He dressed every society swan under the sun — Marella Agnelli, Mica Ertegun, Jacqueline de Ribes — but Oscar de la Renta never stopped getting a thrill when he saw a woman wearing his designs. “That was the biggest thing that could happen to him, was to see someone wearing his dresses,” André Leon Talley told the audience at a panel celebrating the de Young Museum’s new retrospective on the designer. Curated by Talley, the show is organized not by dry chronology, but by mood — encompassing themes like de la Renta’s love of gardens, his Spanish and Russian influences, and his meteorlike impact on the red carpet. The show closes with a hall of mirrors showcasing some of his most recognizable looks, from Sarah Jessica Parker’s confection with a signed train to Taylor Swift’s Met Ball gown from 2014. The latter features a bow of Brobdingnagian proportions. “It could have been a disaster — it could have weighed it down like a caboose on a train,” said Talley. “But it is absolutely the most light, ethereal thing in the world.”
During the discussion, which I moderated, de la Renta creative director Peter Copping noted that what was most inspiring for him was seeing the designer’s body of work in one space. The designs that struck him most were the couture pieces he created at Balmain, where he was the head designer from 1993 to 2002. “Oscar was the most French of American designers,” Copping observed, pointing out that access to a couture atelier allowed him to indulge his love of fine embellishment to the utmost.
Still, de la Renta had a uniquely American love of informality, especially when it came mixed with equal parts luxury. Talley recalled that the designer and his wife, Annette, loved nothing more than to sit in their private suite in the Ritz hotel in Paris on Saturday nights and dine on hamburgers and creamed spinach.* And guests to their home would find that their rescue dogs were encouraged to perch on their ornate furniture.
Shortly before the exhibition was set to go up, Annette found one of her late husband’s designs at the back of her closet and brought it to San Francisco with her “on American Airlines in a garment bag,” Talley said. The dress, which appears to be made from fine lace, is actually constructed from straw, in true Rumpelstiltskin fashion. Of that high-low fusion, he said, “It’s the sum total of what Oscar stood for.”
Click through the slideshow to see more from the exhibition, which runs through May 30.