"Here's to the ladies who lunch," sang Elaine Stritch in the Stephen Sondheim musical "Company."
It's a fitting refrain for designer Oscar de la Renta, who dressed women atop the social hierarchy from New York to Paris in his singular vision of opulent and luxurious glamour for more than five decades.
A legend of American fashion, de la Renta died Monday of complications from cancer. He was 82.
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Attending a showing by de la Renta during New York Fashion Week came with a sense of occasion. From the simple invitation printed on heavy stock to the unadorned venues, the clothing was always the focus: be it a decadently ruched or draped evening gown in fuchsia, or chic suit for day in wool bouclé. His front rows were occupied by those who did indeed lunch at Le Cirque, the Colony Club and La Côte Basque, but also by today's corporate titans, movie stars and pop icons.
Free of the histrionics that accompany much of what comprises modern fashion, de la Renta was a style constant in an industry obsessed with the next big thing. Not that he was ever stagnant, as a designer or as a business entrepreneur. But like those fabled ladies, his clothes carried a sense of old-world manners, of feminine allure, of a time when dressing meant more than throwing on any old, or new, thing. For de la Renta, being appropriately attired was key.
"I am not interested in shock tactics. I just want to make beautiful clothes," he once told reporters, though he was never foolish enough to believe that the garment was ne plus ultra. "A runway is spectacle," de la Renta said per The New York Times. "It’s only fashion when a woman puts it on."
It was the women, his customers, for whom he worked so hard: Whether a jet-set dowager slipping on his narrow-shouldered jackets and buttoning up his silk taffeta gowns, or a corporate-ladder-climbing New York denizen splurging on a wedding-perfect cocktail dress from his diffusion line for Saks or Bergdorfs.
With one gracefully shod foot planted in the past—born in the Dominican Republic, he worked for Paris couture houses including Balenciaga and Lanvin in the 1950s and '60s before launching his namesake collection in New York in 1965—de la Renta continually stepped forward to embrace modernity in all its forms, be it the latest in fabric innovation or the hot social media platform.
He dressed four American first ladies: Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush and, for the first time only a month before his passing, Michelle Obama. His most recent sartorial coup was to outfit human rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin for her September wedding to Hollywood actor George Clooney in Venice.
De la Renta was a favorite of fashion icon and former Vogue and Harper's Bazaar editor Diana Vreeland, as he was with Anna Wintour, the current editor-in-chief of American Vogue. Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA) Executive Director Fern Mallis called him "the sultan of suave."
To most Americans he was, and will remain, a one name brand. Like Calvin (Klein), Ralph (Lauren), Halston, (Geoffrey) Beene, Isaac (Mizrahi) or (Bill) Blass, in fashion parlance there is only one Oscar.
To paraphrase Sondheim and those elegantly attired ladies: Here's to Mr. de la Renta. Everybody rise.