Oscar de La Renta, Stella Tenant and Esther Canadas walk the runway during Balmain's Fall/Winter 1999 presentation. Photo by Getty Images, courtesy of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.
Oscar de La Renta, Stella Tenant and Esther Canadas walk the runway during Balmain's Fall/Winter 1999 presentation. Photo by Getty Images, courtesy of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco.

Oscar de la Renta, Barbara Bush, and Taylor Swift, not to mention his San Francisco society clients like Nan Kempner, Marissa Mayer, and Diane B. Wilsey. While another de la Renta exhibition at SCAD last year, which was also curated by Talley, was much celebrated, this retrospective is the most comprehensive exhibition to date on the life and work of one of the most influential designers of our time.

“While many cultures influenced Oscar’s work, the two things that inspired him more than anything else were beautiful, luxurious fabrics and his clients,” said Richard Benefield, acting director of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, who worked closely with Talley on the show. “He definitely received inspiration from the women whom he knew would wear his clothes.”

Many of those women hailed from San Francisco. Wilsey, a close friend of the late designer’s and president of the Board of Trustees of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, first met de la Renta through Elizabeth Arden (he designed Arden’s couture collection before launching his own brand in 1965). “There was a young designer with [Arden], someone that I didn’t know then would later be famous," Wilsey recalled of her first meeting with de la Renta. "It was Oscar, and Elizabeth turned to my mother and said, ‘I think you should learn this man’s name. He’s really going to go somewhere.’”

The exhibition is divided into sections: de la Renta's early work; daywear and eveningwear; Spanish, Eastern, Russian, and garden influences; and ball gowns and red carpet gowns worn by the likes of Rihanna, Oscar was able to avail himself of every luxury: everything sewn, embroidered, beaded, and trimmed in the finest furs, right there in the atelier.”

With over 50 years worth of creations to source from, both from the Dominican Republic native’s namesake label and his time at Balmain, Balenciaga, Talley found it challenging to narrow his selection down to the 121 looks that ultimately ended up in the show (which is still a sizable number for any fashion exhibition). “My goal is to highlight the extraordinary depth of Oscar’s creative aesthetic, from his earliest designs for Jane Derby throughout the five decades of his remarkable career,” Talley noted in the press release.

Perhaps, above all else, the show (which runs through May 30) captures how beloved the designer was to people both in the industry and out of it. “Everyone I have met who knew him remembered him as a gentleman," Benefield said. "It is rare that you never hear a bad word about someone, and I have never heard anything but praise for his sense of style, his grace in his manners, and his incredible aesthetic sense."