By Shelley Acoca
NEW YORK — Oscar de la Renta, the worldly gentleman designer who shaped the wardrobe of socialites, first ladies and Hollywood stars for more than four decades, has died. He was 82.
De la Renta died at home Monday evening in Connecticut surrounded by family, friends and “more than a few dogs,” according to a handwritten statement signed by his stepdaughter Eliza Reed Bolen and her husband, Alex Bolen. The statement did not specify a cause of death, but de la Renta had spoken in the past of having cancer.
“While our hearts are broken by the idea of life without Oscar, he is still very much with us. Oscar’s hard work, his intelligence and his love of life are at the heart of our company,” the statement said.
“All that we have done, and all that we will do, is informed by his values and his spirit. Through Oscar’s example we know the way forward. We will make Oscar very proud of us by continuing in an even stronger way the work that Oscar loved so much.”
The late ’60s and early ’70s were a defining moment in U.S. fashion as New York-based designers carved out a look of their own that was finally taken seriously by Europeans. De la Renta and his peers, including the late Bill Blass, Halston and Geoffrey Beene, defined American style — and their influence is still spotted today.
De la Renta’s specialty was eveningwear, though he also was known for chic daytime suits favored by the women who would gather at the Four Seasons or Le Cirque at lunchtime. His signature looks were voluminous skirts, exquisite embroideries and rich colors.
De la Renta’s path to New York’s Seventh Avenue took an unlikely route: He left his native Dominican Republic at age 18 to study painting in Spain but soon became sidetracked by fashion.
The wife of the U.S. Ambassador to Spain saw some of his sketches and asked him to make a dress for her daughter — a dress that landed on the cover of Life magazine.
That led to an apprenticeship with Cristobal Balenciaga, and then de la Renta moved to France to work for couture house Lanvin. By 1963, he was working for Elizabeth Arden couture in New York and in 1965 had launched his own label.
In addition to his own label, de la Renta spearheaded the Pierre Balmain collection from 1993-2002, marking the first time an American designed for a French couture house, and he was awarded the French Legion d’Honneur as a Commandeur. He also received the Gold Medal Award from the king and queen of Spain.
De la Renta gave up the title of chief executive of his company in 2004, handing over business duties to the Bolens, but he remained active on the design end, continuing to show his collections during New York Fashion Week.
De la Renta also is survived by an adopted son, Moises, a designer at the company.