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Oscar de La Renta deals in dreams

THE BALTIMORE SUN

For more than 40 years, Oscar de la Renta has been in the business of making women fall in love. He doesn't rely on flowers, candlelight dinners or the myriad other methods of romantic trickery. Instead, he's called on a glorious silk brocade jacket, a cape of warm cashmere or a fairytale evening gown with fluttering ostrich feathers to help him win the hearts of countless women.

When designing, he says, he anticipates the moment that a woman meets a beautiful dress.

"I always say, 'Creating clothes is like falling in love,' " de la Renta says during a recent visit to Saks Fifth Avenue in Chevy Chase. "You go to a store to buy a lipstick or whatever and then you see one dress and you didn't go to the store to get a dress. But then you fall in love, you can't resist and you do whatever you can to get it.

"You have to tempt people," he says. "Make them dream."

And de la Renta has been one of the most successful designers at doing just that in recent fashion history.

Since his business was established in 1965, the 70-year-old Dominican Republic native has built an empire worth an estimated $650 million last year based on his simple philosophy. In the fickle world of fashion, decades and designers have come and gone but one thing has remained constant -- de la Renta's $7,000 to $16,000 evening gowns continue to be coveted by First Ladies, socialites, celebrities and (very successful) working women. And his elegantly tailored separates and ladies' lunch suits have remained such must-haves that he says he's selling more today than he ever has.

Along the way, he's earned several fashion awards -- including the Council of Fashion Designers Lifetime Achievement Award -- and expanded his creative vision to include forays into accessories, perfume and bridal. Until recently, he also designed for the French house of Balmain. Last fall, de la Renta launched a new home furnishings line that will be available soon in stores, including Baltimore's Shofer's Furniture.

"I'm always full of projects," he says. "I have my homes in New York and in the country. And they've been greatly photographed, so the consumer that I make clothes for knows very much what my lifestyle is all about and so many people have asked me, 'Well, why don't you do furniture?' "

Learned from Balenciaga

Growing up in Santo Domingo, de la Renta didn't envision the success he's had. The son of an insurance executive father and a homemaker mother, de la Renta was the youngest in the family with six sisters ahead of him and had his heart set on becoming a painter. At 18, he left to study painting at Madrid's Academy of San Fernando and began working as a fashion illustrator on the side to make money for school. During a stint with Spain's most famous couturier, Cristobal Balenciaga, he realized he wanted to design.

"I was really able to learn my craft," at Balenciaga, he says, "how clothes were cut, how clothes were made and, most important, see the master himself teaching."

In the late '50s, he moved to Paris to pursue his new calling when he landed a couture assistant position at the House of Lanvin. In 1963, he moved to America and, two years later, established his own fashion house.

The secret to de la Renta's long-lasting appeal, perhaps, can be found in his manner. Tall, dashing, olive-skinned and always dapper in custom-made suits from Spain, de la Renta cuts a striking swath when he walks into a room. At Saks Fifth Avenue, he looks impeccable in a navy pinstripe suit, bearing a Cary Grant air of old-style sophistication.

He may be the VIP, but that doesn't mean he's going to enter a room before a woman. Instead, he steps back and gently guides her through the door, his hand in the small of her back.

It's the rare gentility in de la Renta that draws people to him. And it's that very quality that makes his collections special. Whether he's designing suits, frocks or his signature evening gowns, he does it with the flair of a man who remembers well an era in which dressing up was the norm and women had the time to work at looking beautiful every day.

"I started designing clothes on my own back in 1965, and obviously that consumer has changed tremendously," he says. "The consumer that I dressed then is, today, on the list of endangered species. Back in 1965, probably the woman who bought my clothes or Bill Blass's clothes was the woman whose first order of the day was to dress in a nice suit and go have lunch with her friend. That woman today no longer really exists because the most important consumer today is a professional woman."

Consistent style

Shawny Burns, spokeswoman for Saks Fifth Avenue, says de la Renta has remained popular with shoppers for decades because his style is consistent.

"A lot of designers change their look a lot, they change the silhouette, they vary hemlines, they do something outrageous to be out there," Burns says. But de la Renta "really does it through fabric and texture and colors. It's changing, but it's always luxurious and always looks good.

"I've been in fashion for over 20 years and in that time period, (his clothes) always look good -- always," she adds. "And his collections are always so vast, there are a lot of looks and he has things that appeal to a younger customer, but yet he doesn't forget the woman who has been shopping with him for 20-plus years."

And in recent years, de la Renta has found fans in It-celebrities like Sarah Jessica Parker and Diane Lane, who have chosen his creations for walks down the red carpet. In November, when Halle Berry flew to London to meet the Queen, she chose a crisp white de la Renta gown dressed up with sharp, black embroidery.

"That dress was seen all over the world," de la Renta says. "She looked great. And finally, when I met her, I said, 'I have to tell you that you made me lose a lot of business because so many women who had ordered that dress, after seeing you in it, they canceled their orders!' Because she just looked so great and people said, 'Well, I can never look this good.' "

For all his successes, de la Renta may take the greatest joy in a project close to his heart -- La Casa del Nino, an orphanage he opened in Santo Domingo.

He's often said he loves children -- he has an adopted son and three stepchildren, including Eliza Reed, who works in his company -- with second wife, Annette. During his recent trip to the Washington area, he took time out to meet with fashion design students at Marymount University in Arlington, Va. There, he sat in a room, flipping through portfolios, doling out advice.

When he found out the students don't have much money to buy good fabric, he balked. "It makes it so much more difficult," he says. Immediately, he offered to send the college some of his leftover fabric.

But the biggest lesson they could learn from him probably comes from the example he's set.

"I come from a little island and I succeeded," he says, "so there's a chance for everyone."

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