Oscar de la Renta celebrates an impressive career of half a century in fashion design

This year marks Oscar de la Renta’s 50th anniversary designing clothes in New York. At age 80, he continues to sit atop the fashion world—when he’s not, sometimes mischievously, having his way with it.

The most recent headline: his decision to have John Galliano as a temporary employee in the run-up to Fashion Week. (“I love it here,” Galliano said when I visited the De la Renta studio, as he headed off to lunch in a Dr. Seussian hat.) For some observers, this is too generous, too soon. They cannot pardon Galliano’s anti-Semitic outburst at a Paris café that cost him not only his job at Dior but his own label. It’s an incident that Galliano, then heavily under the influence, cannot remember, nor probably ever will, although he’s seen the infamous video. That isn’t John Galliano, Galliano commented at the time, “it’s the shell of John Galliano.” But for Galliano’s closest friends, De la Renta’s support is well deserved. They had long tried to get him help, and when he finally hit bottom, there was a sort of upside-­down relief: The designer hadn’t, high or drunk, gotten behind the wheel of a car. His crime was words, and no one died.

Naturally, the news has led to all sorts of rumors. First and foremost: Will Galliano succeed De la Renta some day? De la Renta is perfectly happy to address the subject of his current studio-mate. But we’re really here to talk about him. The youngest child of seven and the only son of a prosperous family in Santo Domingo, De la Renta grew up with a father who wanted him to join his insurance business, not study art. Fortunately, his mother encouraged him otherwise, but she would die from complications of multiple sclerosis when Oscar was 18.

The next year, he left home for Madrid to study art. His sisters would send him small amounts of money, a secret their father wasn’t to know. He got a job sketching with Cristóbal Balenciaga in 1957, then with Antonio Castillo at Lanvin in Paris. In 1963, with three letters of introduction, one to Diana Vreeland, one to Alexander Liberman, and one to John Fairchild, he came to New York. Within 24 hours, he was offered his first job here: designing Elizabeth Arden’s made-to-­order clothing in her Fifth Avenue boutique. Two years later, he was designing his own ready-to-wear collections. Now he heads a $600 million-a-year business. And all along the way, he befriended many of the most compelling and stylish women in the world, and married two: his first wife, Françoise de Langlade, an editor-in-chief for French Vogue and editor at large for U.S. Vogue who died in 1983, and his wife Annette, the New York philanthropist whom he married in 1989.

For the past several years, he has been receiving treatment for cancer (he reports that he is “totally clean for the time being”), while working on everything from his line to a revised edition of the 2002 book Oscar. He spoke about fashion present and future, about where women have gone, and how men have sometimes lagged behind.

You’re also forgiving. So, what’s it like having John Galliano here?

I think John is one of the most talented men I’ve ever met. I like him very much. The years I was doing Balmain in Paris, I went many times with Anna [Wintour] to his shows. It is so strange to me what people who don’t know Anna think of her. She is so wrongly guessed. She is the most wonderful person, so smart, and so funny, and an unbelievably loyal friend. So when Anna asked me if I would have John in my studio, I said yes. I also believe that everyone should have a second chance, especially someone as talented as John. And he has worked so hard on his recovery.

There’s been talk that John might have a permanent place in your studio. Do you think there are enough similarities between you and John to warrant that speculation?

I think the only similarities between me and John is that we both love what we do. I think we’re both learning from each other. I like hearing what he thinks should be changed and improved about each piece we are showing in the fall collection. I am not a loner. In fact, my Achilles’ heel is being alone. I’ve said that when I am designing a collection, I wish the Virgin Mary would sit next to me.

Would you like him to continue working with you after Fashion Week?

I would love for him to stay. Will he? I cannot tell you that today. Because we haven’t gone that far in really discussing it. The fact is we work very differently in New York than in Paris. It’s night and day. We work at a much faster pace. So the answer is we don’t know. We’re still exploring.

You’ve dressed every First Lady since Mrs. Kennedy—except for Michelle Obama, at least not yet. You questioned her decision to wear an informal cardigan sweater with her outfit when she visited Buckingham Palace to meet the queen, and you questioned her choice to not wear a dress by an American designer for the White House state dinner for Chinese president Hu Jintao. Instead she wore a red-to-black long dress by Sarah Burton/Alexander McQueen. Some have said that the reason you’ve criticized Mrs. Obama is because she hasn’t worn your clothes.

Let me tell you about Mrs. Obama, because I really feel bad about it. Journalists only use what they need, and it is often out of context. When the Obamas went to Buckingham Palace on their first trip to Europe, I got a call from Women’s Wear Daily. Unfortunately, I talk too much. Always. I never try to bullshit people. I remember I went on and on praising Mrs. Obama, but then I didn’t want to sound like a bag of saccharine, so I said that some First Ladies—after all, they aren’t elected—do it all very well right away, and for others there is a learning curve. I said I didn’t think Mrs. Obama should have touched the queen on her shoulder and that one shouldn’t wear a cardigan sweater to Buckingham Palace. Unfortunately, WWD did not print my whole story, just my criticism. That I regret.

