Oscar de la Renta might have been a creature of New York, but he has always held a special place in his heart for San Francisco. On Wednesday night, the city’s de Young Museum unveiled its own love note to the legendary designer, who died in October 2014, with the opening of Oscar de la Renta: The Retrospective. The 130-piece exhibition, curated by André Leon Talley, spans five decades and includes pieces he made for the likes of Hillary Clinton, 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, Karlie Kloss, and Sarah Jessica Parker. “Oscar had so many looks that cry ‘Oscar!’ But, the real showstoppers are the looks he designed between 1992 and 2002 while he was creative director of Balmain in Paris,” Benefield said. “At Balmain, money was never a question with the client, and all of the pieces were one-of-a-kind. At Balmain, 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 (he launched his career as an apprentice for Cristóbal Balenciaga), and Lanvin, 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."