Oscar de la Renta: The Retrospective
NEW YORK, NY - SEPTEMBER 13: A model walks the runway at the Oscar De La Renta Spring 2012 fashion show during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week on September 13, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Jemal Countess/Getty Images)

Oscar de la Renta: The Retrospective

A feast for fashionistas.

De Young Museum, San Francisco
Through, May 30, 2016

What do Sarah Jessica Parker, Laura Bush, Taylor Swift, Diana Vreeland, HRH Princess Maria-Chantal of Greece, and Rhianna have in common? Dresses and gowns they have worn are exhibited at the de Young Museum’s super-glam show, “Oscar de la Renta: The Retrospective.”

And what a show it is. It’s the first retrospective of one of America’s premier designers that artfully displays more than 130 “looks” created by Mr. de la Renta (1932–2014) over almost six decades. It’s a feast for the fashionistas. Leaving the omnipresent issue of “Is this Art?” aside, I confess that I relished my glimpse into the fashions of the rich and famous. Yes, even this writer fantasized for a few brief moments about ditching her black pants wardrobe for the classically feminine apparel of sumptuous glittery fabrics.

If you are wondering why de la Renta’s first retrospective is at the de Young Museum, the answer is that Dede Wilsey, who is the President of the Board of Trustees of the Fine Art Museums of San Francisco (which includes the de Young Museum) is an old friend and client of de la Renta’s. She spearheaded the drive to honor him with this grand assembly of gorgeous gowns. At first the designer thought it might be ostentatious to have such an exhibit, but two months before he died, he agreed to it. Look for the copper silk satin evening dress that Mrs. Wilsey wore at the gala for the opening of the new de Young building in 2005. The gown’s color matches the façade of the Museum.

The blockbuster show is creatively designed and mounted by New York’s Kevin Daly Architects and divided into nine themes, including de la Renta’s cultural influences (Spanish, Eastern and Russian), daywear, garden influences and the opulent ball gowns, some of which you may have seen on the Red Carpet at recent Academy Awards events.

The display of the fashions, lighting and backdrops highlight the garments perfectly. For example, the Spanish-influenced gallery is painted red to accent the flamboyant clothes inspired by the designer’s love of Goya and Velasquez. The garden-inspired outfits are presented in a gallery with twisted green and white material on the walls and a huge video of de la Renta’s garden in Connecticut. Look for one of my favorites — the gorgeous blue and white striped silk taffeta overdress and pants with matching shoes by Manolo Blahnik.

André Leon Talley, former American editor-at-large for “Vogue,” who had known his “dear friend Oscar” since 1974, curated the exhibition. Talley’s knowledge of fashion and of de la Renta added personal touches that enliven and humanize the exhibition. At the press preview, Talley grew a bit teary as he recalled the designer’s gentlemanly kindness and erudition, as well as his slight “naughtiness.” He commented that de la Renta had a deep sense of respect for his clients, loved nature, and was at heart, a romanticist.

Born into a prominent family in the Dominican Republic, de la Renta attended art school in Spain in 1951. Three years later he began as a sketcher in the house of the famous Cristóbal Balenciaga. After working in Paris at the house of Lanvin-Castillo, he moved to New York in 1963, where he became head designer for Elizabeth Arden. Eventually, he founded his own fashion house.

Through his extraordinary sartorial talent, deep respect for his clients and his easy charm, Oscar de la Renta became a designer for many of the most important and renowned women of the 20th and 21st centuries, including four First Ladies — Betty Ford, Nancy Reagan, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Laura Bush.

“Oscar de la Renta: The Retrospective” is fun and a feast for the eyes. It’s a fitting homage to an exceptionally gifted couturier.

By Emily S. Mendel
© Emily S. Mendel 2016 All Rights Reserved

San Francisco ,
Emily S. Mendel, a writer and photographer, has been a regular contributor to culturevulture.net since 2006, where she reviews theater, art, film, television and destinations. Ending her 30-year law practice has given Ms. Mendel the time to indulge in her love of travel and the arts, and to serve as the theater reviewer for berkeleyside.com.