One more “controversy”: In September, Cathy Horyn reviews your spring runway shows and says that you are more a hot dog than an éminence grise of American fashion. You respond by taking out a full-page ad in Women’s Wear Daily—an open letter to Horyn asking how she’d like it if you called her a three-day-old hamburger.

You know, I had a ball writing that letter. I think that Cathy is one of the best fashion writers there’s ever been, but I don’t think we see fashion the same way. Our jobs are very different. I called her and asked her to have lunch with me. My job is what my job has always been. It’s having a true sense and understanding of who my consumer is. That woman isn’t going to buy my dress because of what a journalist writes. She is going to buy it because she saw it on a hanger in a store or online and she liked it. My job is to make the woman fall in love with what I am doing.

What are some of the favorite ­pieces you’ve designed over the years?

I don’t have any favorites. Not until Alex [Bolen, now CEO] joined the company in 2003 did we even have an archive. Alex was appalled. He started buying pieces at auction or from vintage dealers. When I see these things, I think some are horrible. I always thought that in fashion, the most important thing is to move on. I think there are two kinds of designers: the survivors, like me, and the designers who so strongly identify with one look and one period in their careers that they can never get beyond it. I also have the memory of a mosquito, so the most important piece is the next piece, and the next collection, because I cannot remember the last.

Still, let’s go back in time a bit. What was your first apartment in New York?

About six weeks after I started working at Elizabeth Arden, earning $700 a week—a fortune then—I found a rental in a brownstone on East 65th between Park and Lexington. It was a “ballroom and bathroom,” a phrase Niki de Gunzburg, the great Vogue editor, used to describe this type of converted brownstone apartment: basically just one big room.

Just how different was the New York fashion world then?

In 1963, fashion was very different. There are many parallels as to what happened in American fashion and what happened for women in those years. When I first came to New York, the big brands were all the names of manufacturers, like Ben Zuckerman. The designer was the little guy in the back. Probably Norman Norell was the only great American designer anyone could name. But I remember him buying clothes at Balenciaga to copy, and in my mind, this isn’t a true sense of creativity. John Fairchild has to be credited with giving designers any credibility. He returned from his years in Paris to run his family’s newspaper business, Women’s Wear Daily, and he said to the manufacturers that he wasn’t interested in them. He was interested in the people designing the clothes.

How does this parallel with the history of American women?

Just as designers were allowed out of the workrooms and were becoming known, it was the emergence of the working woman. The ladies who lunch is one of the corniest phrases and one I deeply hate.

WN: How so?

ODLR: Because it doesn’t exist, not anymore. Whether the woman is working for a salary or working as a volunteer, what’s important in the modern history of American fashion is the emergence of a woman who is no longer a socialite.

Do you ever miss any of the ways capital-S society was conducted here? The mood? The manners?

I really hate nostalgia. I don’t look at the world today and say, Oh, what a pity there are no Babe Paleys around. That’s not how to live your life. And the only manners I am interested in are the manners of the heart. Besides, I don’t have the best manners. I love to tease people too much.

If I am correct, you were practically the only fashion designer he invited to his famous Black and White Ball.

I’m probably the one person still alive who went to it. Everyone talks about Truman Capote’s ball as if it was so amazing. The party really wasn’t so special. [Laughing] Françoise and I were seated at a table across from C. Z. and Cecil Beaton. When Françoise was editor of French Vogue, she didn’t use Cecil. It was the time when photographers like Henry Clarke, David Bailey, and Patrick Lichfield were making their names. Cecil was a great photographer, but the times had changed. He wasn’t happy. From the other side of the table I hear him say to C.Z., “That charming, good-looking young man”—I can’t do his voice, but you can imagine—“does he really know what he’s getting into with that terrible woman?” I got up and I did what I was going to do to you. I grabbed Cecil by the collar. C.Z. stopped me. “You’re not going to hurt my little friend Cecil, are you, Oscar?” … But let me finish about Gore and the letter he sent. At the end, he wrote, “All of what is left for me is a deep sense of jealousy for all the years you spent with her.”

Let’s talk a bit about your relationships with other designers. You’re friendly with Karl Lagerfeld, aren’t you?

I like him a lot. Karl is a very complicated man, but I admire his sense of reinventing himself all the time. He’s much, much younger than I am, you know.

The young designers in New York, like Lazaro Hernandez and Jack McCollough of Proenza Schouler, are devoted to you. What advice do you give them?

To always remain true to themselves. I think there is a lot of new young talent around, and that’s great. My only concern is, well, I became well known because I made clothes that women bought. Today, unfortunately, you can become famous before you’ve even sold one dress. That’s not good.

Where do you see the world—of fashion, of society—headed in the next 50 years?

It will go wherever women want it to go. It’s unbelievably extraordinary to remember that when I came to New York, it was a time when women couldn’t wear a pair of pants to a restaurant. What women have achieved in the last 50 years, I wish men would have achieved in the last 100. I’m sorry to say it, but we’re really stupid.

adapted from New York Magazine, February 18 issue, 2013

Oscar de la Renta with Anna Wintour, Diane Von Furstenberg and Sarah Jessica Parker