There is something to be said about strength in numbers, when you are dealing with news you may not want to believe. Monday evening, after it was announced that Oscar de la Renta died at the age of 82, I was logged into Instagram and Twitter with all the others, looking at photos of the iconic fashion designer and feeling a sense of shock and sadness for this man whose strong vision of femininity had shaped my childhood.
I texted my mom first, continuing in our tradition, the reluctant bearer of fashion deaths–a phone call when Versace died in the '90s, and another phone call when McQueen died in the '00s. I texted a friend and my boyfriend. My friend had the same reaction I did, but then added, "He was 82!" and it's true, he was, and no one lives forever. But we were still in a weird state of disbelief. My mom texted back, "what happened?!?!," like he was someone she knew personally. "He was chic in everything," she added, "and what a great dancer!" Which was said in every article written about him, so it must've been true.
When I read about his death, though, the first person I thought of was my grandmother. I could hear her voice in my head saying "Oscar" over and over again. I don't know at what point in my life I picked up this little recording, but it's accompanied by a hazy memory of her dresser, where she kept a bottle of "Oscar," one of de la Renta's signature scents, next to the jewelry case shaped like a shrunken wardrobe, with tiny braided wooden doors with tiny drawers. "Oscar" came in a beautiful crystal bottle in the shape of a flower, its topper frosted glass petals flowing in the wind. Even before I knew about fashion, I associated his name with the maximum performance of femininity—after all, no woman is more elegant than my grandmother, who wears lipstick and high heels to go to the grocery store. That's how clear he was with his message: I understood to associate the name "Oscar de la Renta" with "pretty dresses" even before I understood what Oscar de la Renta, the design house, actually meant.
Another thing about de la Renta is that he was one of us, at least in theory. Growing up in Puerto Rico, that tiny island in the Caribbean, we had an utmost sense of pride about the our own people out there in the world doing great things. de la Renta was Dominican, sure, but as much as Puerto Ricans and Dominicans like to fake-beef with each other, there is a sense of brotherhood that accompanies us all, like cousins who pick on each other but love each other nonetheless. Yes, de la Renta came from a privileged background, but he still managed to make it from the Dominican Republic, to Spain and Paris and to New York. One of us.
As I grew up and got into fashion, I got to know what de la Renta "was," and it was definitely more than just "pretty dresses." One of my earliest memories of his work is a picture that ran in Vogue: three models sit on a bench in a secret garden that looks like something from the movie, in a world unto their own. They are all wearing matching Oscar gowns—long, silk, and floral-printed, with skirts so big the fabric folds into itself at their feet many times over. Their shoulders are trimmed in matching fur. I am eight, I think, and I cannot stop staring at the picture, getting lost in the fabric, examining the differences between each dresses, ascribing characteristics to each girl, trying on each dress in my head, imagining an ideal version of me. The dresses are inspired by another time—and yet their defiant attitude seems to me resolutely modern.
That is the legacy that de la Renta leaves, the spirit that he worked for in his life. His clothes remain largely aspirational. They are aspirational because they are rooted in an ideal version of womanhood, with proper ball gowns for galas and colorful suits for the office (ask Hillary Clinton). Every garment has a place. He loved women: you can tell by his clothes, and from the stories you hear about how he cherished his wife Annette de la Renta. He aimed to elevate women into the best possible versions of themselves, whether they needed to be that best version for business or pleasure. He created clothes for women, from twenty-somethings like Taylor Swift to seventy-somethings and beyond, never obliging them to change for the sake of whatever trend happens to be currently sweeping Hollywood (although he dressed many a leading lady, of course). He was invested in the women he dressed.
Oscar's last collection had me dreaming about white lace and blue gingham. It was uplifting and fun but there was still a level of fantasy involved—wherever could I wear those gowns? It reminded me of an image by Annie Leibovitz in which de la Renta is sitting at the side of his pool, his feet dangling in the water. Three women dressed in long gowns stand at the corner opposite him, like Boticelli's Three Muses, and the dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov is perfectly captured in mid-air as he does a perfect dive into the pool. It was de la Renta's world, surrounded by beauty and wonder, and he in the middle of it all, enjoying it like a little kid.
Image via AP, Text by Jim Cooke.