Oscar de le Renta Opens Up About John Galliano, Michelle Obama and His Battle With Cancer

The legendary designer chatted for two hours last night with Fern Mallis at the 92Y.
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The legendary designer chatted for two hours last night with Fern Mallis at the 92Y.
Oscar looking suave last night at the 92Y. Photo: Getty

Oscar looking suave last night at the 92Y. Photo: Getty

Designer talks are always fun, but they're especially fun when the guest of honor is willing to let it all hang out. Last night at the 92Y, Oscar de la Renta gave the audience two hours of real talk, delving into his early career, his first marriage to Paris Vogue editor-in-chief Françoise de Langlade and more recent, controversial topics, including his time with John Galliano, why he hasn't dressed Michelle Obama, and defeating cancer. Some highlights:

ODLR got his start doing fashion illustrations for magazines and newspapers in Madrid, where he was studying art. His first gig was at Balenciaga, where his main duties included "picking pins off of the floor."

Early in his career, he worked at Lanvin and Balenciaga and almost worked for Dior twice. Today, he's a big admirer of the designers currently installed at those houses. "All three of them are great designers. Alber is doing an extraordinary job at Lanvin. Raf Simons is very talented man. Alexander Wang I think is extremely talented. Roles have reversed--we went to France to learn the trade, and now France comes to America looking for talent."

His first wife, Paris Vogue editor-in-chief Françoise de Langlade, was 12 years his senior. "But she was 20 years my junior in spirit." De Langlade died in 1983 of bone cancer, and de la Renta believed he would never marry again. In 1989 that all changed when he fell in love with longtime friend Annette Englehard, whom he has been married to since. "I am the luckiest man in the world to have two extraordinary wives."

As for John Galliano's brief stint in his atelier: don't rule out another collaboration. "John came to me because be wanted to re-enter the business. His problems are not my problems. He's a wonderful guy, unbelievably talented, and we had a wonderful time together. It's important to have someone that challenges you—75% of the collection was done by the time he got there. But I think that there were a lot of things that John tweaked around. Everyone in life does deserve a second chance."

In 2006 he was diagnosed with cancer, which is now in remission. "I am, right now, totally clean. The only realities in life are that you are born, and that you die. You have to appreciate every single day that you're alive. Life is a little bit like a garden—you have to find time to plant the seeds for beautiful flowers to grow. I'm having a fantastic time. But I must say that I would have never been able to go through what I went through without my family and wife."

The company, which is run by his son-in-law and step-daughter (whom he lovingly refers to only as his "daughter"), is not on the market. "Not for sale. No question. Well, if there was a huge, big offer...everything is for sale! But the company is healthy, it's growing, and we don't think going public is the right path for us."

After all these years, he would still be happy to dress Michelle Obama. "Would I love to dress her? I would love to dress everybody! She's a very good-looking lady and it's her own right to wear what she wants to wear. But I was upset when the Chinese Prime Minister came to visit and she wore a foreign designer. What a lost opportunity to showcase our industry. I'm sure she didn't do it on purpose, but she was not well-advised."

ODLR wants to dress "every woman on the street." Well, sort of. "The offers have come [to do a mass collaboration] but that's not what I'm about. I want to dress everyone who can afford my clothes!" (He was sort of joking when he said that, but not really.)