The ‘Oscar de la Renta: The Retrospective’ exhibition at de Young Museum, San Francisco was truly special. Curated by André Leon Talley, galleries showing Oscar de la Renta’s extravagant, feminine, and elegant dresses and ensembles provided an absolutely fashionable experience. More importantly, beneath them all, the passion and kindness of the man himself shone brightly through the garments. Photos by Christian Hadidjaja.

It is a fashion exhibition unlike any other the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco hosted so far. When ‘Oscar de la Renta: The Retrospective’ exhibition was announced last year, many had been eagerly anticipating it. If you live in the Bay Area and you haven’t seen it, clear up your calendar within the next few days and go. It will be time well spent, but your time is running out. The exhibition is set to conclude on May 30, 2016.

On a first glance, it is a grand exhibition of 120+ Oscar de la Renta garments. Every single one of the garments are fine examples of his absolute focus to “design beautiful clothes for every occasion of a woman’s life.” From his early works in 1960s to beautiful ballroom gowns in 2010s, they are all phenomenal couture creations. “Sleek by day, lavish by night” is the on-point characterization of his works. However, the context surrounding this fashion exhibition makes it more precious and sentimental.

Many people have eagerly asked Mr. de la Renta to give them permission for holding a retrospective exhibition. However, Diane (Dede) B. Wilsey, Board President of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco and friend of Mr. de la Renta was the first one he said yes to. Not only that, but he also wanted her to do it at de Young museum. It was the last conversation between them, as Mr. de la Renta passed away from his illness a few months later.

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The most sentimental factor of this exhibition comes from Mr. de la Renta’s lifelong friend André Leon Talley, who curated the exhibition. The former American editor-at-large for Vogue has an unmatched knowledge of Oscar de la Renta’s career, which he gladly shares during the press preview’s Q&A session. But he also misses him dearly. In the middle of talking about his friendship with Mr. de la Renta, André Leon Talley’s voice suddenly quivered and he fought back tears saying, “He’s a wonderful man.”

How very moving and bittersweet. It was in that moment did I start to see Oscar de la Renta beyond the great couturier that he was. He was a wonderful, caring person who are truly loved by his families and friends. Oh Oscar, with your passing, we truly lost one genuinely kind soul.

“I believe that my sole purpose as a designer is to create something that I think a woman would want to wear.”
– Oscar de la Renta, 1972

It’s hard to pick favorites from the arsenal of garments on display. They are gathered from Oscar de la Renta’s company archive, personal collection, private parties, and the Fine Arts Museums’ costume collection. We took photos of the galleries that brilliantly showcase Oscar de la Renta’s design soul and sensibility. They are divided in themes – from The Beginnings, Daywear and Evening Wear, Spanish Influence, Eastern Influence, Russian Influence, Garden Collection, Vogue December 2010 Cover, and Ballroom.

While nothing beats seeing these beautiful garments up-close in person, I hope these photos we took of the ‘Oscar de la Renta: The Retrospective’ can convey fragments of wonder we experienced there. Fafafoom readers who don’t have the chance to visit the exhibition, this is for you. Enjoy!

Photos by Christian Hadidjaja.

The Beginnings

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The first room of ‘Oscar de la Renta: The Retrospective’ exhibition showcases his early works. Mr. de la Renta’s move to New York in 1963 after training and working in Europe for more than 10 years proved fruitful. He first became the designer for Elizabeth Arden’s line of made-to-order clothing, and then he began working for Jane Derby in 1965. After her passing, the company transitioned to become Oscar de la Renta’s eponymous line.

His daywear and evening garments go hand-in-hand with evolving women’s roles in society. From understated elegance to embellished extravagance, he managed to execute them all effortlessly. Diana Vreeland, Vogue’s editor-in-chief at that time is one of his earliest supporters.

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“Le Grand Divertissement à Versailles (The Battle of Versailles), was held in 1973. It’s a fashion show that “pitted American designers against their French counterparts” conceived by Eleanor Lambert, a fashion publicist who founded New York Fashion Week and Council of Fashion Designers of America (CFDA), and Gérald Van der Kemp, the chief curator at Versailles.

Oscar de la Renta represented the Americans, along with Halston, Bill Blass, Anne Klein, and Stephen Burrows. They went up ‘against’ France’s couturiers Yves Saint Laurent, Hubert de Givenchy, Emanuel Ungaro, Pierre Cardin, and for Christian Dior, Marc Bohan.

On display are the flowing chiffon and crepe de chine gowns from his Spring 1974 collection that Oscar de la Renta showcased that night. Imagine seeing these ethereal dresses, worn by an ethnically diverse group of models! They must have been quite a sight to see.


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Oscar de la Renta’s meticulous attention to details were manifested in these couture daywear garments. From the silhouettes, constructions, to embellishments, these are all designed to make modern women feel their absolute best. Was it a no-brainer that Mr. de la Renta’s success was immediate? Two coats of his collection for Elizabeth Arden were featured in Vogue in 1963, under the headline “The Clothes to Buy Right Now.”

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Evening Wear

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Oscar de la Renta’s evening wear is show-stopping fashion statements. They are tremendously glamorous and extravagant, but never too extreme. Working for Balmain in Paris from 1992 – 2002, Mr. de la Renta “had access to the finest materials and craftspersons, and his love of textiles and embellishments flourished.”

Just look at the grand wedding dress influenced by Louis XIV for his Spring 1982 collection. Or how about the ensemble of with a bodice completely covered in gilt cock feathers, which is part of his final couture collection for Balmain in Autumn/Winter 2002 – 2003? Purely divine and majestic.

