Oscar de la Renta has charmed legions of ladies into his fabulous clothes by charming their socks off. The man has it.
Tall, tanned and gracious, the designer sipped a cup of morning chocolate in the cushy surroundings of one of Georgetown's fine hostelries. He was to be honored at flag-raising ceremonies at Washington's Dominican Embassy before doing the honors at a spritz-and-sign guest appearance in Hecht's fragrance department. It was April 30 and the 17th stop in an 18-city national tour to promote his new fragrance, Volupte. He was elegantly rushed but sparkling and attentive.
That attention to detail and refinement has won him a loyal following of expensive dressers, top honors among his colleagues, friends in high places and a fashion empire that turns some $600 million annually.
He understands clothes, and he understands women -- a magic mix of talents.
"My clothes, as you well know, are expensive, and so I sell to a very select segment of affluent women. But remember, today's woman is different. She no longer has to go to the husband and ask permission to buy a dress. She buys clothes in her own right. When I started my business in 1965, probably 90 percent of my customers were women of leisure -- women who didn't work, who had rich husbands. Their only occupation every day was to get dressed and go to lunch with their friends. Today that kind of woman is virtually non-existent; she's a dying species.
"Today every woman works. She might not work for money, but she's a doer. If you want to be part of this world we live in you have to have an active part in it.
"The clothes this woman needs are very different. They have to be versatile and beautiful. She also wants clothes that have multiple purposes through many seasons."
The de la Renta collection for fall showed beautifully orchestrated suits and dresses with all elements in key. He shows the artistry; he talks reality.
"Women today build a wardrobe by adding and discarding. People are talking about longer skirts. In traveling the country, I go to cities where women have never worn short skirts. There have always been choices.
"What is important in the way we dress is a search for identity and a projection of who we are. Today a woman creates her own look. In the old times women went to a designer and ordered a suit and the hat and the gloves. Today she may choose a jacket from me and skirt from somebody else. It's an approach to fashion that is more interesting, perhaps much healthier. It gives a designer's clothes another life."
Although the Oscar de la Renta name is an American label, the designer is known for his international style. He believes that beautiful clothes have a universal language. "I no longer recognize the nationality of a woman from the way she's dressed. Professional women around the world dress the same way because their needs are the same.
"Fashion news, like other news, travels instantly. Whatever happens in Tokyo is known right away. If you read and are interested, you know the fashion story. There is no such thing as the American or European woman, although the French would love to believe that they dress better than everybody else. But that is the way the French like to think, that they are better at everything."
A wry observation from the first America-based designer to show his collection in Paris. He was a success. "They could not have been more welcoming. Paris is the undisputed international fashion capital of the world. In New York we have the Americans, in Milan the Italians. In Paris you have Italians, French, Germans, English, Japanese and now Americans because of me."
He didn't make waves in Paris, but did send elegant ripples through the European marketplace. Other designers, who marched aggressive street looks and rebellion on their runways, captured more attention.
"I understand the trends that have influenced other designers, and you see them in magazines. Where do these clothes go? I don't go to any places where I see women in chains and boots and black S&M; leather.
"That is the danger of a show in Paris. The biggest problem for me is that I have to be realistic. I can make clothes that will make the press go wild, but I have to remember that I am in this business to sell clothes, not to impress the press.
"In that sense, I am not a trendy designer. I dress a woman who has a very strong sense of herself, who only wants suggestions on what to wear."
That may hold true for the ladies who buy Oscar, but other women who fumble their way around style want advice. They want the guidelines that will lead them to fashion.
"First of all, never, ever become a victim of fashion. Always wear what you feel the most at ease and comfortable with. Buy only what suits you. If you don't want to wear short skirts because you have knobby knees, don't wear short skirts.
"I always say, 'To be well-dressed, you have to be well-naked.' I like people who are well-groomed. I like a woman who cares for herself, coifs herself, who makes up.
"I hate messy. Movie stars are the biggest messes I've ever seen. People ask me who I dressed for the Oscars and I say, 'No one.' I would hate to dress any of them.
"What I'm saying to women is buy what makes sense in your life. Try to buy quality. Always buy clothes that you can wear more than one season. If you have a limited budget, never, never buy anything trendy because it passes fast."
Mr. de la Renta would pass on the trendy squeezed look. "I like the useof stretch in fabrics. I like Lycra, but some women now are abusing Lycra, which was intended to be very modern and give a great sense of movement and ease. Ladies out there are going to die of strangulation and a lack of circulation. You see them sausaged into clothes.
"Fashion, to make sense, has to be comfortable. You have to feel sure in it, put it on and then forget about it."
Isn't the look of ripped jeans, broken-in cowboy boots and washed-out T-shirts the ultimate in comfortable style?
"It's not a question of jeans or boots; it's that they look filthy and messy. Movie stars want to be admired for their talent, but the fact is there is a public that cares for them and they are making a lot of money out of it. They owe it to their public to look good."
He has hope for the jeans crowd. "As they grow up and face the realities of life they change. The hippies of the '60s are gone. We all change. I look at old pictures of me in a mod velvet printed jacket. That's the way we dressed in the '60s, but not now. I just don't do clothes for youngsters."
Yet youngsters benefit from the sophisticated lines he sells. He is the driving force behind La Casa del Nino, a non-profit day-care facility and school for 350 children and young adults in his native Dominican Republic. He was to receive a lifetime achievement award that night from the Pan American Development Foundation at a gala and glittery affair.
Oscar de la Renta rubs elbows with the most glamorous women in the world -- divas, heiresses, artists and a royal or two, but these women do not hold the exclusive claim to elegance.
"The elegant woman today is an anonymous woman. She is walking down the street, wonderfully well-dressed, very sure of herself and looks great."
Later, in the scented cosmetics aisles at Hecht's Metro Center, women were lining up behind a velvet rope waiting to meet Oscar de la Renta. Young and old, smart and plain, they buzzed when the designer appeared. Here was the world of international high fashion in the shape of an attractive, balding, 59-year-old man with a warm accent.
He had a smile, a photo and a perfume sample for each of them. They walked away charmed, we're sure.
De la Renta for far less
The Oscar de la Renta Studio line is an option for women who want his designs but can't handle the price of his couture clothes.
Unlike some designer spin-offs, which lend the name to casual wear and jeans, the Studio label is a line copy of the designer's creations.
"Originally we were trying to make the Studio very different from the couture," says Mr. de la Renta. "Then, when I saw a lot of designers copying my couture clothes -- like Victor Costa who copies clothes exactly -- I decided it would be much better to copy myself. Obviously, we do not use the same fabrics because of the high price, but we try to bring the same looks in at a third of the cost. I can only work one way, and I do the same work in designing at a lower price."
Beyond the clothes, licensees for the de la Renta name include manufacturers of shoes, hosiery, sewing patterns, crystal, lingerie, sheets, furs, sunglasses, beauty products, luggage -- just about everything that can touch a lifestyle. --Vida Roberts