Remembering Oscar de la Renta’s Legendary Career

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The crowd at the SCAD Museum of Art's private opening for the "Oscar de la Renta: His Legendary World of Style" exhibit on Wednesday night was a sea of color and iconic Oscar prints. It seemed everyone in Savannah, along with plenty of visitors from parts north, broke out their ODLR finery for the big night. The attendees' personal connection to the designer was appropriate, given that the show itself felt like a celebratory window into the closets of some of the late designer's most beloved clients.

André Leon Talley — a close lifelong friend of the late designer's and a trustee of SCAD — curated the exhibit. As a result, the show felt more like an emotional look through a very specific lens — in some cases, Talley was there to see the designs germinate from the original sketches — than a comprehensive, career-spanning retrospective. The 50 dresses on display were carefully winnowed down, with pieces lent by A-list celebrities (Taylor Swift, Sarah Jessica Parker, Nicole Kidman, Beyoncé, Oprah, and Kirsten Dunst), First Ladies (Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush), and a number of anonymous clients. De la Renta's love of powerful women came across in the sheer breadth of clients he dressed over the course of his career. 

Talley arranged the pieces into vignettes, so, for example, a mannequin wearing Clinton's velvet gown lounged on a divan in a semi-re-creation of the 1998 Vogue cover she wore it on, while another section devoted to bridal gowns paid homage to Miranda Brooks's rustic wedding with bales of hay and a wheelbarrow. The vignettes and the careful curation helped the exhibit feel dynamic and personal. Classic de la Renta motifs stood out — his love of flamenco ruffles came across in a cluster of red gowns, while his penchant for bows was illustrated by two strong-shouldered gowns formerly worn by Lauren Santo Domingo. (Gowns and cocktail dresses were the focus; there was only one pair of pants on display in the whole show.) Certain other choices were more surprising: The oldest piece in the show, a 1960s black dress with a Peter Pan collar, was a comparatively sober design from an otherwise print- and color-heavy career.

Talley, who is also at work on a book about the designer, to be published by Rizzoli in the fall, said in a statement, “With Oscar de la Renta, you always felt life was lived in the sun. He loved his family and filled life with beauty from his gardens, his collections, paintings and music.” That joy, and that feeling of beautiful clothes as one element of a beautiful, aesthetically perfected life, was palpable throughout.

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