Oscar de la Renta's Last Stand Against Slobs

Bloomberg View , October 21, 2014

When fashion designer Oscar de la Renta died Monday, he left neatly resolved two issues that might have otherwise marred his legacy.

The first was the question of who would succeed him. Many a fashion house has been thrown into chaos by the death of its founder. But last week, Oscar de la Renta LLC, the privately held company headed by de la Renta’s stepson-in-law Alex Bolen, said it was appointing Peter Copping, the former artistic director of Nina Ricci, as its creative director. There will be no messy crisis this time.

The second was a matter of state. De la Renta had dressed every first lady since Jacqueline Kennedy -- except Michelle Obama. To have the stylish first lady shun the dean of American fashion was tantamount to a public feud. Two weeks ago, the conflict ended when Mrs. Obama wore an Oscar de la Renta dress to a White House cocktail party filled with fashion insiders. Her appearance in the crisply tailored black cocktail dress embellished with silver and blue flowers -- a quintessential de la Renta balance of precise lines with ornamentation and color -- preserved the designer’s White House legacy.

The clean resolution of these two issues shortly before de la Renta’s passing befits the grace of his life’s work.

But a cultural question remains: Will the American fashion industry ever tolerate another de la Renta? His brand will continue, but the classic elegance for which he was known is as old-fashioned as it is beloved. It defies the prestige accorded to innovators who “move fashion forward” rather than simply creating fresh collections. Michelle Obama wouldn’t have won all those plaudits as a fashion leader if she’d worn his dresses and followed his rules. She would have merely been another tastefully attired Hillary Clinton or Laura Bush.

In addition, de la Renta’s work was out of step with the relentless march of informality. “I don’t really know how to do casual clothes,” the designer admitted in 2005. Nor did he seem to value them. In 2009, he criticized the first lady for wearing a J. Crew cardigan during a visit to Queen Elizabeth. A cardigan might be a staple of contemporary office dress (no longer called “business casual”), but in de la Renta’s eyes serious affairs demanded something structured.

“Whatever the fashion of the moment, his garments were always constructed, shaping the female body into something more perfect and swan-like than its natural shape allowed,” observed Fashionista editor-in-chief Lauren Indvik in her memorial. That artifice is why his clothes could project power despite his fondness for flowers and frills.

His clothes were pretty, but they were also disciplined. They embodied the ideal contained in the word often used to describe them: ladylike. “If you don’t dress well every day, you lose the habit,” he told the Telegraph’s Lisa Armstrong in a long 2013 interview. Americans, male and female, mostly have.

Once liberating, the drive toward informal attire, exemplified by hoodies in Silicon Valley, flip flops in Los Angeles, and sweaters on state visits, has become a new form of oppressive conformity. Dressing down is de rigueur.

De la Renta stood against that trend. Now that he’s gone, perhaps there’s an opportunity for a transgressive young designer to do something really daring: Get us to dress up again.