Mais Oui, OSCAR!

The first American to head a Paris couture house, Oscar de la Renta scores in his debut show

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Born in the Dominican Republic, de la Renta has spent most of his adult life in New York City and became a U.S. citizen in 1971. He and his wife embody the ideal that wealthy, socially ambitious Manhattanites aspire to: a combination of grand luxe and good works. Annette is vice chairman of the board of trustees of the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Oscar is on the Metropolitan Opera and Carnegie Hall boards. With friends ranging from Henry Kissinger to Brooke Astor to Isaac Stern, the couple's evenings are a round of rarefied dinners and benefit galas. These days, de la Renta likes to retreat to his spread in northwest Connecticut, where his eight-year-old adopted son, a Santo Domingo foundling, lives. But the family is looking for a place in Paris too; one can put up at the Ritz for only so long.

Roughly 36 hours to go before the collection has to be packed up for the defile, or fashion show. The action has picked up. The main salon is littered with piles of cartwheel raffia hats and with shoes that definitely were not made for walking. Almost none of the outfits is complete, but the runway models -- pricey, preening, lovely -- are arriving for fittings.

Shalom, an Israeli who appears to be made of porcelain, is clearly de la Renta's favorite. "Shalom, Shalom, Shalom," he sings as he dances around her, pinning and adjusting. She is wearing the wedding dress that traditionally ends couture shows. De la Renta's gossamer touch with wedding dresses is so renowned that Pebbles Flintstone, Fred and Wilma's daughter, has chosen him to create the gown for her marriage to Bamm-Bamm Rubble (Feb. 7, abc ).

Suddenly, Shalom's agency calls: she is overdue at Valentino's show, and "he is freaking." She is unimpressed; maybe Valentino does not sing to her. Her last costume is a sexy sheath with a deep decolletage. There is some consternation because she does not fill it. Perhaps another model should cruise the runway in this slinky number. "Are your tits as big as Kristin's?" demands one of the American assistants. More ruffled than she was by Valentino's summons, she whispers, "I think so."

De la Renta seized upon the Balmain offer in part because he felt he needed a fresh challenge. He has certainly found one. The fashion world has been wringing its hands over the troubles of couture -- handmade clothing fitted specifically to the customer's body -- for more than two decades now. The creations are expensive: roughly $5,500 for a suit, $13,000 for a simple evening dress, up to $75,000 for a ball gown. To call the industry labor- intensive is a grand understatement. No couturier makes money out of the enterprise. As Pierre Berge, Yves Saint Laurent's business partner, puts it, "You lose money every day, and the more you sell the more you lose. There are just not enough customers."

So why would Balmain be pinning such high hopes on de la Renta -- or on anyone? Because the prestige and glamour of couture help a fashion house sell its more profitable ready-to-wear clothing, accessories such as scarves and jewelry, and perfume (on which Saint Laurent, among many others, has made millions). Some designers also sell their name in lucrative franchise deals involving goods like sheets and chocolates. Says de la Renta: "In the luxury business, couture is still the best way to create and sustain an image."

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