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Oscar de la Renta: A Look Back

A disciple of Cristóbal Balenciaga, Oscar de la Renta was much admired for his technique -- and adored for his kindly charm.

In the history of American fashion, Oscar de la Renta will loom large.

De la Renta was born in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, on July 22, 1932 to an influential Dominican-Puerto Rican family. His dreams took him far, and early: At 17, he enrolled at the Academy of San Fernando in Madrid to study painting, and began sketching dresses on the side. Through family friends, his sketches were seen by the wife of the U.S. ambassador to Spain, who asked De la Renta to design a dress for her debutante daughter, Beatrice Cabot Lodge. A photograph of the dress landed on the cover of Life magazine in 1956, and not long after, De la Renta was learning fashion design at the hands of Cristóbal Balenciaga, and later, as a couture assistant under Antonio Castillo at Lanvin in Paris.

A ready-to-wear designer, De la Renta's couture training always showed. Whatever the fashion of the moment, his garments were always constructed, shaping the female body into something more perfect and swan-like than its natural shape allowed. "I don’t really know how to do casual clothes," he told WWD in 2005.

It was Diana Vreeland who encouraged De la Renta to move to New York in 1963, promising (and shrewdly so) that he'd get better exposure working under Elizabeth Arden in New York than at a big house in Paris. "She is not a designer, so she will promote you," she said. "At the other place, you will always be eclipsed by the name of Dior." Two years later, he launched a label under his own name with Jane Derby, taking full control when she passed away two years later.

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Talented and debonair, De la Renta was an immediate success. "He has emerged as one of the key creative talents in American fashion," journalist Alice Hughes wrote in the Reading Eagle in 1967. "His style is rich, but restrained. He can design elaborate garments, but always uncluttered and in fine taste." In 1993, he became the creative director of Balmain for nine years -- the first Dominican to lead design at a French couture house.

Of his many career accomplishments, De la Renta seemed to be most proud of the presidential first ladies he dressed: Jacqueline Kennedy, Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan, Hillary Clinton, Laura Bush and, for the first time earlier this month, Michelle Obama. And those who were proudest to wear Oscar might have been the many women who were married in his dresses, most recently human rights lawyer Amal Alamuddin, who wed George Clooney in an Oscar gown in Venice, Italy, late last month.

After nearly a decade-long battle with cancer, De la Renta passed away in his home in Kent, Connecticut, on the evening of October 20. There are only a few American designers whose labels have endured their passing, namely Liz Claiborne, Bill Blass and Halston. De la Renta's fashion house will also live on. Last week, the company announced that Peter Copping is the new creative director of the house. He will show his first collection for the label in New York in February.

I knew Oscar de la Renta hardly at all, but to me, growing up reading Vogue in southern California, there was no one more glamorous nor esteemed in American fashion, no one whose show I dreamt more of seeing some day. I feel enormously privileged that I got that chance. However crowded or monotonous the fashion week schedule, taking the 25 flights up to Oscar's show always felt special, out of time -- sometimes, like stepping into a courtier's salon of decades past. People dressed up for it. And Oscar was always there, greeting guests, a grandfatherly twinkle in his eye for those who, like me, were too young and intimidated to thank him for having us.