Photographs by Emma Summerton, Styled by Patrick Mackie
A cupid in a custom-tailored suit, the late fashion designer Oscar de la Renta spent considerable effort trying to find a fella for his studio director, Laura Kim. “He would be like, ‘How about this guy?’ ” recalls Kim, a 35-year-old Korean-born Canadian who joined the house as an intern in 2003 and went on to work by de la Renta’s side for more than a decade. “I’d be like, ‘Oscar, isn’t he engaged?!’ ”
It never panned out—at least not on the personal front. Professionally, however, de la Renta found Kim the perfect match when, in 2009, he brought fellow Dominican Fernando Garcia on board. Garcia, whose father owns Ferretería Americana, a sort of Dominican Home Depot, had skillfully orchestrated a meeting with de la Renta—“a god on our island, right up there with our founding fathers”—while the designer was vacationing at his arcadian retreat in Punta Cana. Garcia had no formal fashion training—he had just graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in architecture—but he was deeply passionate and brought with him a sketchbook filled with his drawings of women in romantic red-carpet-worthy dresses, which he had been honing since he was a child. “I was curious to hear about his upbringing, his trials and errors, what kinds of colors he liked…” says Garcia, 30, of their conversation. “But he kept talking about this Laura girl. He knew we would complement each other.”
And they did. Though at first Kim was less than thrilled to take this inexperienced kid onto her team—“I was so annoyed,” she says point-blank—Garcia, who arrived on the final frantic day of preparations for the 2010 resort show, quite literally hit the ground running and immediately ingratiated himself. “I’d give him something to do, and he would actually physically run really fast, which helps before a show,” Kim says. It was not long before the two became a formidable pair, with Garcia, a glutton for glamour, happily handling celebrity dressing, and Kim, a brass-tacks kind of gal, successfully building the more commercial aspects of the brand.
And yet when de la Renta became terminally ill with cancer, and discussions came up about his successor, the two were passed over for the British designer Peter Copping, an aesthete with a penchant for the ultrafeminine who seemed, on all fronts, to be the ideal candidate for the job. “I made the mistake of underestimating their maturity,” admits Alex Bolen, the CEO of the company, in retrospect.
Kim, who had always wanted to go out on her own, decided that this was the moment, and she convinced Garcia to join her—much to de la Renta’s dismay. “We told him we were leaving to start our own company 30 minutes before Hillary Clinton was scheduled to come by,” Garcia says. “It was poorly timed.”
“I just remember seeing Laura in the corner crying, with Fernando consoling her,” recounts political aide Huma Abedin, who accompanied Clinton that day. “And Oscar telling us, ‘Can you believe it?! These young people are leaving me!’ ”
The two went on to launch Monse, named for Garcia’s mother, in May 2015, and gained immediate acclaim—as well as insta-fans like Amal Clooney and Sarah Jessica Parker—for their loosey-goosey take on men’s shirting. Meanwhile, Copping, who had taken over at Oscar de la Renta in November 2014, on the day of the designer’s funeral, departed abruptly after just 21 months, citing “personal circumstances.”
Fast-forward to a frigid day in March of this year: Kim and Garcia, who were appointed co–creative directors of Oscar de la Renta last September, are seated in their former boss’s office, an airy space in midtown Manhattan replete with books and fashion photographs that, save for a bigger desk that comfortably accommodates them both, remains exactly the same as when de la Renta occupied it. This is where they start their days; in the afternoon, they meander downtown to the Monse studio—Garcia travels by subway, and Kim, who has a fondness for four-inch heels, by car. They credit their two amazing design assistants for allowing them to sanely balance the demands of both jobs.
A few weeks earlier, they had presented their debut Oscar de la Renta collection, for fall—a youthful, clean-lined update on the house’s refined aesthetic. De la Renta’s signature bold prints, rich fabrics, and voluminous silhouettes were still very much present, but Garcia and Kim had kicked the exuberance of the brand up a notch with neon cocktail dresses, racy cigarette trousers, and thigh-high bejeweled boots that Nicky Hilton Rothschild, a longtime client, approvingly described as “next-level insane.” The presentation was ambitious: Kim and Garcia showed their collections for Monse and Oscar de la Renta back-to-back within a stately set inspired, in part, by the Catherine Palace, in Saint Petersburg. (“Right after we returned to the house, we went to Russia with Alex [Bolen],” Kim explains. “We call it our honeymoon trip.”) Many of Oscar’s doyennes were there—Mica Ertegun, Naty Abascal—alongside younger swans like Princess Mafalda of Bulgaria and Princess Maria-Olympia of Greece. Save for one of the shimmering curtains not opening, which prevented half of the audience from taking in the full dramatic effect, it was an impressive first outing. “We’re happy with it. As for the curtain snafu, it makes for a good story,” Garcia says with a shrug.
