"I think that you have to be elegant naked to be elegant clothed," Oscar de la Renta told the crowd at the French Institute Alliance Francaise last night, speaking as part of the Fashion Talks series. The designer, who lately may be as famous for his remarks about first lady Michelle Obama as his clothes, talked about working at Balenciaga in Madrid and later Lanvin in Paris — where he ended up after turning down a job at Christian Dior — in the fifties and sixties. Working under these masters, he truly learned his craft at a pivotal time in fashion when haute couture spawned ready-to-wear. Now he's one of the most highly regarded designers based in New York. We compiled a few highlights from his talk on everything from dressing first ladies to designing boy and girl scouts' uniforms to why being a designer now is harder than ever.
Lots of people can make good sketches, but not all can turn them into beautiful clothing.
"Don’t get fooled by good sketches. You can make a very beautiful drawing but then you know you need to learn how to make that go into reality, how to make that dress. In fact, I would say if you take a wonderful drawing and that you envision in a certain way and you give it to ten people working for you to create a dress, every one of them will interpret them in a different manner and come up with a different dress."
Designing for the modern customer is more challenging than ever.
"There’s no more exciting time in creating clothes than now. When I started my career, we were creating clothes for a very small segment of the population. Today, there’s no question that the most important consumer is the professional woman. There has never been in the history of time a woman more in control of her destiny than today. That makes our work much more difficult and challenging but at the same time more exciting because you're working for a woman who knows [herself] so much better."
The label is secondary to the clothing itself.
Fashion is visual. We don’t look at the label. You see something there for you. The label comes later. Perhaps you like the label of another name but whats important is yourself, what it's going to do for you.
Women want to feel feminine.
"My role as a designer is to dress the comfortable woman, to make her feel her best. At times I remember back in the seventies when women’s lib, and women integrating herself in a so-called men’s world. A way to be part of that world is to dress in a pants suit in beige or gray. Today, a woman knows being a woman, feeling like a woman, putting on lipstick, feeling wonderful is very important. The power of her femininity is an important asset. I keep saying this is the century of the woman."
The royals, first ladies, and celebrities he has dressed are not Oscar's most important customers.
"The important customers are the anonymous women on the street who identifies with your clothes and falls in love with what you do. It’s creating things that she falls in love with."
He didn't think, when he decided to give away 5,000 bottles of his fragrance, that they would go so fast.
"We did it in on a trial basis. We said let's give away 5,000 small bottles of perfume so people can remember how wonderful Oscar is. (Not myself, the fragrance.) I said 5,000 small bottles will go maybe three, four, five weeks. People got into the internet and it was given away in less than two days. This is the power or reaching to people today which is unbelievable. There are so many ways of reaching the consumer today that’s very important. Obviously the internet is one of the great, great ways of today of reaching the consumer."
Dressing first ladies is a unique process.
"When you’re presenting to a first lady, she’ll come and choose the clothes from your collection. Its very different in France than in the U.S. because every first lady has to pay for their clothes. I don’t know, there’s a learning process — here, the president was elected, she was not, and there’s a learning process and some do it better than others."
Can you guess what one of his proudest achievements in fashion design is?
"One of the things I'm most proud is that at one time I was asked by a school to redesign the clothes for the boy scouts and the girl scouts. I felt that the clothes were so good there was very little I could do but make them more practical and add more pockets."
He doesn't dwell on his CFDA awards.
"That was ten years ago! Now the next ten years! I have been very lucky to have the memory of a mosquito. It happens to me so very often that I'm at some event ,and a lady will come to me and say, 'I didn’t realize you were here last night and I was wearing' — and she’ll start describing something of mine she wore the night before, and I wouldn’t have the slightest. Because you know I make hundreds and hundreds ... if I see the dress I recognize it, but it's important to look forward. Sometimes you have to look back to look forward but its important to keep your eyes open. Today, especially at my age being challenged by very young people, it's important to see what everybody else is doing and learn from that. Its all about passion."