, pointing at the ones framing two gigantic mirrors, “that’s me”—a drag queen named Elaine saunters over to Annette, who smiles through her teeth.
“Oh, let me get a picture of the two of you,” says Redd, pulling out his camera phone. Annette shakes her head.
“Come on! I’ll e-mail it to Eliza!”
Annette, shy but witty, throws an arm around the transvestite.
“Okay. Take a picture.”
After the opening, De la Renta holds a dinner at André Balazs’s Raleigh hotel—a gathering of about 40 friends, not clients. Paella is cooked out by the pool. Jane Holzer kisses De la Renta’s cheeks; so does the photographer Bruce Webber. As everyone takes their seats at a long, family-style dinner, whispers can be heard that “Lenny has landed”—Lenny Kravitz has dropped by. In the presence of socialites, Kravitz, in a conservative gray suit and tie, appears oddly boyish, calling everyone “Sir” and “Miss.” The rock star sits next to De la Renta, discussing his own upcoming clothing line. Before the sorbet course, Paul Wilmot, the ubiquitous publicist, decides he is the man to make a toast. “I think tonight is a night that’s all about one thing: first names,” he says, inaccurately. “It’s a night where you’d say, ‘I went to this store owned by a guy named Oscar. Then I had dinner with a guy named Lenny. And a guy named Bruce. And so . . . well, to first names.”
“To first names!”
De la Renta, as always, is at once the central figure and the man off to the side, checking everyone out, making sure they are okay.
“I’m tellin’ ya,” says his bodyguard and driver, a sardonic guy named Lou Perno, who speaks with a heavy Queens accent. “Mr. De la Renta is as comfortable talking to a janitor as he is a president. The man knows everyone. One time, I’m with Oscar, and we’re at some New York hotel to meet the president of the Dominican Republic. We’re in the elevator, and it stops on one floor, and there’s Gerald Ford and his wife! Both of them in tennis clothes! I’m like, ‘I can’t believe it’s Gerald Ford.’ And what’s he do? Immediately he leaps at Mr. De la Renta and gives him this huge hug. When he got off the elevator, I turned to Mr. De la Renta and said, ‘Is there anyone you don’t know?’ ”
At just that moment, De la Renta comes over to say that he’s tired—he has an early flight in the morning so he can work through the weekend on his collection. But before heading off to bed, he puts a tanned hand on Lou’s shoulder, squeezes, and says, “There are so, so many people I don’t know.”
He seems to mean it.