Among the many things that he and Kim learned from de la Renta, who was an incorrigible jokester, as well as a fantastic dancer and singer, is that a lighthearted attitude goes a long way. “Oscar always brought a sense of levity when things got too serious,” says Garcia, recounting a few of the shenanigans that occurred in the office, including the time Garcia flipped the script and prank-called de la Renta, pretending to be the socialite Mercedes Bass. “I’ll reenact it one night over drinks,” he promises.
Indeed, it is this learned nonchalance that has allowed them to weather the telenovela-like drama that brought them to this point, much of which they are legally barred from discussing. In brief: Shortly after Kim and Garcia left Oscar de la Renta, they were snatched up by François Kress, then president and CEO of Carolina Herrera, with the assumption that Kim would eventually be promoted to creative director of the rival house. But Herrera herself was none too pleased, and tensions naturally arose. After Copping left Oscar de la Renta, Kim and Garcia swiftly resigned, returning as co–creative directors and prompting a lawsuit from Herrera that aired what arguably became the world’s priciest dirty laundry in the newspapers. In the end, the two parties settled, and by now much of the dust has, too. “It’s strange not having to talk to our lawyers every day—we’ll have to cook up something new,” is all Garcia, with a crooked smile, will say on the matter.
Laura Kim comes from a family of architects. Her father is one, her grandfather is one, and so is her sister. She considered becoming one, too, but ever practical, she did the math—“It’s five years of school, instead of four,” she notes—and decided on fashion instead. She moved from Calgary to New York to attend Pratt Institute, and landed at Oscar de la Renta while still in school. Alex Bolen, who is married to de la Renta’s stepdaughter Eliza, started at the company the same week Kim did, and he distinctly recalls the moment she caught the boss’s eye: “Oscar loved great buttons, and we had a dearth. Laura said, ‘I think I have some.’ Sure enough, she came in the next day with these amazing handmade buttons, and he was like, ‘What else can you do?’ ” In fact, it was Kim’s mom who had made the embellished passementerie specimens. “She’s good with her hands,” Kim says. “So I sent her all the materials and was like, ‘Send me options tomorrow!’ ” Kim had proved not only her resourcefulness but also her keen understanding of the brand. “These guys know what the company needs,” Bolen says now.
“We know how Oscar would want to push the house forward,” Garcia concurs. “But you can’t do it in one season. You can’t alienate the clientele, which is vast. Rather, it’s a matter of tweaking.” To that end, he and Kim are slowly trying to streamline the design codes, adding an array of sleek suiting and fluid, monochrome cocktail looks. “Oscar never liked over-the-top. It’s funny, right?” Kim says. “His customers loved embellishment, but you would hear him say, ‘I just want to do a clean black column gown.’ He loved simplicity, and that feels right for the house now.” Pushing the notion further, Kim even experimented with a slouchy knit this season—an idea so foreign to the brand that Sarah Jessica Parker described it, in hushed tones, as “a little subversive; nastier, you know?” But paired with a pencil skirt and over-the-knee suede boots, it looked refreshingly practical.
In 2008, in the midst of the recession, the house launched costume jewelry, which has since gone gangbusters, accounting for 10 percent of overall sales; shoes and bags, however, have never been a big category. There are plans to remedy that as well—incrementally. For fall, Kim and Garcia debuted the TRO, a compact purse festooned with a metal gardenia, and there is a waiting list for those $4,990 bejeweled boots. “Our shoe designer hand-embroidered them the day before the show,” Kim recalls. “His wife was about to have a baby, and I was like, ‘Hold it in!’ ” Most progressive, though, is their goal to make their business more environmentally conscious. They worked with Eco-Age, a company that promotes the use of sustainable fabrics and factories, on Emma Watson’s wardrobe for her Beauty and the Beast press tour. And they are consulting with additional planet-friendly firms on strategies to lessen their impact on the environment—including figuring out how to produce Oscar de la Renta’s signature shocking pink, a color that can be ecologically harmful to achieve, in a green way.
“What they’re doing feels like a respectful evolution of the brand,” says the stylist Kate Young, who dressed Selena Gomez for the L.A. premiere of 13 Reasons Why in a copper mini cocktail dress from the fall collection. Still, Garcia and Kim can’t help but feel the enormity—and the oddity—of shepherding the legendary 52-year-old fashion house into the 21st century. “It’s strange that Laura and I are in charge of perpetuating Oscar’s DNA,” Garcia admits. “To be honest, I still think of myself as his lunch grabber—running down to Pret A Manger and telling him what kind of soup they have.”
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