NEW YORK (AP) — Fun, sunny, romantic. Oscar de la Renta approached fashion and life on those terms, but there was more, so much more, those who loved and admired the designer say.
The “more,” Vogue’s Anna Wintour wrote Tuesday on the magazine’s website, was “democratic.”
By that, she meant de la Renta possessed the sensibility, the ease, to dine with the rich and famous but happily play dominoes with his staff.
The “more,” to others, was his desire to make women feel feminine and pretty, and not just a coterie of first ladies and socialites.
Laura Bush favored de la Renta, and so does her daughter, Jenna, who was emotional Tuesday during a “Today” show appearance in describing the close friendship that developed when he created her wedding gown.
“It was the first dress he showed me. I put it on and he said, ‘And now to the most important accessory,’ and he handed me his arm and he said, ‘The man.’ And so I put my arm in his arm and I got to walk through his showroom with Oscar de la Renta.”
De la Renta, at 82, died Monday at home in Kent, Connecticut, surrounded by family, friends and his beloved dogs after more than four decades in the fashion industry. A handwritten statement signed by his stepdaughter Eliza Reed Bolen and her husband, Alex Bolen, did not specify a cause of death, but de la Renta had spoken in the past of having cancer.
Wintour wrote that his strength, his courage, “must have been with him in the hospital last week when he made the decision to turn off treatment; it was not the quality of life he wanted.”
Eveningwear was de la Renta’s specialty, though he also was known for chic daytime suits worn by ladies who lunch. His signature looks were voluminous skirts, exquisite embroideries and rich colors.
Suzy Menkes, the respected British fashion journalist, called de la Renta the American Valentino.
“He knew his clients. He dined with his clients and holidayed with his clients,” she said. His early training “put Oscar in the category of haute couture, something that never really existed in American fashion, which was focused more on sportswear.”
Designer Donna Karan called de la Renta the “ultimate ladies’ man,” adding: “Oscar was an amazing designer because he lived in the present, always moving forward. To be dressed by Oscar was the ultimate in fashion.”
Earlier this month, first lady Michelle Obama notably wore a de la Renta dress for the first time. He had criticized her several years earlier for not wearing an American designer to a state dinner in 2011.
“Oscar de la Renta truly was the ultimate diplomat for American fashion,” said Eric Wilson, the fashion news director for InStyle magazine. “Much like his designs … Oscar himself projected an image of elegance,”
Ruthie Friedlander, deputy editor for Elle.com, understands the “more” that set de la Renta apart. It was about women and his ability to understand their beauty.
“You could picture yourself wearing his clothes, even if you didn’t have an occasion for them. It might have been aspirational, but he had a piece for you in there somewhere,” she said.
The designer’s path to New York’s Seventh Avenue took an unlikely route: He left his native Dominican Republic at 18 to study painting in Spain, but soon became sidetracked by fashion, launching his own label in 1965.
He told The Associated Press in 2004 that his Hispanic roots had worked their way into his designs.
“I like light, color, luminosity. I like things full of color and vibrant,” he said.
While de la Renta made Manhattan his primary home, he often visited the Dominican Republic and kept a home there. Wintour, Vogue’s editor in chief, was a frequent visitor and she has said traveling with him was like traveling with the president.
She and daughter Bee paid a visit to his country home in the northwestern Connecticut town of Kent, where gardening and dancing were among his favorite diversions.
“We laughed about Bee’s love life. He gave her advice, and then he said he had a dream to see the allee and pond he had just designed on the grounds,” Wintour wrote. “He could no longer move, so we went out and took pictures on his iPad for him to see and ate a chicken sandwich with Annette (his wife) and Janet, his extraordinary nurse. His last words to me were I love you, and I said I love you back.”
Ralph Lauren grew up with de la Renta in the fashion world and, like, Wintour, mourns a friend.
“His generosity touched not only his friends and family, but extended quietly to those in need that he would never meet,” he said.
Other designers also spoke to his great presence in fashion.
“Oscar was a couturier, an artist, a gentleman, a true Renaissance man,” Diane von Furstenberg said.
Michael Kors said he was the “quintessential gentleman.”
Dominican President Danilo Medina said Tuesday that the country also is in mourning for de la Renta, both as a symbol of national pride and for improving the lives of children through his charitable work.
“In addition to raising the profile of the Dominican Republic thanks to his art and talent, he has been a great defender of the national interests,” Medina said via Twitter.
Valerie Steele, director of The Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology, sees the “more” of de la Renta in the expanse of influences he soaked in.
“Oscar was a designer who really combined Spanish, Parisian and American sensibility in fashion,” she said. “The time he spent studying with Balenciaga in Spain, the work in Paris and the tremendous success in New York all ended in creating an international style, one that focused very much on the idea of feminine beauty.”
A beauty that stemmed from a love of women.
“He never shied away from saying what he did was make pretty dresses,” Steele said. “The goal of the pretty dresses was to make women look pretty. He would dress a woman, her daughter and her granddaughter and they would all feel happy.”
Associated Press writers Jocelyn Noveck and Thomas Adamson contributed to this report.