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Spanish Influence

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This gallery arguably has the most passion-infused garments compared to the others. André Leon Talley recalled how deeply inspired Mr. de la Renta was by the people, customs, and history of Spain. Cristobal Balenciaga was his mentor and he loved the Spanish art, especially paintings of El Greco and Francisco de Zurbaran, as well as Diego Velazquez portraits of costumes and armors.

He loved flamenco, and his encounter with famous flamenco dancer Pilar Lopez translated to cascading ruffles in his designs. Walking through the exhibition, you can also see Oscar de la Renta’s interpretation of lavish bullfighting attires, from the fiery colors to elaborate tassels. This can be attributed to Mr. de la Renta’s experience seeing matches of one of Spain’s greatest greatest bullfighters, Antonio Ordonez in 1960s.

With that context in mind, it’s no surprise that André Leon Talley’s most favorite Oscar de la Renta look resides in this gallery. Initially, he said his most favorite is Annette de la Renta’s black evening evening dress from Oscar de la Renta’s Spring 2005 collection. André Leon Talley told a story about Mrs. de la Renta loving this dress so muchthat photographer Bill Cunningham commented he saw her in the same dress in many events and that he wanted to see her in a different Oscar de la Renta dress.

However, a last-minute addition to this exhibition made André Leon Talley changed his mind. Now his most favorite is a Oscar de la Renta for Pierre Balmain dress and bolero ensemble from the Spring/Summer 2004 collection (also owned by Annette de la Renta). The luxurious lace-like texture is actually made from raffia, constructed alongside silk, jet beads, and passementerie.

I have to agree with André; that ensemble is stunning from all levels: design, construction, texture, feel. Along with the Garden Collection room, I love this gallery the most. The passion is simply undeniable, most raw and yet so masterfully elegant and refined.

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Eastern Influence

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“I have always been attracted to the exotic, no question about it…I would always look at folklore and how people were dressed in different cultures…that’s what fascinates me.”
– Oscar de la Renta

From Middle East to Far East influences, Oscar de la Renta referred to their colorful history for his collections. Lavish embroidered textiles from China, woven ikat patterns of Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, vibrant prints from Japan, and lush paisleys of Persia became part of his signature pieces. Looking at the garments in this gallery is like receiving a crash course of fabulous fashion of the East in the eyes of Mr. de la Renta.

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Russian Influence

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In 1967, Oscar de la Renta gained his first fashion industry acknowledgment with the Coty Award for a collection inspired by Catherine the Great. His Fall 1970 collection includes a babushka and a peasant-inspired dress, as well as shimmering beaded evening dresses inspired by Leon Bakst’s costumes for Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Russia served as frequent influences to Oscar de la Renta. By mid-nineties, Oscar de la Renta had already designed many Russian-inspired haute couture collections for Pierre Balmain.

As he once stated, “Magical stories about Russia…fed my imagination and made me dream.”

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Garden Collection

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“A garden is probably the most spiritual and pure of joys. It’s a communion with nature and beauty in the most simple and fundamental form.”
– Oscar de la Renta

Oscar de la Renta was a lifelong gardener. André Leon Talley recalled how Mr. de la Renta got him to become one. Oscar de la Renta was renowned for the gardens he created at his homes in the Dominican Republic and in Kent, Connecticut. So it’s only right that these botanical themes flourished in his work; from floral-printed silk taffetas, soft ruffled necklines and blossoms, to delicate appliqued flowers.

Out of all the galleries of Oscar de la Renta: the Retrospective exhibition, this was my favorite. From the wallpaper decorations to the giant screen showing his garden, it’s so well-put, beautifully focused, and refreshing.

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Vogue December 2010 Cover

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This room displayed dresses from the Vogue December 2010 issue, which featured emerging models from China, Japan, and South Korea who were “redefining traditional concepts of beauty” based on an iconic 1948 photo by Cecil Beaton featuring Charles James dresses. This time, photographer Steven Meisel shot eight Asian models wore Oscar de la Renta Spring 2011 dresses.
The setting was a drawing room that is reminiscent of a couture house interior.

The powerful image is about both the history and the future of fashion. Decadent Oscar de la Renta evening dresses, shown in that ‘afternoon tea’ setting worn by young Asian models sporting punk-inspired hairstyles represented the traditional high-society norm with a fresh youthful edge.

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If you follow celebrity news (especially in the United States), of course you have seen many of Oscar de la Renta designs. From Taylor Swift, Karlie Kloss, Jessica Chastain, Amy Adams, to Hillary Clinton and Barbara Walters, Mr. de la Renta has a special talent of making women of all ages look absolutely beautiful and elegant. Oscar de la Renta created one of his first ball gowns for Beatrice Lodge, the daughter of John Davis Lodge, the American ambassador to Spain in 1956. Later, Vogue call him the “King of Evening,” noting that “nobody makes a woman feel more like a woman at night.”

The world’s first ladies, socialites, actresses, and models adored Oscar de la Renta. Sarah Jessica Parker, who wore a custom dress with the designer’s signature emblazoned on the train to the 2014 Met Gala, has said admiringly of him, “He makes you think you are his only customer.”
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Going to this ‘Oscar de la Renta: the Retrospective’ exhibition is very inspiring and yet very bittersweet. Yes, the ensembles and dresses are very beautiful; they are only a sliver of treasured legacy of a great American couturier. His amazing list of patrons no doubt love his work immensely. However, it is sad to know that someone with that caliber of talent AND kindness is no longer with us. André Leon Talley’s emotional pain of losing his good friend was still raw, no matter how briefly he showed it during the press conference. And I believe that compassion is what made him so dearly missed, so special as a person and not just as a fashion designer for people who did not get to know him personally.

The initial era of Oscar de la Renta label has ended, and it is up to Creative Director Peter Copping to shape the next era of Oscar de la Renta. The world is looking forward to it.

Thanks for reading; until next time,

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