Oscar de la Renta, who has died of cancer aged 82, was one of the biggest names in American fashion; for more than 50 years his elegant creations were a must for red carpet A-listers, Manhattan socialites and first ladies, with the notable (and controversial) exception of Michelle Obama.
De la Renta first found fame when he started making outfits for Jackie Kennedy in the 1960s. He dressed Nancy Reagan in the 1980s and later provided inaugural gowns for Laura Bush and Hillary Clinton. “I still remember when Hillary walked out in that gown,” her husband said of de la Renta’s gold creation. “I thought, 'Oh my God, that’s beautiful.’ I still think it’s probably the best gift Oscar ever gave us, beyond his friendship.”
In 1998 Hillary Clinton became the first wife of an American president to appear on the cover of Vogue — in a de la Renta black velvet dress. De la Renta was also responsible for the businesslike but elegant trouser suits that became Hillary Clinton’s signature style as a politician in her own right. “This man has been working for more than 20 years to turn me into a fashion icon,” she once joked. “Year in and year out, he’s never given up.”
De la Renta cut an elegant figure in Manhattan social circles and in the international fashion world, where he was a favourite of Vogue magazine’s influential editor, Anna Wintour. His client list, meanwhile, was notable only for those who opted not to appear on it. No Academy Award ceremony or inaugural ball was complete without a phalanx of women swathed in de la Renta’s silk-taffeta and chiffon extravaganzas. In 2006 Laura Bush felt she had to change out of the de la Renta gown that she wore at a grand dinner when four other women turned up in the same outfit.
Oscar de la Renta's 2011 spring collection, New York Fashion Week (AP)
De la Renta did not do cheap and cheerful. However, his designs evolved and changed with the times so that his collections featured outfits to suit almost any taste — so long as that taste was anchored in propriety and a sort of timeless elegance. “I hate pretty,” he declared. “It’s a very empty word. It gives a bad name to beauty.”
Most recently, he designed the ivory tulle gown worn by Amal Alamuddin at her marriage to the actor George Clooney. “George and I wanted a wedding that was romantic and elegant, and I can’t imagine anyone more able than Oscar to capture this mood in a dress,” she told Vogue.
Such was his status in America that a decision not to wear de la Renta seemed freighted with political significance. There was, for example, speculation that his closeness to Hillary Clinton may have been behind Michelle Obama’s otherwise inexplicable failure to include his creations in her wardrobe. During the race for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2007, the Clintons had taken time off from Hillary’s busy campaign schedule to stay with de la Renta at his luxury holiday home in the Dominican Republic.
Michelle Obama maintained her boycott for seven years. At first it seemed that she simply wanted to distinguish herself from previous first ladies and wear clothes that would symbolise a new, less glitzy, era at the White House. But gradually, as she began to introduce rivals such as Michael Kors, Ralph Lauren and Carolina Herrera into her public wardrobe, the omission of de la Renta began to seem more and more glaring and the tut-tuttings grew louder.
De la Renta admitted that their relationship had begun poorly and blamed himself for saying rude things about her fashion sense. In 2009 he criticised her for wearing a cardigan when she met the Queen: “You don’t go to Buckingham Palace in a sweater,” he said.
But even Michelle Obama could not hold out indefinitely, and earlier this month, in what was seen as an olive-branch to the Washington political and social establishment, she wore an Oscar de la Renta cocktail dress at a White House soirée.
Such is the power of fashion in the US that political commentators speculated that the First Lady’s decision to bury the hatchet was a covert nod to Hillary Clinton, whose possible presidential campaign de la Renta had endorsed.
But he was above such parochial concerns. “Style,“ he declared loftily in an interview with the Daily Telegraph last year, “is not about what you wear, but how you live your life.”